On a chilly winter morning in the northeastern state of Manipur, I met Irom Chanu Sharmila – the woman who has been fasting for the last 12 years in protest over the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The government declared the state a problem area in 1980 and implemented the Special Powers Act, which grants authority to the military to use lethal force in dealing with criminal suspects, to arrest without warrant and to detain indefinitely and without charge. Moreover, people have no legal recourse to challenge any actions of the military except by permission of the federal government. Since 2000, Sharmila has waged a personal crusade to overturn the controversial act passed in 1958 and which local and international rights groups have condemned. Known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, she was arrested three days after her fast began on the charge of attempted suicide, and has remained in detention at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal ever since, where she is force-fed through a nasal feeding tube. She is released briefly each year and re-arrested on the same charge. On November 2, 2000, the Indian paramilitary Assam Rifles shot and killed 10 civilians, including women and children, at a bus stop in Malom. Dubbed 'the Malom massacre' by activists, the tragedy sparked widespread outrage and became the inspiration for Sharmila’s fasting protest. “I decided to stand up against this injustice. I am not asking anything wrong. I only want that such laws which affect innocent people should be repealed,” she told me. The law, first applied in Manipur, is now enforced in Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Jammu and Kashmir. It has led to the oppression and killing of civilians, with many others abducted or sexually and physically abused. Supporters of the act say that ongoing insurgencies and the threat of more terrorist attacks make such a law necessary, and that if it were repealed the country would be more vulnerable. In 2005, a subcommittee studied the provisions of the act and recommended that it be dissolved because of public opposition. The report further noted that the provisions were out of date, a point on which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed. And yet the government since that time has maintained an indifferent attitude to Sharmila and her 12-year quest to overturn the act. Earlier this year, the United Nations urged India to repeal the act, saying it did not fit with democratic principles. Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said the act in effect allows the state to override rights in disturbed areas in a more intrusive way than would be the case under a state of emergency, since the right to life was essentially suspended without the safeguards applicable to states of emergency. New York-based Human Rights Watch has also condemned the act as “a tool of state abuse, oppression and discrimination.” The government of India must heed the voice of its own people, as well as those of international rights bodies, and protect the rights of those caught in the crossfire of the country’s efforts to stem insurgent and extremist violence. It is the hope of the residents of Manipur – and other affected areas – that Sharmila’s agitation will ultimately bring some good result, and that civilians will no longer live in fear of their own security forces. N. Arjun is a senior journalist based in New Delhi
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