On November 2, 2000, 10 civilians were gunned down at a bus stand in Malom, Manipur, allegedly by soldiers of the Assam Rifles. Two days later, Irom Sharmila started her fast. Her demand: repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. Within days she was under arrest, charged with attempt to commit suicide. It took nearly 14 years for a Manipur sessions court to reject these charges and for Sharmila to be set free. The court’s decision may be the first step towards acknowledging that hers is a legitimate protest. It cannot be criminalised and wished away.
Irom Sharmila has become the symbol of a long-running public anger against the AFSPA. First imposed in the region in 1958, the AFSPA gives armed forces in disturbed areas the power to search and arrest without a warrant, to open fire if it is deemed necessary for “the maintenance of public order”. It also gives them legal protection for such actions. The powers and immunity granted under the AFSPA have been held responsible for thousands of alleged extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and other human rights abuses. For years, families of victims have had to battle the intransigence of the lower courts and the police for redress. The first institutional recognition of this predicament came last year, when the Justice Santosh Hegde Commission, appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate six charges of extra-judicial killing, found that five of the encounters had been fake, that disproportionate force had been used.
But judicial acknowledgment has not been matched by a response at the political level. A law imposed more than five decades ago and sustained through the height of the insurgency in Manipur may not speak to ground realities any longer. Over the last decade, insurgency has been on the wane, incidents of violence have gone down, major militant groups are under suspension of operations or ceasefire agreements. Yet the military presence on the ground remains undiminished. The very real grievances of the people living under such a law have been met with apathy, both by the Centre and the state government. “Physical distance from Delhi does not mean emotional distance”, the Supreme Court had observed last year. Yet Irom Sharmila’s lonely struggle, far away from the protest grounds of Delhi, points to just such a disconnect.