Manipur moves beyond the icon Irom Sharmila

Why the end of Irom Sharmila’s fast signals a new beginning for the battle against Afspa


What matters is the repeal of Afspa, not the 16-year-long fast by Irom Sharmila. Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times
What matters is the repeal of Afspa, not the 16-year-long fast by Irom Sharmila. Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times

In the summer of 2011 in Montebello, California, I met the brave Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi from Iran. We discussed Irom Sharmila and strategies for bringing peace to Manipur. As a woman who had seen extreme repression in her homeland, fled from it and lived in exile, Ebadi, who had met Irom Sharmila in Delhi, knows the struggle and sacrifice required for a life dedicated to society. Ebadi told me: “Irom Sharmila is an icon but having an icon is not enough. One has to work hard collectively to ensure that the movement for removal of repressive laws such as Afspa in Manipur is done. An icon alone cannot accomplish that.”

On 9 August, Irom Sharmila broke her legendary fast. While many welcomed it, many in Manipur are still in shock. Shocked not just by its end, but also with her announcement that she will contest elections, and that she will get married. She has even expressed a desire to be chief minister of Manipur. Only the future can tell what direction she will go in. But as far as the people of Manipur are concerned, the struggle for the repeal of Afspa, or the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act—which many call the “biggest blot on Indian democracy”—continues.

Efforts for the repeal of Afspa started in the 1980s, when the Human Rights Forum, Manipur, filed the first public interest litigation (PIL) challenging its constitutionality in the Supreme Court, on 10 October 1980. This was followed by a petition by the Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) in 1997.

Following the brutal rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in July 2004, mothers of Manipur staged an iconic protest in front of the Kangla Fort (the seat of Manipuri royalty) in Imphal. The Justice BP Jeevan Reddy committee, formed in 2005, recommended a repeal of the Act, saying “the Act...has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination....”

This was followed by the recommendations made by the administrative reforms commission headed by Congress politician Veerappa Moily in 2007 and the working group on confidence-building measures in Jammu and Kashmir headed by Mohammad Hamid Ansari, currently the Indian vice-president, in the same year.

In 2010, our team at the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network convened at the India International Centre in Delhi, our first national consultation on the repeal of the Act. Several policymakers and survivors congregated, including Sinam Chandrajini, whose two sons and sister were gunned down in the infamous Malom Massacre in November 2000. We have raised awareness about Afspa in villages in Manipur, and across the eight North-East states where we work, as well as in colleges and universities across the country.

We have met parliamentarians seeking the withdrawal of the Act. When they have been in opposition, many “national” parties have assured us that they are with us, but they have changed their positions when in power. We have met several prime ministers. Nothing has changed.

The UN first questioned the validity of Afspa in 1991, when India presented its second periodic report to the UN human rights committee. Members asked how Afspa could be deemed constitutional under Indian law and how it could be justified in light of Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). India’s attorney general argued that Afspa was “a necessary measure to prevent the secession of the North-Eastern states”. In 1997, the UN human rights committee again expressed concern regarding the “climate of impunity”, for government approval is required for legal proceedings against the defence forces acting under Afspa.

In 2012, the UN committee again asked India to repeal Afspa, saying it had no role to play in a democracy. It observed that Afspa allows the state to override rights in the disturbed areas; the right to life is suspended. Repealing the law, said the UN committee, would “bring domestic law more in line with international standards”. Other UN bodies that have called for the repeal of Afspa include the committee on the elimination of discrimination against women (Cedaw, 2007) and the committee on the elimination of racial discrimination (Cerd, 2007).

Most recently, a stunning judgement from the Supreme Court, in July, heralded the end of impunity.

The women’s movement in Manipur is more than 100 years old. It started with the first Nupi Lan, or the First Women’s War of 1904, followed by the second Nupi Lan, or the Women’s War of 1939. These were non-violent protest movements spearheaded by Manipuri women against repressive British rule. When Afspa was imposed in the valley areas of Manipur in 1980, Manipuri mothers organized themselves into groups called “Meira Paibis” (women with bamboo torches) and started patrolling streets at night.

In the past 30 years and more, Meira Paibis have made an extraordinary effort for the repeal of Afspa, culminating in 12 mothers stripping in front of the Kangla. This protest shook India and the world.

So it is not Irom Sharmila’s fast itself, but the repeal of Afspa that matters.

The end of her fast, however momentous, does not herald a new era in Manipur. The fight for the repeal of Afspa has strengthened, in fact, after she ended her fast. Now decisions have to be taken collectively, with the involvement of people who are affected by unjust laws. That recognizable collective has been missing for 16 years. Now that the icon, the pedestal and the halo have gone, a faceless and fertile mass movement can begin.

Binalakshmi Nepram is a writer and founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and the secretary general of the Control Arms Foundation of India. She tweets at @BinaNepram

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