Tomorrow, November 2, when the state wakes up, a unique history of resistance would have crossed a landmark. Irom Sharmila Chanu, who is on a fast to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA-1958, would have completed ten years without voluntary intake of food. Not only is this feat about hunger, but also of voluntarily forgoing a vital human sensory pleasure – taste. Even a day without food would convince anybody the suffering she has embraced for the cause she unshakably believes in. She would be the last person to be interested in records or publicity, but all the same the record she has already set, more than any other record, is one which probably nobody will ever be able to emulate in history. Brought into sharp focus in the international consciousness yet again would be the draconian AFSPA which survived pressures for reform only recently in the wake of an outbreak of public outrage in the streets of Srinagar. Probably, the edifice on which the AFSPA is built is far too solid to be shaken up by the hunger strike of a frail woman in Imphal or even her possible martyrdom, but Sharmila probably would not be bothered by this. She has demonstrated resistance is not necessarily about winning only, but of refusing to go against one’s beliefs regardless of consequences.
Arguably, if Sharmila was a Chinese citizen and her resistance was against the Chinese government, the West would have been moved so much that she would have become a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize, just as Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the prize this time and the Dalai Lama before him. But perhaps, to cover up its track, the Nobel Peace Committee may just still be having Sharmila in their list of probable future winners, and what an embarrassment such an event would be for India. Speculations on the disguised politics that go into the Nobel Peace Prize apart, the question in everybody’s mind today is, what is the way forward from here. Must Sharmila be allowed to be consumed by the flame of her passion for justice? There is now little other way for her to come out unscathed if the AFSPA is to remain. It now seems too late for her to withdraw, and increasingly, death and martyrdom, seem the only honourable path left for her to follow. What a tragedy this would be indeed.
The thought of Sharmila is in the same breath inspiring and despairing. As to why she is a source of inspiration there is nothing further to explain. What is despairing about her story however is a lot more complicated. She seems caught in a labyrinth not of her making alone. She went into a fast on November 2 in 2000, after Assam Rifles troops went on a rampage following an unsuccessful ambush attempt on one of their convoys by militants at Malom. The soldiers took out their ire on ten innocent bystanders at a bus stop nearby killing them all on the spot. Her fast was for the repeal of the AFSPA but now that the Act is unlikely to go just as yet and she is unwilling to surrender. The way she is headed is more than obvious to all. What then is the way to save her? Why must not the AFSPA go? There are two answers to the last question. One is the insecurity of the Indian state, for indeed, the AFSPA’s continuance reflects less of the Army than the Indian state as such. It is simply unable to entrust its problems of internal dissent in the hands of its own civil law and order upkeep mechanism, or to ask its Army to be accountable to civil laws in dealing with civil situation. The irony also is, it is unwilling to call this internal situation a “war” so as to legitimise the use of its military, for “war” implies conflict between two states, and calling insurgency war would amount to acknowledging the legitimacy of the insurgent ideology of secession. The other answer is, there are those pushing Sharmila into the war front as a strategy of their war, entrapping her further into her unenviable predicament. Complicating the situation further, even as Sharmila invariably gets drawn towards martyrdom, the conditions that led the Indian state to respond with AFSPA has degenerated further. The daily extortion related bomb attacks and most visibly the recent three days strike by the state media in the face of threats from constantly splintering lumpenized militant groups, are evidences. Draconian laws are anti-democratic, but sometimes, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner during a panel discussion of past Nobel Peace Prize winners on CNN in 2002 remarked, sometimes, when a population feels besieged by tyrannical persecution, draconian interventions can come as a relief. He described how Muslims in Kosovo, looking out of their windows one fine morning and when they spied the first NATO bombs landed in their city, rejoiced chanting “Beautiful Bombs”. The twist in Manipur today is, circumstance has led an increasing number of people to call the AFSPA a “Beautiful Bomb”.