Battling on

Published : Nov 19, 2010 00:00 IST

Irom Sharmila's fast unto death' is 10 years old, but the powers that be show no sign of relenting on the AFSPA.

in Imphal

IROM SHARMILA from Manipur will complete 10 years of her fast unto death' on November 2. With the governments at the Centre and in her home State showing no signs of conceding her demand repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 notwithstanding the recommendation of the Justice J.B. Jeevan Reddy Commission of Judicial Inquiry, it looks like she will have to carry on the fast for years, though her health is deteriorating.

Sharmila was 28 years old when she started the fast in November 2000, after an Assam Rifles contingent killed 10 innocent people at Mallom, 7 km from Imphal city, on November 1. The Assam Rifles team was returning to its camp near the Tulihal airport when militants detonated a battery-operated improvised explosive device (IED) at Mallom. There was no casualty, but the troops went berserk. All the victims were killed on the main road. Some of them were waiting for their buses at a bus stop, while the others were dragged out of their homes. Among the victims were a 62-year-old woman, L. Ibetombi, and 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, a recipient of the national child bravery award for 1988.

For Sharmila, who was anguished by increasing reports of young people dying in what were claimed to be fake encounters with militants and of innocent bystanders being killed by the security forces who were out to settle scores with militants, this incident was the last straw. She started her fast on the same day, demanding the repeal of the AFSPA, which gave blanket immunity from prosecution to trigger-happy troops who got away with murder in broad daylight, in the presence of horrified witnesses. In the beginning, no one took her seriously.

It soon became clear that her fast was not a publicity stunt. As she continued fasting, the police arrested her on November 6 under Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). As she refused to eat anything in prison, she was put under nasogastric intubation to administer vitamins, minerals, laxatives, protein supplements and lentil soup. The Manipur government spends about Rs.40,000 a month on taking care of her. The room in J.N. Hospital, where she is lodged, has been declared a sub-jail.

Under Section 309 of the IPC, she can be detained for one year at a stretch. At the end of every year, Sharmila is released ritually. In all these years, she never went home after her release. Each time she came out of jail, she was immediately surrounded by activists of the Meira Paibi, and she continued her fast in one of the offices of the Meira Paibi, guarded by its members, who formed concentric circles around her, round the clock. (The Meira Paibi is a spontaneous women's campaign that has extended strong support to Sharmila's cause. One woman from every household is expected to join this campaign.) She was invariably arrested within 48 hours, in view of her fragile health.

Several dignitaries have appealed to her to break her fast. She was even promised that an inquiry committee would be set up to examine the possibility of repealing the AFSPA. Sharmila has steadfastly declined to break her fast until the AFSPA is repealed.

Delhi visit

When Sharmila was released from prison on October 2, 2006, it was assumed that she would join the activists and carry on her fast amidst them. However, the police and intelligence officers were caught napping and she emplaned for New Delhi within minutes of her release. In New Delhi, she continued her fast at Rajghat with the national and international media glare on her, much to the embarrassment of the Union government. She wrote impassioned letters to the President and the Prime Minister to repeal the AFSPA, but there was no response. She was arrested on October 6 and lodged at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), where Iranian human rights activist and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi visited her to pledge her support. As Sharmila's condition worsened, the Delhi Police hurriedly handed her over to the Manipur Police.

National and international bodies have recognised Sharmila's unique and relentless campaign with prestigious awards. South Korea gave her the Gwangju Human Rights Award on May 18, 2007, in recognition of her sacrifice. Her brother travelled to Seoul to accept the award on her behalf. She was given the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of 2010 on September 11. The prize, instituted by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), carries Rs.51 lakh in cash, a gold medal, a citation and a shawl. A visibly moved Sharmila said that though she had not undertaken her fast for awards, she would use the money for the cause of the people. On March 1, 2010, the Science and Rationalists Association of India and the Humanists Association of India demanded the recommendation of her name for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sharmila is concerned about the untrammelled powers given to the armed forces by Section 4 of the AFSPA. It empowers even a non-commissioned soldier to use force even to causing death of a person on mere suspicion. Section 5 says no prosecution can be initiated against the personnel of the armed forces without obtaining prior permission from the Centre. No such permission is ever given lest it should cause general demoralisation among the forces. The numerous magisterial and judicial inquiries instituted to look into the controversial killings in Manipur turned out to be mere red herrings to side-track the people from orchestrated protests. All the inquiry commissions were wrapped up once the dust settled down.

The Das Commission of Judicial Inquiry, which looked into the massacre of nine persons including a medical student at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences, was the only one that could submit its report. It recommended prosecution of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel who had fired on innocent bystanders after a terror attack. The report was never acted upon.

Following the gang rape and murder of a young girl allegedly by some personnel of 17 Assam Rifles on July 11, 2004, there were widespread protests. Twelve women stripped in front of the 17 Assam Rifles camp in Imphal on July 14 and screamed at the troopers to rape and kill them also.

The judicial inquiry commission and the court of inquiry ordered by the Manipur government and the Assam Rifles into the crime proved to be cruel jokes since the permission to prosecute the troopers was never obtained from the Centre. The judicial inquiry commission headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy, instituted by the Central government to examine the advisability or otherwise of repealing the AFSPA, submitted a 147-page report on June 6, 2005, recommending repeal of the law. But the Defence Ministry objected to it, and the report is gathering dust.

Life in confinement

Sharmila is guarded by women wardens in her hospital room. Over the years, these wardens, doctors and nurses have become her friends. Sharmila spends her time reading. She writes poems and articles, and some of these have been published in local newspapers. She occasionally receives visitors from other parts of India and abroad. Sometimes she also interacts with journalists. She seems to have lost all craving for delicious dishes. She says that all that she longs for is to sleep in the lap of her aged mother. On hearing this her mother, Sakhi, weeps inconsolably.

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi, who is in charge of the Home portfolio, says that while he appreciates Sharmila's indomitable spirit, he believes that the AFSPA cannot be repealed now for that would be tantamount to giving a carte blanche to militants of all hues, many of whom had become extortionists. He said that he lifted the AFSPA from seven Assembly segments of the Imphal Municipality on August 12, 2004, in deference to the wishes of the people. The government had hoped that the militants would reciprocate positively, but within a few days hand grenades were lobbed into a temple while a dance performance was on. Four people, including a boy, were killed and several were wounded. Violence by insurgents had not ended in those segments, he said, adding that he was under heavy pressure to re-impose the AFSPA in these segments.

The Chief Minister appears sandwiched between pressures from the Defence Ministry and from sections of the people who are solidly behind Sharmila. But the government is worried by Sharmila's fast deteriorating health. Doctors attending on her say that the worst may happen any time. Police personnel in riot gear are deployed in all trouble-prone areas and prohibitory orders are clamped as precautionary measures.

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