What is legally right may not always be morally so. And something that is morally defensible could be legally untenable. The attempted suicide trial against Irom Sharmila Chanu raises questions about law and morality that are not easy to answer. The ‘Iron Lady’ of Manipur defends herself saying that she does not want to commit suicide. She wants to live, but she also wants “justice and peace”. It is difficult to contradict her sentiments. If she wanted to commit suicide, she would have perhaps found a way at some point of time during her 12-year fast. She would probably not mind dying for her cause, but her tenacity suggests that she would rather live for it. Whatever its form, her protest is symbolic of the frustration and the anger of large sections of people in Manipur, Nagaland and in Jammu and Kashmir at a certain law of the State. Many have taken up arms to fight the State or are engaged in other forms of violent protest. Ms Chanu decided on a form of protest which, she claims, is inspired by the Gandhian model. Unlike the militants in the Northeast, she chose to challenge the State’s violence with non-violence. It is pointless to quibble over her claim about the Gandhian legacy of the politics of fasts.
However, the trial would serve a useful purpose if it revives a public debate on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. It too is open to conflicting views on issues of legality and morality. It is difficult to defend a law that strikes at the idea of civil liberties or authorizes the State to curtail the people’s basic rights. But the armed insurgencies in areas where it has been in place for several decades help the State support its case for the act. Not just militants, but civil society groups and even mainstream politicians have often complained of alleged abuses of the AFSPA and demanded its repeal. It would perhaps be wrong to accuse the army of using the act as a licence to kill. But it would be just as unfair to deny that it has been used in order to justify excesses by the security forces. Whether in the Northeast or in Jammu and Kashmir, the State has a constitutional obligation to uphold the rule of law for the ordinary citizen. Armed militancies not only threaten the rule of law but also deny the people their right to live peacefully. Ms Chanu’s battle against the AFSPA is ultimately linked to larger questions about the State’s powers and the people’s rights.