Manipur in the backdrop of AFSPA and Irom Sharmila

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I am humbled to be invited to speak on the 29th Harendra Nath Barua Memorial Lecture, whose legacy as a true nationalist, a freedom fighter, fearless journalist, social crusader, and noted intellectual is something we all crave to follow yet find extremely difficult. Today’s generation has a lot to learn from the values that leaders like Harendra Nath espoused, fought and died for. In our small ways we all try to be a fraction of what this great man had been, but distracted as we are by the lures of the present life we fall short – woefully short. But at the same time we are lucky that man like him walked this planet and have left us a hope. He may be long gone but as we gathered here to remember him and his works, I am sure each one of us will find a ray of hope and hopefully walk away inspired by the life of this man lovingly called Asam-Pran. I am indeed proud, I walk the land he once called Home and talked to people he once called His. In comparison my though and feelings, I express in connection with my home land, Manipur, which I love no less – are insignificant. Bear with me if I fail your expectation. I thank you for your indulgence as I place before this august gathering an issue which impacts the lives of average Manipuri people on daily basis. The implication of the issue, however, goes far beyond the boundaries of my State and hence my choice.
On 9th August 2016 Irom Sharmila, the iconic Human Rights activist whose lonely fight against the Armed Forces special Powers act 1958, (AFSPA) an act that has been called “black” and  “draconian” took a dramatic turn. After 16 year of nose feeding under judicial custody she finally decided to leave her self inflicting struggle and decided to change strategy, dejected as she was with both with the central and state governments that has failed to listen to a non-violent struggle.
She has decided to join politics and hopes to become a Chief Minister in her quest to remove the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. She plans to take on Chief Minister Okram Ibobi in his own turf at Thoubal constituency. She also plans to head the call of her heart and get married to a man who flew in from the west to win her heart even as she remains isolated from the entire world.
These are two decisions that have drawn a mixed reaction from the people for whose right she had dedicated 16 years of her prime youth. The initial reaction from a section of people opposing both her decisions have pained her even though many other have stood by her to endorse her right to exercise personal freedom.
Her decision to stop her marathon fast had attracted not only the national media but also the International media who landed in a hoard on the day she was to break her fast. After 16 years, the Iron lady enjoyed a brief media attention unparalleled in Manipur in recent times. Signs now indicate she is slowly fading away from the focus of being the Iron Lady who took on the mighty nation whose generals ruled over the civilian government and judiciary recommendations on AFSPA 1958.
Inside the pro AFSPA war rooms there must a collective sigh of relief as it must have become increasingly difficult to defend the Nation’s Human Rights record of incarcerating a little woman who refused to eat a morsel of food for 16 years and who had to be put under judicial custody every time she is released by a court and she continues her fast. The state Government and its Home department must also have released a collective sigh as for last 16 years, most of which has been under the regime of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh who is into his last few months of 3rd consecutive term, this little woman has kept them all on their toes. Any untoward incident happening to Sharmila while in custody would have burnt the state like the “18 June Uprising” of 2001 which claimed the lives of 18 persons and reduced to ash the State Assembly. It would also send all the politicians scurrying like rats to their holes as they know they would be the target of the public’s fury. But this is now a passé and game has now shifted to an arena which they are more comfortable with-politics, that is if Sharmila is serious about contesting election.
But all these series of event that unfolded from early part of November 2000, when troops of Assam Rifles massacred 10 innocent civilians in Malom on the second day of the month, in what has been claimed as retaliatory fire, and Sharmila going into indefinite fast is hinged around an archaic act that new independent India adopted from the British and renamed it Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958. It was initially promulgated as Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance 1942 by the British to suppress the Quit India movement. This is an act, that is of no interest or concern to 90% of India’s 1.2 billion. Except for some parts of the North East Indian states and J&K, this act has no application. It was briefly applied in Punjab and Chandigarh. To an average Indian, any act that empowers the Indian army to fight the enemies of India is a good act. But the fact of the matter is this is an Act that no less than a Prime Minister of India has called it “draconian.” Now out of power, former Home Minister P Chidambaram of Congress had termed the act as an “obnoxious law.”
The United Nations has asked India to revoke this act as far back as 2012 (31 March) saying it has no place in Indian Democracy. UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay has termed the Act as dated and colonial-era act and asked India to repeal it.
Assam has seen facets of this act when Assam Disturbed Areas (Special Powers of Armed Forces) Ordinance was invoked by the central government  to deal with internal security situation arising out of partition of India in 1947. The rise of Naga National Council (NNC) in what was then far east Assam finally help morph the ordinance into Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act 1958. Later as the act got extended to the rest of north east states, the words Assam and Manipur was dropped to give it its current acronym of AFSPA, 1958. As I understand, entire Assam except for the Guwahati Municipal area is under the Act.  ULFA despite its break up remains a challenge to law keepers. Assamese people are no alien to atrocities under the act which had to be used in 1990 to crush the ULFA. Between 1990-1996 there have been reports of disappearance of youths from various villages of Assam. You had your Manipur moments of Thangjam Manorama and the 1500 plus alleged fake encounter cases. Thangjam Manorama was picked up from her house by a team of security forces in Imphal East area and later found shot dead with multiple bullet wounds, some of it in private parts of her body to cover up possible rape.
By whatever name the act may be known, the central idea of the act was to give the armed forces a power that enables it to operate with a power beyond the reach of civil courts. It was also enacted in the first place to primarily tackle the Naga insurgency when the present Nagaland State was part of Assam.
The immunity the armed forces enjoyed and power it got from the Act was to enable it to operate in civilian domain to curb secessionism and insurgency. It was this immunity and power that empowered the troops of Assam Rifles on that fateful day of 2nd November 2000, to herd 10 civilians including students in a bus stand and mow them down in what it called retaliatory fire. Retaliation to an alleged ambush on the troops, of which there was no signs. This same power has enabled them also to stage over 1500 encounters which is in process of being proved to be fakes. At least 6 cases picked by the Supreme Court and entrusted to a Commission has been proved fake. It was 5 days of ridiculous explanations from the keepers of the law at Imphal sitting of the Justice Hegde SC appointed Commission. The commission did not have to try hard to pick any holes in the stories of our brave and highly decorated law enforcing officers. The report is out and recommendation made but the wall put up by the army is as ever strong. There has been a regime change in the centre. The NDA has replaced the Congress. But the change that Sharmila was looking for has not come. AFSPA remains as entrenched as ever. The centre has not even considered making it more “Humane” as recommended by Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission on AFSPA.
(to be contd)

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