Let Us Work Together To Create New Strategies Of Struggle Against Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)
We wholeheartedly support the decision of Irom Sharmila to withdraw, her fast of nearly 16 years for the revocation of AFSPA, we salute Irom Sharmila for her undying spirit, heroic struggle and undeterred determination in struggle against AFSPA.
It is our responsibility to take the struggle further and also support Irom Sharmila in her continuing struggle against AFSPA.
The history of post-Independence India is also the history of subjugation of the citizens of the North-eastern region. There has been a systematic crushing by the Indian state of their aspirations, and a consistent betrayal of promises made. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was enacted as long ago as 1958, in order to suppress the genuine protests of the region’s inhabitants.
What is essentially a political issue has been treated simplistically as a law and order problem. AFSPA gives unbridled powers to the army and airforce. (Mizoram is the only part of India where the air force has actually bombed its own people.) The original Act allowed state governments to declare an area to be ‘disturbed’ and to call in the army. A 1972 amendment further allowed the central government to override state governments in order to do the same in any area.
AFSPA gives army officers the power to arrest without warrant, to shoot and kill on mere suspicion, to destroy property, and many other such draconian powers. The armed forces are required to act “in aid of” civilian authorities, but that caveat exists only on paper. In reality the army has virtually taken over large areas for decades together now, becoming a force unto itself, answerable to none. No army personnel may be prosecuted without permission from the central government – a permission hardly ever granted. Even bodies like the National and State Human Rights Commissions have little jurisdiction when it comes to human rights violations in the context of AFSPA.
What might have served at best as a short-term measure has become a permanent feature in Manipur and most of the North East (except Tripura where AFSPA was withdrawn in May 2015) and some parts of Kashmir. Yet the AFSPA is in violation of various international instruments that India has ratified, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention Against Torture, the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, the UN Body of Principles for Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention, and the UN Principles on Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal and Summary Executions. It is patently unconstitutional, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the Indian Supreme Court got carried away by security concerns and upheld the constitutional validity of the Act.
In Manipur there has been widespread unhappiness, with the continuing abuse of human rights by the armed forces under cover of AFSPA causing bitter grievances to surface. Protests against these abuses are a constant feature. In one unique protest in 2004, angered by the custodial rape, torture and killing of 32-year-old Manorama who was picked up from her home on “suspicion”, a number of women paraded naked in front of an army base in protest against the army’s atrocities against women. The other unique and non-violent protest has been that of Irom Sharmila, poet and activist from Manipur. In what has possibly been the longest fast-unto-death anywhere, she has spent more than fifteen years now refusing food and demanding the repeal of AFSPA. For these fifteen years she has lived under arrest and been kept alive through intravenous force-feeding by the authorities.
We admire Irom Sharmila’s iron will and absolute dedication. We wholly respect and support her demand for the immediate repeal of AFSPA. We are also with her and agree with decision to withdraw her hunger strike.
Protests against AFSPA and the highlighting of abuses by the armed forces must not only continue, they need to become more widespread. Meanwhile, we must keep in mind that the demand for AFSPA’s repeal is not just a legal demand, but a political one. Decisions to invoke AFSPA are political decisions, and in any political struggle the battle lines and strategies need to be redrawn from time to time. We could take a pointer from what happened after Bobby Sands and others of the Irish Republican Army went on hunger strike in 1981 for better prison facilities. The British Government led by Margaret Thatcher allowed Sands to die after 67 days of fasting, and allowed other activists who were on hunger strike to die as well. The remaining protestors finally withdrew their fast, not because they were defeated but because they realised that other modes of struggle might be more strategically appropriate.
As a strategy, the hunger strike has worked well, as perhaps nothing else might have done – a lone woman in a hospital bed with a tube up her nose has made the Indian State sit up and take notice, if only to keep self-consciously playing its own relentless role in the excruciating cyclical drama of Irom’s release and re-arrest. And of keeping her alive in between. Her fast has played a vital role in bringing the issue to national and international attention. It is time now to recognise that her keeping up the fast indefinitely will not force the government to withdraw AFSPA
Irom’s struggle has been long and heroic; but we are anxious about Irom. She deserves a chance to lead a more ‘normal’ life, as far as possible, after such a long fast.
There is need now for other strategies. The movement needs an active and mobile Irom Sharmila for this purpose. We feel she is too important an activist to be forced to lie in a hospital bed, for decades on end, letting her health deteriorate, when she could be using her articulation and commitment to mobilise larger numbers and to build stronger public opinion against AFSPA and for the defence of human rights.
Irom Sharmila we agree with you that you should end your hunger strike and that we should work together to take the struggle against AFSPA forward.
We promise to stand by your side as you try to find that new path to freedom from Army rule for your people.
FORUM AGAINST OPPRESSION OF WOMEN, Bombay