Iron Lady of Manipur, Irom Sharmila Chanu, who has been on indefinite fast since 2000 demanding repeal of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from Manipur has been re-arrested by the state police. She was released from custody earlier after a session court acquitted her of the charges of attempted suicide. This is not the first time she has been released by the court and immediately re-arrested on the same charges. Unfortunately, it has become more like a hide-and-seek game now.
Manipur Home Minister Gaikhangam’s statement on the latest arrest that the government was all prepared to protect and look after her health is quite ironical. Sharmila is fighting against a law that has claimed people’s lives and jeopardized the everyday life of people in the state. Everyone still vividly remembers the Malom Massacre that triggered Sharmila’s indefinite fast. This gimmicky act of curbing her protest by way of her welfare is thus extremely superficial and manipulative. What is needed instead is taking forward the discussion on AFSPA to higher levels. The state has been quite subtle in trying to evade the fundamental agenda of her struggle since the beginning by influencing and changing the direction in which the struggle goes on. But it would also be presumptuous on their part to assume that they are successful in fooling the people. The memory of that massacre and different others are still fresh in our minds.
On the 2nd November, 2000, the Assam Rifles gunned down ten civilians at a bus stop at Malom near Imphal airport as an act of retaliation after their convoy was ambushed by an insurgent group. Three days later, Sharmila started her historic hunger strike and ever since she hasn’t had a morsel of food. This was also the last time Sharmila got a visit from her ageing mother who fears her daughter might get weakened by her presence. Today, Sharmila is a living legend, a remarkable activist of our times. After her recent release, she told the media in her usual soft but firm tone that she will continue her struggle till the day AFSPA is removed from the state notwithstanding the re-arrest that has followed. She has been fighting for her people for 14 years and it’s quite chilling to envisage how things haven’t really changed in the state.
“When the clock strikes 6 pm, people absorb themselves alone in the darkness. They rush to their houses; elders look for their family members. If someone doesn’t return after sunset, mothers begin to cry, worry heaps upon the family. This is the present condition of Manipur. People are trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place in the state. On one end of the spectrum are the militants who are allegedly fighting for ‘independence’ and on the other end are armed forces – both State and Central – who are leaving no stones unturned in taking out their anger on the people for causalities they have suffered in the hands of their armed counterparts. Adding fuel to the fire is the apathy of the State government which is being slowly eaten away by corruption and negligence.” These lines by Bhavan Meitei, a research scholar in Ambedkar University Delhi gives a vivid picture of Manipur. This makes one think – after the repeal of AFSPA (which is still an illusion at the moment), what?
Even if Sharmila’s struggle is the repeal of AFSPA from Manipur, we recognise that there are other tensions even beyond AFSPA. AFSPA has taken irredeemable tolls in the state. But it is also equally important to look at the larger picture; at ‘both ends of the spectrum’ and beyond. The layman seems to be trapped between the two contesting forces. Freedom of speech and expression is a farce in the state (for instance media is under strict censorship and surveillance by insurgent groups in terms of what they write and circulate). And as Bhavan Meitei also expressed, “the apathy of the government eaten away by corruption and negligence” seems to have worsened the state of affairs and the condition of life for the people in this god forsaken land.
While there is continuous lack of power and water supply, government jobs, that could have lifted the financial and living condition of the people, are sold and bought. Only the rich and powerful are eating the slices of the cake. A deep chasm has been created between the rich and the poor and the powerful and the weak. Nothing has changed over the years. Perhaps what the people need is not just the repeal of AFSPA from the state by an outer authority but also a proper cleansing of a defect system from within. Perhaps what is needed is a complete change of the system, the structure from within and outside. AFSPA and insurgency should go so that human rights are restored in the state, so that the people can clean their own homes, build a new Manipur of their own. It’s time the dark spell that has been inflicted on this land is broken so that people can come out of the perpetual darkness of fear and uncertainty and walk with dignity with their heads held high.
(Kumam Davidson is a PhD Scholar at Centre for English Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His contributions appear in Galaxy magazine, Scroll and e-pao.net.)