Irom Sharmila’s decision to end her 16-year-long hunger strike does not come as a surprise. She had said many times that she does not want to be a martyr and that she is an ordinary human being with ordinary hopes and desires. She has now concluded that no government in New Delhi will concede her demand of repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Her decision to end her fast is in keeping with the Sharmila that the public has come to know.
Her supporters in Manipur and elsewhere should thank Sharmila for her extraordinary sacrifice and move on with their campaign against AFSPA without her iconic presence. More than anyone else, she deserves to be left alone: To withdraw to private life, if that’s what she wishes to do. The rest of us must bow our heads in deep appreciation of a remarkable woman for her extraordinary campaign of sustained “communicative suffering”. It was an act of citizenship: Not in the routine sense of voting or paying taxes, but an exceptional act of the kind that expands the horizons of citizenship from time to time.
Sharmila believes with all her heart that no self-respecting democracy should force citizens to live with a law like AFSPA, a conviction that grows out of seeing the law at work in Manipur. Those defending the law make arguments based on considerations of realpolitik and national security. But that’s not the language in which Sharmila thinks. Hers is a politics of situated knowledge, and of a situated democratic imagination.
If the German language gave us the word realpolitik, says French philosopher Bruno Latour, the German Reich gave us two world wars. There are far too many crimes, he says, that are committed in the name of realism. No one should invoke realism when talking politically “without trembling and shaking”.
Supporters of AFSPA like to think of this law as a temporary and limited measure adopted to meet the challenges of particular exigencies. That has not been AFSPA’s history. People living under it see AFSPA as democracy’s arch-nemesis: A law that has unintended effects that are profoundly undemocratic, apart from the intended ones. It creates an impunity regime giving arbitrary powers to multiple state actors, and to non-state armed actors as well.
In this grassroots understanding of AFSPA, for example, the wave of extra-judicial killings in Assam in the 1990s carried out by “secret killers” or death squads could not have occurred without AFSPA. Those killings were portrayed in the press as being the result of warfare between the surrendered ULFA militants (SULFA) and the ULFA. But few in Assam doubted that it was the counter-insurgency establishment that was calling the tune, and that the SULFA cadres were often willing or reluctant accomplices. This phase of brutal counterinsurgency — not technically empowered by AFSPA, but a part of the grassroots experience of AFSPA — has since produced a number of powerful works of Assamese literary fiction.
The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) is designed to protect the country’s economic infrastructure, including airports: Not exactly a force intended to be covered by AFSPA. But in 2007 the CISF was implicated in a shooting causing the death of a person in an area where it was in charge of guarding oil installations. The incident was later explained as a case of “mistaken identity”. AFSPA was not directly invoked. But the CISF based its defence, during the controversy, on poor security conditions that required extra vigilance. Local citizens protested the killing initially; but soon family members accepted monetary compensation from the CISF and the public mood changed. The AFSPA regime, as a close analyst of the episode observes, creates “different expectations and concepts of justice”.
AFSPA has been in effect in most of Northeast India for the better part of India’s history as an independent country, though its full force comes into play only when an area is declared “disturbed”. Even in Mizoram — often portrayed by Indian officials as a poster child of successful counterinsurgency — AFSPA remains in force as a “sleeping act”, a phrase used by the Mizoram government. There has been much talk recently of a peace settlement with the Nagas. But no one expects the withdrawal of AFSPA to feature in the final peace agreement. Our policy elites seem incapable of imagining a future of Northeast India without AFSPA.
Sharmila fought a very long and lonely battle to end AFSPA. She failed. The rest of us should reflect on this sad chapter in our history. Her hunger strike received wide media coverage from time to time — the world’s longest hunger strike etc. — but her cause did not get much attention and support.
Journalist Anubha Bhonsle writes about Sharmila’s days in the nation’s capital when she tried to move her protest site from the hospital in Imphal where she was imprisoned to Jantar Mantar. She was arrested and kept at the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. The nurse attending to her, says Bhonsle, “never understood why this woman who was quite capable of feeding herself, had to be fed through a tube”. None of the nurses knew anything about Sharmila and her cause.
Bhonsle reports the following conversation:
“She’s from Assam side,” said one.
“She is protesting about something there.”
“Arrey, dimag kharab hai, pagal hai.” [Something wrong with her head, she is mad.]
But it is not only that the national media or the general public had no interest. The government in Manipur worked very hard to silence Sharmila. When Justice Cyriac Joseph and Satyabrata Pal of the National Human Rights Commission visited her in Imphal in 2013, they found that while other prisoners could meet visitors and family members, meeting Sharmila required the chief minister’s special permission.
“It would appear that,” said the NHRC, “while keeping her alive, since her death would create problems for the state government, it is trying to break her spirit through this enforced isolation, for which there is no judicial mandate.” That too is enabled by the AFSPA regime, as people in Manipur experience it.
A scholar of India’s defence forces, not known as a critic of AFSPA, observes that there is hardly any officer in the Indian army now without counter-insurgency experience. “When almost all the fighting that the army does is in counter-insurgency,” he writes, “it raises fundamental questions about not just the army and the security forces but much more so, of the sad state of this republic.”
Sharmila’s is a voice of conscience that spoke powerfully to this sorry condition. That her extraordinary campaign of communicative suffering fell mostly on deaf ears, and that she has lost her battle, does not bode well for the future of the Republic.