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Always present, remembered now

Irom Sharmila

Civilians have fallen to paramilitary bullets. Women have stripped down in protest. And a hunger strike has lasted more than a decade. Manipur has seen it all.

But if there has been one constant from 1958 — and through every election since — it’s a hated five-letter acronym, AFSPA.

AFSPA, or the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, was passed by Parliament in 1958 to contain Naga militancy in Assam and Manipur. Nagaland, which became a state in 1963, was then a part of Assam and the Naga National Council was in the middle of an armed movement to free Naga areas from Indian rule.

Today, more than half a century on, Manipur has over 40 militant groups with varying objectives, including secession. And the act, which gives sweeping powers to the armed forces, continues to be in force, despite stiff opposition.

For nearly 14 years, this opposition has had a face — one Irom Sharmila who has, since November 2000, been on a protest fast and in and out of jail, demanding its repeal. Now the upcoming Lok Sabha elections have given contesting parties yet another platform for protest.

Manipur’s two Lok Sabha seats — Outer Manipur and Inner Manipur — vote on April 9 and April 17. The Congress, which is in power in the state, now represents both.

The BJP, the Naga People’s Front, CPI and one Independent candidate in Outer Manipur have released their manifestos. They have promised to either withdraw the act from the state or have it repealed.

The Congress is yet to release its manifesto but had asked Sharmila to join the party. She refused.

Instead, she has extended her support to the Aam Aadmi Party although she turned down its offer to nominate her.

“Political parties wake up to the act and Sharmila only when there is an election,” said social anthropologist M.C. Arun.

“When Sharmila began her hunger strike in November 2000, the government remained indifferent. But when the entire people in Manipur rose as one violently against the act after Assam Rifles troops shot dead Thangjam Manorama — a girl from Imphal East — after raping her, the Okram Ibobi Singh government was compelled to withdraw the act from seven Assembly constituencies in August 2004.”

A dozen women had then staged a naked protest in front of the Assam Rifles base at Kangla Fort, demanding punishment for those who had arrested and shot dead the 32-year-old.

Sharmila began her fast on November 5, 2000, after Assam Rifles troops killed 10 civilians at Malom, about 6km south of Imphal, in retaliation to a militant attack.

While Opposition parties have accused successive Ibobi Singh governments as being against a complete withdrawal of the act, the chief minister takes credit for partially withdrawing it despite the Centre’s reservations. “We have started withdrawing the act and will continue to do so as the situation improves. The Opposition parties cannot do that,” he said.

In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said the act would be replaced with one that was more humane. A recommendation by the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission to repeal the act — which it said had become “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high handedness” — is gathering dust.

The act was promulgated first in today’s Tamenglong and Ukhrul districts, inhabited predominantly by Nagas, before it was extended to the entire state in 1980. While it gives armed forces sweeping powers to use force, even to the extent of causing death, members of the armed forces cannot be prosecuted without sanction from the Centre.

The Supreme Court is hearing two identical petitions filed by Human Rights Alert, Manipur, and the Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur. The petitioners want a special investigation team to be set up to probe 1,528 alleged fake encounter deaths.

The court had handed over six of these cases to the Justice Santosh Hegde Commission, which concluded they were fake encounters. In its report to the court, the commission had also endorsed the Reddy panel’s observation.

Babloo Loitongbam, a leading rights defender, said citizen bodies had brought out a manifesto this year, called People’s Manifesto, which has the act’s repeal on top of the agenda. “The problem is we have only two MPs in Parliament…. But we will continue to fight till the act goes.”

But the lives of the families of victims will never be the same again. “They (police commandos) gunned down my husband in broad daylight along with two of his friends. I may live in peace if the culprits are punished and AFSPA is repealed,” said Renu Takhellambam, the president of the Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association.

As for Sharmila, she continues to be force-fed through the nose.

Manipur votes on April 9 and April 17