To arrest without criminalising

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The annual ritual is complete for this year. Sharmila was rearrested late yesterday night on the charge of attempt to commit suicide, two days after her release from jail, when her health condition began deteriorating alarmingly following the cessation of nose feeding by which she has been kept alive in all of the 15 years and more she has been on hunger strike. In the 15 years of her life in the jail, she has been released and rearrested similarly 15 times just so that the law against detention without trial for more than a year is dodged. If this scenario wasn’t so tragic, it would actually have been funny. Sharmila, who has pledged not to eat until the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, is repealed from Manipur, is in custody not so much because she has committed any cognizable felony, but to keep her from dying of voluntary starvation. Can her hunger strike be interpreted as an attempt to take her own life? Sharmila certainly does not think so. She has always maintained she loves life and if as alleged she is suicidal, many means to end her life have never far from her, electrocution and hanging being the closest and simplest at hand.

The irony is unique. She is refusing food, even if this were to mean death, all for the love of life and to protect its dignity. How can her supposed crime deserving arrest be defined in legal terms? Indeed, Sharmila’s resistance, because it is so unique, has been raising enigmatic questions like this that defy easy answers. The law’s inability to find a satisfactory answer to such questions cannot have been playing out more dramatically than this annual ritual of release and re-arrest Sharmila has been compelled to go through in all these years. The disturbing thought is, this ritual can be predicted to continue on till such a time as the AFSPA is repealed or Sharmila dies of old age. From the look of things on the ground, the latter seems more likely at this moment. One can only hope that the Indian state’s outlook to draconian laws with very definite colonial vintage, such as the AFSPA and the sedition law, changes sooner so that the earlier becomes Sharmila’s fate. Sometimes, when the answer to a question becomes impossibly elusive, the way out may actually be to change the question instead. The fact is, if Sharmila is given freedom today, she will certainly die, for the iron willed woman is not just about to give up what she loves to call her Gandhian struggle. In the present case too, in two days of her release, her health condition began showing signs of trauma and distress, prompting government doctors who were attending her to recommending her re-arrest and resumption of nose feeding. After 15 years of artificially fed diet, doctors are not sure of the condition of her immune system, and are fearful a little neglect can lead her health to plummet to a point of no return.

Arresting her in this sense is actually about saving her from certain death. What the situation therefore demands may be a law that does not incriminate the arrested person. Sharmila has said it so many times that she has not transgressed any law and therefore does not want to be treated as an outlaw. Nobody will dispute she does have a point there. The colonial legacy of policing being what it is in India, there is always a sense of criminality associated with anybody arrested by the police. Those who have been campaigning for Sharmila’s freedom too must see from this vantage. What every well-wisher wants and should want, is Sharmila free but alive as well, but till such a time, her custody should be seen as a benign overture, even by these campaigners. It will help if the provision of the Indian Penal Code by which she is detained is also reformed to actually say and mean goodwill custody, as for instance by making it signify hospitalisation rather than arrest. In the meantime, it is more than evident, and with a renewed sense of urgency in the present times in the face of the JNU crisis, that draconian laws such as the AFSPA must go for they have no place in a democracy. Ways also must be found to democratically settle the insurrections which caused these laws to be conceived of in the first place too. Looked another way, the very continuance of these laws are evidence not only of the authoritarian lobby of the Indian state, but also the failure of its liberals to find democratic answers to radical dissents and challenges to the state.

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