Way ahead for Sharmila and the anti-AFSPA campaign

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

The past fortnight has seen some very encouraging news regarding the campaign against Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, but it has also seen at least one that would have dampened anybody’s spirit, and perhaps even neutralized all causes for celebration.

On one hand, development after development at the institutional level, has been directly or indirectly demonstrating the lack of moral tenability of the AFSPA in a democracy. These include a court ruling that visitor restrictions around Irom Sharmila, now in confinement at a special jail ward at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital Porompat, should be removed. This was followed by a National Human Rights Commission’s indictment that almost all cases of so called encounter killings in Manipur by state forces brought up before the commission for examination, were fake. Not the least, at about the same time, Amnesty International too launched a campaign to garner international support to have the government release Sharmila from confinement.

A visiting member of the NHRC even publicly gave his opinion that under the AFSPA, none of the security personnel involved in these cold-blooded custodial killings is likely to be prosecuted under the law, clearly implying here is a draconian legislation in vogue which negates and nullifies all other democratic laws of the land.

But the wet blanket followed close on the heel of these developments. In an interview to the popular TV channel, NDTV, Sharmila came out strongly against Just Peace Foundation, the foundation which handles her campaign, and together with it, the sizeable funds in her name which came by way of numerous national and international awards she has won so far, and presumably from donations poured in from supporters of her cause.

The most damning of the allegations from Iron Irom, as Sharmila has been endearingly dubbed often were, one, the foundation was acting independently of her and was not honouring her wishes in how the money she has earned is to be spent. In particular, she said her wish that some contribution be made to the disaster relief fund in Uttaranchal in the wake of the recent devastating flash flood, was overruled. She also made the other startling and rather outlandish allegation that there were threats from her family that she may face honour killing for daring to fall in love with a foreign national of Indian origin.

Of the second allegation, we have only Sharmila’s words to vouch. It does however sound a little too incredulous, for the notion of honour killing is a little distant from the culture of the place. Even if such a threat was indeed issued, it is unlikely to have been a show of actual intent but a verbal metaphor, however macabre, of saying we will disown you. There does not seem to be any hard evidence on the matter either, as the alleged threat was unlikely to have been issued in writing. Whatever the truth was, until such a time as a cognizable offence is established by investigators, if at all they think the matter deserves an investigation, it is best to consider this a private affair for Sharmila and her family to sort out, and not one meriting too much public commentary.

Quite obviously, the reporter who flew down from Delhi on the day of the appointment with Sharmila and after the interview took the next flight back to Delhi, was tipped off in Delhi on what he should have Sharmila confess. It was by no means an accidental revelation in the course of an interview. Those who were present say the reporter was literally pushing Sharmila into a corner to say what she said, putting the word ‘honour killing’ into her mouth, but let’s not blame him, he was merely doing what the brand of aggressive TV journalism evolving in the country demands of him. He was just the messenger, to use an adage now reduced to a cliché by overuse. As long as there was no coercion, there is nothing to be held against him for nudging Sharmila to say what she said on camera. The only reprimand he deserves without reserve maybe that of bad taste.

In any case, even if there was a bigger game-plan in this episode aimed at neutralising the gains the anti-AFSPA campaigners made in recent times, it can also be said in retrospect that the plan failed miserably for the NHRC indictment against AFSPA came after this NDTV report, and perhaps as a kind of poetic justice, it was another popular TV channel, CNN-IBN, which pushed this story equally aggressively.

It is however the second major allegation which needs a closer scrutiny. The Just Peace Foundation issue a press clarification that its members did discuss Sharmila’s wish that a donation be made to the Uttaranchal flood relief effort from her trust money, and at one point thought of doing so through the International Committee of Red Cross, ICRC, but voted against it on the consideration that the money they would be able to contribute would be insignificant for the ICRC. In the words of the organisation, it would have been like pouring a bucket of water in the ocean. They also implied the whole exercise would be a waste and the money would be better spent on programmes that are of more local urgency.

This logic is rather lame. First, most philanthropic funds are accumulation of small individual contributions. Remember the nursery rhyme, ‘little drops of water make the mighty ocean’. ICRC’s fund would be no different. Second, shouldn’t Sharmila’s wish be paramount on all matters of how the money she has earned through her heroic and selfless struggle should be spent? Of course, she is a public figure, and the money she has won is as much on account of the public nature of her cause, and therefore she is morally bound to not deviate from the public cause in the expenditure of this money. It is however important to emphasis here to qualify that the bondage is “moral” in nature. It is not in any way a “legal” bondage as well. In any case, she was not asking for a private mansion to be built with the money.

Again, the logic that blocked Sharmila’s wish is a negation of the very notion of a donation to a humanitarian cause. In the charitable notion of giving, what matters is the generosity of intent and not the quantum of what is given. In a metaphysical sense, the very act of giving becomes the reward in itself. All religions teach this. Had Sharmila’s wish been honoured, it would have been a beautiful gesture that would have warmed up many hearts, and therefore advanced the cause Sharmila in a substantive way, and with it that of all others in the anti-AFSPA campaign.

Let’s face it, Sharmila’s struggle is no longer confined to the local arena. It has transcended state and even national boundaries. The directions from which her awards and recognitions have been coming her way are just an indication. Indeed the power of her struggle, and through her, that of the anti-AFSPA movement in general, is on account of its universal appeal. The AFSPA transgresses all humanitarian and democratic norms. This universal platform the struggle has succeeded in achieving, in a good measure through the contribution of Sharmila, must not be allowed to be reduced and bound within parochial parameters. Doing so would only deflate the movement of its wider appeal and power.

True, as clarified by the Just Peace Foundation, there has been a lack of communication between the organisation and Sharmila on account of the official restrictions placed on visiting her. But now that the restrictions are being removed, the foundation’s office bearers must sit down together with Sharmila and sort things out. If Sharmila so desires, this should even entail restructuring the hierarchy of the foundation, perhaps with the foundation functioning as an advisory body for Sharmila and not the other way around. Despite the apparent bitterness which has come between her and the foundation, Sharmila must also acknowledge it is unlikely she alone could not have received all the recognition she and her struggle now has, without the committed spadework done by the foundation. Those of us who are familiar with the work of the foundation can stand alibi on this.

The NDTV episode is unfortunate and one wishes it never happened. In a way it amounted to washing dirty linen in public, and it would have been far better for Sharmila’s image as well as the foundation if the differences had been sorted out in private in time, as within a family. The public lashing of the foundation, in many ways was also a self inflicted wound for Sharmila.

I have written this before. These developments are perhaps another reminder that it is time for the campaign against the AFSPA to allow Sharmila to be a private person if she so wishes. This is not about disowning her. On the contrary, this is about seeing Sharmila as a partner in the mission and not as the sole standard bearer. At the moment, it is also increasingly beginning to appear like she is merely being used as a mascot of the movement, with no substantive leadership power given to her. The same pattern of how in the past women in powerful movements were in the end reduced to mere cannon fodders and pawns, deprived of autonomous decision making or negotiating powers, acting only as prompted by bandmasters behind the stage, must not be allowed again. Other than all else, it will discredit the movement the most.

Just as Sharmila must be given autonomy of decisions, it will be for the good of the movement to not allow itself to become synonymous with Sharmila. She is an important general in this war, but the war must not be equated with a single general. The movement must remain more important than the effort of any single individual, however great, brilliant and committed the individual. If tomorrow Sharmila decides she has nothing more to contribute and leaves her public role, the movement must not end up shaken and threatened of disintegration. The movement must become its own supreme leader.

It may be worthwhile to recall, a movement as its own leader has become the trend in the modern times. Unlike in the past when movements were organised vertically around a single leader or party, the new trend as we are all witnessing has been of horizontal mobilisation with practically nobody as sole leader. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a good example of this. Maybe there is something the anti-AFSPA movement can learn from these examples.

Let me conclude by flagging an issue which is related in a rather remote way, but nonetheless profoundly important to what is unfolding in Manipur today. This pertains to a remark made in a light hearted, casual conversation by a representative of an international NGO who was on a visit to Manipur about two years ago. He said every time he visits Imphal he is disconcerted by the thick presence of uniformed security personnel practically in every sphere of civil space. Camouflaged armoured vehicles, army convoys, security check posts, policemen with lethal weapons on streets, police patrols on motorcycles… He said the irony is, he also senses this seeming omnipresence of security personnel only makes the ordinary citizens more insecure.

This kind of observation by visitors to the state is quite commonplace these days and surely all of us in the state have heard it sometime or the other. But what the man said next was what left me unsure whether to be amused or be stunned. He said he has also been to conflict zones in Africa, and there the picture was the direct opposite of what he witnesses in Manipur. There, what came across as shocking to him was the almost absolute absence of the state or its security apparatuses everywhere. Village after village, town after town, uniformed security personnel or any evidence of the state, were conspicuous by their absence, and this too was a picture of chaos.

There too, he sensed the insecurity of the people, but unlike in Manipur where the cause was the excessive presence of security personnel, in these countries it was the absolute absence of the state. The two scenarios were starkly different, but were bound together by a common factor – public insecurity inspired by them.

Shouldn’t there be a lesson in this. What we are asking for is an optimum presence of the state and not its total abolition, isn’t it? When an MPP leader was gunned down in broad daylight the public accusation against the government was of its absence where it was expected to be present. Likewise, wherever there was a custodial killing by the state, as in the case of Manorama or Sanjit, there were also public outrages. Nobody can say both these concerns, though for opposite reasons, are not legitimate. I will not presume to have an answer to this question, and I am only flagging it in the hope it will be food for thought for all readers.

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