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Daughter of peace

Artwork by Musrat Reazi.

Irom Sharmila Chanu/Daughter of peace: Artwork by Musrat Reazi.

Not a drop of water or morsel of food has passed through her lips in these years. Why the thirty-seven-year old poet, Irom Sharmila, has been fasting for the past ten years? Through this epic fast, she is demanding an end to violence in her homeland: the state of Manipur, situated in the Himalayan ranges of northeastern India. Over the past three decades, insurgents and security forces have established a culture of guns, bombs, and terror here. Ordinary civilians are frequently caught in the crossfire. Security forces in Manipur are empowered under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – promulgated in almost the entire state since 1980 – to shoot or arrest people and raid premises upon mere suspicion of threat to law and order. No legal proceedings can be instituted against armed forces personnel, except by sanction of the central government.

Sharmila began an indefinite fast after ten innocent civilians were gunned down by the paramilitary Assam Rifles, at a bus stop in Malom village in November 2000. Sensitive to the plight of her people and shaken by the atrocity, she took a unilateral decision to undertake a fast demanding the withdrawal of the draconian AFSPA. “I am doing my bounden duty… I am a rational being, acting on my conscience,” she says.

In November 2006, when I first met her in New Delhi, it was simply to pay homage to a person of great courage, who had been engaged in a public, political fast for an unbelievable six years. She was detained in a ward at the AIIMS hospital, where visitors were allowed. I found her a reflective, friendly person – eager to converse.

Since her fast began, police in Manipur arrests her; the court sentences her to a year’s judicial custody for attempt of suicide; released at the end of the year, she continues her fast and is promptly rearrested. In jail, she is kept in virtual solitary confinement, and force-fed through a nasal tube.

When she was released in October 2006, Sharmila used her freedom to fly from Manipur to the Indian capital of New Delhi, in order to spread her campaign further. Within two days, New Delhi police arrested and brought her to the hospital, where she was detained and force-fed. Force-feeding is a tactical compromise. She submits to the harsh regime of the plastic tube, since she is not interested in suicide or martyrdom.

The chief minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi Singh, visited her in New Delhi and requested her to give up the fast, so did the Indian parliament. Before returning to Imphal – the capital of Manipur – in March 2007, Sharmila reiterated, “I will continue my fast until the AFSPA is withdrawn.” Upon her return to Manipur, she was immediately arrested and sentenced to judicial custody, then released in March 2008 and soon rearrested. This drama was repeated in March 2009.

Interred in the security wing of Imphal’s JN Hospital, she reads extensively, writes, and practices yoga. Permission to visit her requires an arduous process of applications to various government offices. Her family home is near the hospital, but family members are hardly able to visit her. Sharmila is the youngest of nine siblings in the family. Her mother, Irom Shakhi Devi, has not met her these ten years. “The day the act is withdrawn, I will eat rice from my mother’s hands,” Sharmila told me.

It is easy, when in Manipur, to imagine it as a whole world: self-contained, a state apart. Imphal valley, with the capital at its centre, is surrounded, in what seems to be a perfect circle, by distant hills. This region was a sovereign kingdom with unbroken dynastic rule from 33 AD to 1891, until the British rulers of India established suzerainty.

Since 1949, there was public discontent over what many viewed as a forced merger with the Indian union. People were uneasy about being reduced to a tiny, neglected fragment of the big nation. A handful of rebels refused to cooperate with the union, raising the demand for independence. The Indian state sent in security forces, with a mandate to crush the insurgency. From 1960 onwards, parts of Manipur were declared disturbed areas, and eventually the AFSPA was imposed.

Apunba Lup, a network of thirty-two civil society organisations, and Meira Paibis, thousands of elderly, working-class women activists, demanded withdrawal of the AFSPA, arguing that atrocities by the armed forces actually motivated angry young men to join underground groups. Initially, several insurgent groups helped the poor, even earning a Robin Hood image.

Official policy treats insurgency as a law and order problem. Under the AFSPA, security forces have been granted powers for internal security management on par with defence against external aggression. In effect, the Indian state is fighting a low-intensity war against citizens it considers anti-national. The meaning of internal security has shifted and changed, becoming the exact opposite of the original intent. The people the state is supposed to defend are now perceived as the threat that it tries to extinguish. The concept of human security is completely missing.

The AFSPA suspends people’s fundamental rights, contravening the forty-fourth amendment to the Indian constitution. International humanitarian laws do not countenance such suspension of fundamental rights. The protection of life, liberty and property is non-derogable under the Geneva conventions of 1949 and 1960. Insurgents and national liberation movements are admitted into international humanitarian law, and are bound by the same standards.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has noted that the AFSPA is incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by India in 1979. Many members of the council have expressed shock at the existence of such legislation in India. Section 4 of the AFSPA awards the armed forces the licence to kill, and is incompatible with Articles 6, 9 and 14 of the covenant. The covenant provides that “any person whose rights or freedoms are violated shall have an effective remedy, determined by competent judicial, administrative or legislative authorities” – a provision disregarded by the AFSPA.

The violence in Manipur is part of a pattern of chronic neglect, maldevelopment and economic exploitation. “It is in order to intensify [economic] exploitation that the Indian state physically dominates in Manipur. This is the real reason that the army and paramilitary forces are sent in here,” Nobo Kishore – Director of the Centre for Social Development, an Imphal-based organisation – once explained to me.

The developmental toll of militarism is a serious human rights issue. India allocates approximately fifteen percent of budgetary expenditure to defence, and far less to education, health or welfare. Defence expenditure partly works against the interests of ordinary citizens, by inflicting human rights atrocities on the civilian population.

In July 2004, Assam Rifles personnel brutally raped Thangjam Manorama in her home in Bamon Kampu village. Her disfigured body was later dumped by the roadside. Thousands of citizens, led by Meira Paibis, protested against her rape and murder. Assigning dishonour to military personnel who commit heinous crimes, and the state that protects them, inverting the usual association of dishonour with women’s bodies, twelve elderly Manipuri activists disrobed in public outside the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal, shouting “Indian army, rape us. Take our flesh.”

These women adopted this extremely difficult form of protest, orchestrating their rage, challenging impunity granted to security forces, and shaming the state into acknowledging culpability.

The Indian government set up a high-level committee to review the AFSPA, but ignored its report. Submitted in 2005, the report recommended withdrawal of the act, on the ground that it “has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.”

Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, has recently hinted that certain changes in the AFSPA are being planned. This is due to the protests in Manipur, and in other parts where it is operational, particularly Jammu and Kashmir. While alterations or even withdrawal of the AFSPA will not automatically solve the present crisis in Manipur, it would indicate that politicians are finally willing to respond to democratic dissent, and attend to issues being raised by the common person.

Irom Sharmila often refers to her fast as a spiritual act, “My stand is for the sake of truth, and I believe truth succeeds eventually. God gives me courage… How shall I explain it, we all come here with a task and we come here alone.” Her task involves influencing and changing people, society and politics.

The Buddha frequently kept long fasts, though his Middle Way did not enjoin harsh self-denial. Rather, eating became relatively unimportant, and food fell into its rightful place: a means of sustenance to keep the body functioning, not a source of unending enjoyment. Most religions enjoin fasting, be it the Muslim sawm, or the Christian Lent. In Jain, Vaishnavite and other traditions, women keep regular fasts – a self-cleansing discipline, with physical and spiritual connotations.

Mahatma Gandhi’s numerous fasts, during the struggle for Indian independence, aimed at disciplining the self, and changing the hearts of the opponent – the spiritual dimension flowed into the political. Sharmila, similarly, aims to change the hearts and minds of people, including those who wield power, radically altering their thinking and consciousness, which in turn would significantly transform their approach and policies. By highlighting burning issues, she also seeks to build public opinion and solidarity.

A fast, like most nonviolent resistance, can be misconstrued as passive. People sometimes remark that rather than languishing in jail, she should give up her fast, come out and join the active struggle for change. One recalls the Gandhian claim that nonviolence is an active force, not passive. Active even when we sleep, for it works through the human heart. It is the law of humanity, just as violence is the law of the brute. It is the weapon of the strong since it implies ethical choice, balanced against expediency. Practitioners of nonviolence could access other means, including brute force, yet they consciously reject the option. According to nonviolent practitioners like Sharmila, ignoble means cannot achieve noble ends.

Sharmila is a law-abiding citizen – as were Gandhi, Thoreau, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Reposing faith in democracy based on just laws, she is a practitioner of noncooperation and, indeed, civil disobedience. While authorities treat her fast as an infringement of law, she perceives the AFSPA to be infringing a higher law. Thoreau advised people to disobey unjust laws. By so doing, they would expose such laws to public scrutiny. He saw principled resistance as a duty of the righteous citizen: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.”

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks of the “supremacy of moral force over force based on the might of arms and empire.” Suffering under the military junta in Myanmar, she is the conscience of her nation, and an icon for democratic movements globally. Both Suu Kyi and Irom Sharmila are detained by their governments, and one or the other may die before victory is attained. Their strength lies in their fearlessness and untiring commitment, and the resonance and near-reverence this arouses in others. Governments dread them, for symbolising righteousness and moral power. They enjoy wide public sympathy, and remind us of our common humanity.

Irom Sharmila expresses dissent, and submits to the punishment meted out. State forces arrest her, but can not compel her to change her thinking, apologise or retreat. In a way the jail hospital has become her monastery or ashram: a place to develop qualities of endurance, patience, fearlessness and confidence.

People want peace: the condition for leading normal lives. Peace necessarily involves a committed process of dialogue and negotiation, transparency and accountability, healing and reconciliation. In Manipur, militarisation is certainly not leading to peace.

After the unleashing of the AFSPA upon the people, insurgency has spiralled and spun out of control. Insurgents and the militarist state are today hardened and distorted mirror images of each other. Logically, violence can not show a way out of violence. State terrorism can not end non-state terrorism. The official counterinsurgency strategy has backfired. Yet, it continues – growing increasingly more repressive.

In 2008, the Manipuri state government began recruiting young civilians in Thoubal and Imphal West districts, arming them with a mandate to kill insurgents. There is no guarantee that these rag-tag vigilant squads will use the guns for righteous ends. Defence strategists and human rights advocates point out that arming civilians is bound to be self-defeating.

To end the conflict, the state must shift from military solutions to political engagement, and alter its basic approach to development. Most people in Manipur today would strongly support an authentic peace process. Developmental activities ensuring food security, employment, healthcare, educational inputs and agricultural revival are integral and essential to the process. The purpose of counterinsurgency program should be clear and visible: peace in the region, enabling pursuit of development in consonance with people’s needs and cultures.

Irom Sharmila, along with civil society groups and other individuals, is demanding not just an end to the AFSPA, but also a genuine response to people’s grievances, and an authentic process of development.

In December 2008, women from different parts of Manipur began a continuous relay hunger strike near the JN Hospital in Imphal – in solidarity with Sharmila – rallying around the slogan “Save Sharmila, repeal the AFSPA,” coordinated by Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign). This October, the relay hunger strike ran into more than 300 days. This is, indeed, an amazing demonstration of public opinion – clearly articulated in united action – by thousands of peace-loving citizens.

The severity of the current crisis has forced civil society groups in other parts of India to express their solidarity with the Manipuri people. This August, outside the Manipur Bhawan (Manipur House) in New Delhi, civil society organisations rallied, demanding “an end to fake encounters and state sponsored killings.” In September, another protest outside the Bhawan demanded punishment of police personnel responsible for the extrajudicial execution of Chungkham Shanjit and Rabina Devi; repeal of the AFSPA; ending of the atmosphere of impunity that prevails in Manipur; and adoption of a democratic and political solution, in resolving the crisis in Manipur.

In the face of growing protest, the Indian government is reacting by unleashing new forms of repression.

A new force, the Manipur Police Commando, has now been raised. The MPC shot into the limelight this July, after its personnel shot dead twenty-seven-year old Chungkham Sanjit, in a crowded marketplace in Imphal. Caught in the crossfire, a pregnant woman – Thokchom Ongbi Rabina Devi – was killed, and seven others were injured.

In recent weeks, activists of All Manipur United Clubs Organisation and Apunba Lup as well as environmental activist Jiten Yumnam were arrested under various draconian acts like the National Security Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Medical reports accessed by journalists indicate that Yumnam was subjected to torture in police custody.

Even one heinous crime, committed by functionaries deployed by the state, needs to be scrupulously investigated subjected to due judicial processes, in a democracy. We have thousands of such cases of state-sponsored crimes in Manipur, without redress. For a government that grants impunity to its armed forces, activists campaigning for human rights and peace are surely considered as threat. Hence, the recent spate of arrests.

Meanwhile, physically isolated, Irom Sharmila’s spirit remains as strong as ever. Tucked away in a state geographically and culturally remote from the Indian capital, she nonetheless poses a powerful challenge to the impunity and high-handedness of state power.


Deepti Priya Mehrotra – activist and researcher – is the author of Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the struggle for peace in Manipur (Penguin India, 2009).

In print: Independent World Report — Issue 2, November 2009.

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