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Irom Sharmila’s Struggle For Democracy

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

07 November, 2012

India saw a number of protests in last two years. Fast unto death became a household name when Anna Hazare sat on fast against corruption. There was mass upsurge and crowd throng Ramlila ground. Everywhere the Indian tricolor became the symbol of ‘popular’ protests. Anyone who picked up tricolor became ‘purer’ than others. The state of India was helpless seeing so many ‘satyagrahis’ and media had 24 hours dharma to ‘change’ India. All the issues were forgotten to glamorize this ‘nationalism’ of India. The struggles of tribal, Dalits, fishermen and various other states got sidelined because they do not protest with ‘tiranga’ in their hands. There are no 24 hours channel broadcasting everything what they say and there is no ‘Jantar Mantar’ or ‘Ramleela grounds’ where people can sit and protest. The only things these protests is that they challenge ‘Indian nationalism’ whether they are against the ‘mighty’ Indian army or nuclear nationalism, India remain highly intolerant and contemptuous to these struggles.

It is not a hidden fact that during the transfer of power to Congress Party in 1947, Manipur was not part of India hence there was a continuous rebellion and protest when it became part of India. It is also a fact that by and large people of the state and other north Eastern States have accepted their merger with India yet the government response to North East was as if they were dealing with a ‘law and order’ problem without taking people into confidence. Though there are political governments in north-east, states like Manipur still are governed under Army protection and Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFPSA) has been widely misused against the people. There have been allegation of wide spread disappearance of people in the custody. In fact, Supreme Court today took the Manipur government to task for its laxity in responding to a case of custodial disappearance about 1500 people.

In this backdrop, a young human rights activist Irom Sharmila chose a very democratic way to highlight the issue to the authorities. Sharmila’s fast has entered into 12th year yesterday. In these times of unrest, she could have easily become a rabble rouser yet she chose the constitutional methods to protest the draconian Arms Forces Special Power Act 1958. There had been allegation of wide ranging misuse of AFSPA in the state of Manipur. It was important for the government to under the psyche of the people and provides a soothing balm to it but instead it treated any one who questions the authority and misuse of power, as anti-national rebel. The government of the day actually functions in the regions according to the advice of our intelligence agencies who are experts in manipulating things.

There is another dark reality of this game of power. Assam and Manipur have been two neighbors and many in these two states suffer from deep rooted prejudices against each other. Placing Assam Rifles in Manipur was a sinister game plan by the Centre or the army as it brings the same old prejudices of Assemese against Manipuris. It is similar like the Naga Kuki issues. You cannot use one against other to serve your own purpose. The Assam Rifles was known to be notorious in Brutal and people of the states have protested against its presence. There have been very little attempt by the government to assuage the hurt feelings of Manipuris. In the past few years, the government and its might could do very little to lift the blockade from Manipur. People suffered because of this as prices of essential commodities rose high and there was scarcity of gas and petroleum products and people had to stand on cues for hours.

It is important to understand the pain of people in Manipur and for that you need to be there for a few weeks and see how the army is the major political player there. In the street of Imphal you will find the army vehicles passing through with the soldiers on alert and attention position to fire at you. The very say of army vehicle passing through is frightening because the gun and trigger happy soldier sitting on the top of it. It is not a healthy sign that even after 60 years of our independence we have army deciding many things there. Political situation is worsening as politicians are corrupted by power politics and misuse of power. That is why there is a greater disenchantment towards the political parties.

Assam Rifles is often blamed for inflicting brutalities and using the old practices like raping women. It forced women in Imphal to carry out a naked protest once with banner ‘Indian Army Rape us’. This was one of the most painful protest one could have ever witnessed but then realities often bytes. On November 2nd, 2000 the army killed 10 people in firing near Imphal airport which is known as ‘Malom Massacre’. The news of the killing shocked the entire state as in the name of ‘rebel’, it was found that innocent were killed in it. Sharmila’s fast was actually against this massacre.

The irony of the situation in Manipur is that it is the human rights activists who have to bear the brunt of everything. The rebels feel that they are Indian agents while the army and the government look upon them in suspicion and often harass them for their ‘links’ with the undergrounds. The general message of pro-government people is that since the ‘army’ is fighting for the country hence their ‘actions’ must be supported. Now, nobody deny that armed forces are fighting for the country but at the same point of time, we must find out whether any country is bigger than its people. Now, what political purpose an armed action would serve if for saving the country, our army or its action alienates the entire Manipur population. It has happened. Irom Sharmila is that link which can bring even the rebels into talk with the Indian administration. She reminds each one of us to respect International laws and Indian constitution. The Armed Forces Special power Act is a clear onslaught on democracy as it gives immense power to the army to arrest anyone without any warrant and without producing anyone in the court. Such arbitrary powers will always damage the democratic fabric and will never be able to bring people to national mainstream. It is also important to know that a majority of Manipur people have also rejected the violent methods of the rebels and want to enjoy peace and freedom in their state. Manipur has a glorious past and it has a great future with India and therefore it is essential that a just peace is brought in the state where each state holder feels ownership and not defeated and betrayed.

And therefore a good will gesture is long overdue which would definitely serve the purpose of bringing peace in the region. Sharmila’s fast has entered in the 12th year. She has served the purpose of compelling us to introspect though the power elite still does not want to respond to it. Today, the nation talks about Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFPSA). It needs to be repealed or reworked in Manipur. Sharmila chose the path of democracy to warn a government which was serving its own interest at the cost of the people. There were other parts available to her and other youths in Manipur. They could be easily lured by the underground as the disappointment level against the Indian system is high because its neglect to the state.

It is distressful and unconstitutional that the authorities field cases against Sharmila under IPC section 309 for ‘attempt to commit suicide’. They must ask this question as why is the person trying to commit suicide. Sharmila is not committing suicide for her own self. It is a big cause which everyone in Manipur wants complete repulsion of AFSPA. We understand the army’s concern and it is that why should a soldier fight in an unknown terrain for the country when he does not have protection. There is nothing wrong in protecting the armed forces but why should there be AFPSA. Why should we have an administration guided by the army top brass?

How long shall we allow Manipur and other north East State under such laws? An environment of mutual trust is important. She has laid down her life for the cause of human rights and she need to be respected. A true tribute to her indomitable spirit would be to compel government to see the cries of people in Manipur and withdraw AFSPA at the earliest so that people live happily in the state without any fear or favor. Sharmila’s democratic voice needs a democratic response from the government of India so that the state of Manipur returns to normalcy. The government of India needs serious thought on Manipur and North East and the solution for such issues is pushing more democracy and people friendly development. It is also time for the government to acknowledge Sharmila’s democratic struggle as it will only strengthen democracy and make people believe in democratic struggle.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at www.manukhsi.blogspot.com twitter : freetohumanity skype : vbrawat Facebook : Vidya Bhushan Rawat [email protected]




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