AFSPA and Sharmila

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The state cabinet last seek resolved to extend the Disturbed Area Act in the state for another year. With it the promulgation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, has been given yet another leash of one year. All this is happening amidst the growing clamour for the repeal of the AFSPA by human rights activists as well as various civil society organisations throughout the country. The implication, not the least, is also of the blow to Irom Sharmila’s 11 year old fast for its repeal. It does seem Sharmila’s protest is falling on deaf ears of the establishment. It is difficult to imagine what her future would be under the circumstance. Is she destined to spend the rest of her life in this torturous condition? Will her protest ever bear fruit? Gandhi could overthrow an empire with his Satyagraha struggle, but quite by contrast and very unfortunately, Sharmila’s 11 years and continuing struggle by the same method is not making the establishment budge even an inch.

In many ways this intransigence is also an indicator that the ant-AFSPA campaigners should begin thinking in terms of changing strategy. As to what this strategy should be is difficult to spell out yet, but they must take this act of reviewing their current approach as part of the challenge of the movement they are spearheading. Otherwise, the entire exercise would lose its meaning, and even the often heard allegation that the campaign itself is reducing to nothing more than a livelihood means for the NGO campaigners involved, would begin to stick. This is to say, these men and women involved in championing human rights and working for the repeal of the AFSPA are professionals like any other in any profession, making a career and money out of what they do, and are far from what voluntary work of activism which they often describe themselves to be, implies. Apart from the prospect of earning a bad name, the campaign itself would begin to lose its charm in the eyes of the public, after all, ultimately even if it is prolonged, people do want to see results. The old light-hearted lampooning remark about test cricket amongst those not too impressed by the game says a lot in this regard. The joke goes that test cricket is a game which drags on for five long days and the odds are it would end in a draw. The emphasis is on the draw at the end of five days and not so much the five days.

While a new strategy is being worked out, one other consideration has to be also taken into account seriously. This obviously has to do with Sharmila. What must she do now? She has been a towering figure all the while, but should she also be ready to be a martyr? Must this end with this brave young woman sacrificed on the altar of human rights? It is imaginable how depressing it must be for her to learn that her heroic sacrifice is showing no sign it is about to bear fruit. Despite this, she remains firm that she will not end her struggle till her objective is reached which today virtually is beginning to mean she is preparing for martyrdom. Is this an outcome everybody is ready for? Should there be an effort to save her from this predicament? Ideally it should have been for the AFSPA to be repealed so that she can end her indefinite fast, but since this is an unlikely outcome in the near future, should not there be a parallel effort to persuade her to end her fast without ending her struggle against this draconian act? Shouldn’t she be persuaded to live? After all, she has done enough for the cause and at this point it does seem she can do no more than die. Is this what everybody wants?

We are of the opinion that it is time to begin the process of seeing Sharmila and the anti-AFSPA campaign separately. She is a star flag-bearer but not the entirety of the campaign. It is good that she raised the pitch of the campaign to where it is now, and it is on her account that the campaign has made it to the front pages of newspapers around the world. But this outlook of not totally equating her with the campaign is not just with an eye to save her from ultimate martyrdom, but also to ensure the autonomy of the struggle from any ionic leader. Earlier this year it was witnessed how vulnerable the campaign had seemed when the iron lady was reported to be in love and may opt to end her struggle. In what was a hysterical reaction, the newspaper which front-paged her love affair was even banned in the state for months. Sharmila has given the campaign a steely nerve, her departure now rather than weaken should strengthen it further by the sense of independence that comes along – like the child being weaned away from the mother’s breast for its own ultimate good.

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