The ritual goes on. Irom Sharmila was produced before the court once again today. The outcome was a foregone conclusion and will remain so till at least the foreseeable future. She will have to remain in jail till such a time as she breaks her indefinite hunger strike demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, totally from the state. Since the latter consequence is hardly likely to happen in the immediate future, it is even more unlikely this hard-willed lady would break her fast, even if she is aware, and she probably is, that her fast will not be able to make the government change its mind on the matter. And so this tragic human drama must continue as it has been. If the court for some technical or other reason grants her bail, she would be rearrested on a new charge. This has been carrying on for the past nearly 11 years now and nobody is under any illusion anymore a court victory can settle Sharmila’s case. In any case, since she is not willing to give up her indefinite fast, if set free, she would die of starvation, and if that happens, the case would get even more complicated. The state’s response of keeping her in custody and forcibly feeding her through the nose therefore is not unreasonable. For the other option would virtually amount to culpable murder through wilfully inappropriate action.
The only way to save Sharmila then is to have the AFSPA repealed. We see all the reasons forwarded in defence of the AFSPA that the army can operate on civil duty only under the act’s present shape, rather convoluted. This is a clever subterfuge. The law is manmade and it can be reshaped as well. What can happen, and in fact what many demanded should be, and indeed what the Justice Jeevan Reddy commission which probed the relevance of the act recommended was in effect for a reshaping of the clauses of the act. The provision to bring in the army to assist civil administration cannot be done away, after all, the last defence to any serious challenge to the Nation State is its military, and the insurrections witnessed in the Northeast region, including importantly in Manipur, are indeed challenges to the Indian State. However, if the army needs an act to be able to take up civil duty, there is nothing which says it cannot be accountable to the country’s legal system. The AFSPA says precisely this. First are its draconian features which include the power to even kill on suspicion. But even more dangerous is the guarantee of impunity which makes army offenders where the AFSPA has been promulgated not directly accountable to the civil court of law. Why must this clause remain? Remove this clause, and the AFSPA would lose its terrifying visage and consequently a lot less draconian. If the government makes this gesture, it would be a reasonable concession with which to persuade Sharmila to end her fast, thus saving her. It would also be a victory for her without making the Indian State a loser. The army can still swing into action when called for but within reasonable, democratic and civilised restraints.
Just a year ago, the establishment thought allowing foreigners into Manipur and some of its neighbouring states, was not advisable, on the presumption that this would adversely influence the mindset of the people here. The government for whatever the reason decided one fine morning that this regulation could be lifted on an experimental basis. A year down the line, other than an end to haranguing the foreign visitors, nothing that the government initially feared has come true. Lifting of similar restrictions in Kashmir years ago also had effects that were directly the opposite of what the government feared or pretended to fear would happen. It is time now for the government to yet again invoke the inspirational voice within itself, or what Barak Obama described as the “spark of divinity” in formulating policies, to resolve the issue. Let it again go ahead and extend another unilateral show of trust to the people of the Northeast and reframe the AFSPA. Let the provision to bring in the army to assist the civil administration when the latter requests for such an intervention remain, but let it act within the reasonable restraints provided by the constitutional law of the country. It is true the police can be, and has been, known to be high-handed too, however, because they are accountable to the law, the sense of the general public that they have nothing to defend themselves from undeserved victimisation is much less. Such inquiries as the one instituted into the BT Road killing and the manner the law was demonstrated to be domineering above all else, including the police, putting the police in the dock for the alleged crime they committed, itself was a good enough message. The army operating under the AFSPA is made to be seen as above this, and this is unhealthy.