Heeding Irom Sharmila’s Argument


by Bibhu Prasad Routray

It’s been ten years since Irom Chanu Sharmila started her fast-unto-death. With no exceptions, hers would qualify to be the longest in the history of independent India. Liquid feeding through a tube attached to her nostrils keeps the 38-year old alive, although it is said to have weakened the resolve of the diminishing tribe of people who believe in peaceful modes of protest. The State has been accused of being inconsiderate and uncaring towards peaceful and Gandhian modes of protests. In reality, however, Ms Sharmila’s plea is caught in the gridlock between a seemingly accommodative political India and the obduracy of its armed forces.

It all started on November 2nd, 2000, the day paramilitary Assam Rifles personnel opened fire in panic after a blast went off at Malom, a small town about 15 km from Imphal, Manipur’s capital. Ten civilians waiting under a bus shed were killed and many others injured. Ms Sharmila, working as a volunteer for a human rights organisation, decided to go on a fast in protest the next day. Her demand was simple — withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which she, like many in her State, terms as draconian as it provides army personnel right to shoot and kill and get away without any punitive action. Her stand is supported by fact. The inquiry into the Malom incident has not ended till date. Fixing responsibility comes much later.

The AFSPA, promulgated to contain insurgency in neighbouring Nagaland in 1958 and introduced into Manipur in 1980, continues to be blamed for a number of killings of militants, former militants as well as civilians.

Interestingly, among the people who underline the need to make AFSPA more humane are Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P Chidambaram. In 2004, shortly after the infamous Thangjam Manorama Devi episode — in which a woman militant cadre was allegedly raped and killed by the Assam Rifles personnel after being picked up from her residence in the outskirts of Imphal sending Manipur to a state of turmoil — the prime minister had assured the people of Manipur of efforts to make the Act humane. Such assurances have been periodically made since then. Speaking in April 2010, Mr Chidambaram indicated that he too is favour of replacing the AFSPA with a humane act. The inquiry into Manorama Devi killing too hasn’t concluded.

In 2004, New Delhi set up a committee under Justice B P Jeevan Reddy to review AFSPA. Over the next two years, the committee held intensive consultations with a wide spectrum of people and submitted its report to the government. Its recommendations have not been made officially public, but its contents are freely available. The committee had recommended, “The Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness. AFSPA should be repealed.” The committee also said that instead of the AFSPA, the challenges posed by insurgency and terrorism could be dealt by making a few changes to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

The recommendations were subsequently examined by the second Administrative Reforms Commission, which submitted its report in 2007. The commission too observed that “the repeal of the AFPSA would remove the feeling of discrimination and alienation among the people of the northeastern states.” However, the decision is pending before the Cabinet, which continues to procrastinate, for reasons which are obvious.

The Indian Army — Assam Rifles consists of army personnel on loan to this para-military organisation — remains fiercely opposed to any tinkering with the Act. The Ministry of Defence maintains that AFSPA is an enabling legislation and is a mandatory pre-requisite for the armed forces to carry out internal security duties. In Manipur, where the Army, not the police, does bulk of the counter-insurgency operations, no one can expect to antagonise the men in olive green. Moreover, toning down AFSPA would also have its impact in Jammu & Kashmir, where too the Act is in operation. Withdrawing AFSPA is too much of a risk for the government which is critically unsure of its intentions and achievements in conflict theatres.

At one level, making the AFSPA the villain is unjustified. The Supreme Court in its verdict in the Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights (NPMHR) vs. Union of India, 1997 case underlined the sanctity of the Act. Indeed, the Manipur Police — which does not enjoy the protection under the AFSPA for its activities — too has shot and killed with some impunity. Most recently in July 2009, Manipur police commandos were photographed accompanying and then killing a former militant in an Imphal market, an episode that led to prolonged agitation. Educational institutions shut down for more than six months before an agreement between the state government and the agitating groups restored normalcy. Seven of the nine accused policemen were arrested, suspended, but subsequently were granted bail.

At the other level, it is difficult to understand how a phased withdrawal of AFSPA and consequent non-functioning of the army, would augment insurgent capacities in Manipur. The Manipur government, responding to popular demands, had thrown out AFSPA from seven assembly segments in Imphal West and Imphal East districts in 2004, much to the displeasure of the Army. Since then, Army has refused to operate in these areas. But even then, these areas have not really degenerated into becoming hubs of insurgency.

The security situation in Manipur, often judged on the basis of insurgency related fatalities, has certainly improved in 2010. Compared to 2008 and 2009 when 485 and 416 fatalities were reported in the state, Manipur recorded only 130 fatalities this year (as of mid-November). This throws up an opportunity to embark upon a risky, yet much needed task of assigning Manipur police the lead role in counter-insurgency duties. It also opens up the possibility of withdrawing AFSPA from few other areas in the state, where the army’s role can be tactically downgraded. Reassigning primacy to the army and bringing back the AFSPA, in case the situation worsens, would not be too difficult a task. Opportunities certainly exist to make a new beginning for the state, instead of condemning it to hopelessness in perpetuity.

Bibhu Prasad Routray, a visiting research fellow in the South Asia Programme of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, is a former deputy director in the National Security Council Secretariat, Prime Minister’s Office, New Delhi.


  1. If the people want an abnormal law that is their right but stop whining. The writer argues that Sharmila has weakened the resolve of the tribe who seek change peacefully. Yet when have they taken the option every five years the people get another chance. The Army is powerful here but they are simple men with simple desires. Give General Singh a field marshall’s baton. Give the Army shiny new weapons, they can never have enough helicopters or huge platform hovercrafts (that can hold 100 marines and tanks not the moped two seaters they have for Loktak). And yes it isn’t their job to police their own people. End the corruption. Offer Manipuris real jobs a real economy. The steps then are simple. Ask her to stand for 2014 on a single issue repeal AF(SP)A effectively forming an Anti-AFSPA League comparable to Suu Kyi’s NLD across the border. Then it is up to the people. You cannot beat the second largest army in the world in armed conflict not where the logistics favour the army. But you can in a democracy tell them what to do. Push comes to shove, sack the generals or let them mutiny. No army gets to choose where they deploy otherwise the wise soldier would just stay at home. As for the nonsense about the Manipur Government responding to its people. Ibobi Singh sold a franchise to the Loitongbam family to run the Imphal Police commandoes in 2004 using Singhajit I as the front man though apparently he claims he hasnt been paid enough and is very poor. The figures given by the police run NGO HRA is 3-4 lacs to join 1.5-2 Million to be an officer. As the man says army don’t want to go to imphal no more and who could blame them. SNAFU is maintained. Just think what could be achieved if you had real police officers working to what the press call western standards ie doing what they are supposed to do. 2014 is a rehearsal for 2017. Vote for abnormal laws or vote for a return to normalcy. Given  most of you live further from Imphal than I am your opinion won’t matter. Let the people who live their surprise their politicians. If they believed you wanted change you’d get it. The honest among you say no you want only the lottery promise of your share of corruption one day. I am surprised Manipuris ask me if I am frustrated. It’s your country you have abnormal laws because you are too apathetic or fearful to try for normalcy. Jai ho Our day shall come.

  2. My dear friends I’d request you to pardon my lack of knowledge on the subject but still i’d like to pour my heart out on the matter……. As Desmond also said, Irom Sharmila has a cause and it really is about time that the whole country and the world recognizes it. AF(SP)A must be repealed with immediate effect but this seems unlikely till next one year. So what are the drawbacks of repealing the same?
    With the removal of the act, the presence and number of SFs in the state too will be reduces and owing to which, the state police have to take control of the situation, but the question now arises asto if state police is ready for the challenge. You both know the answer better
    b) Is the state government ready to pay for the increased force?
    c) Will the SFs be ready to work in the present scenario with on one(not even the act) to watch their back. I’m sure they won’t have opted to come to manipur on their own. Everyone wants to lead a peaceful life with their families(SFs included).
    Rest bringing about the real democracy seems to be a far fetched dream. Who are the people operating in UG groups????????
    Local Habitants or Foreign terrorists!!!!!!
    We all know the answer where is this all going
    But i for sure love to see AFSPA repealed from the state.

  3. My life plan is a lot simpler than yours once AF(SP)A is repealed I get married and then I’ll wing it.

    The other problems you seem to have a handle on. Personally I would start moving from seeking blame to seeking solutions. Because apportioning blame isn’t so helpful.

    Language discussion fascinates me and when she is free I hope to contribute. But life becomes really simple for me once AF(SP)A is repealed. That’s what I focus on.

    I finally got a response from the French Consul General in Pondichere. He agreed to forward my appeal to the Minister des Affaires Etrangeres of itself it does very little. But today I was able to one little thing more to help her. And whether they bear fruits or not. So long as I stay focussed. I did what I could.

    I have a belief that if the desire for something is in my heart then I it will happen. I believe that God puts desire into Man’s heart. And I am driven by passion.

    But domestic work well that’s just another name for passion.

  4. you are very right… politicisation comes first and in fact it has been the effort of many CSOs…. i have found out the biggest obstacle in this…that is of language..
    because we were a former colony and so when democracy was implanted in spite of the lack of democratic thinking and culture therefore it was meant to be a failure before it started…
    instead of a movement for mass polical education … election politics or votebank politics ensued….

    the Govt. of India followed a hands off policy as far as education and development is concern… because they thought an educated politically conscious masses were not in their national interest…. and border states should not be developed to thwart aggression

    most importantly… we inherited an education system meant primarily to serve the interest of the colonial power… and English being an alien language we now have a situation where….our society is divided into English Speakers and Non English Speakers….. with the assumption that the former are educated …. we know it only to well…..that more than 70 p.c of our graduates are useless degree holders… they don’t know English very well … which is the medium and so it is safe to assume they don’t know the subject… so you can imagine about the common people who have no access to education….

    For the enlightened ones:
    1. develop our language by translating and incorporating modern political thinking and values instead of using Sanskrit or Bengali and confusing people more
    2. fight for freedom of expression (repress under AFESPA) without which no meaningful politicisation and take place

    so there is a lot of domestic work for us as you have rightly pointed out….

  5. I have a very limited objective repeal of AF(SP)A, that frees Irom Sharmila. The Indians who are more democratic decent are helped by international pressure from anywhere. The intelligent ones say the same as you, that votes are bought and sold in vote banks so political campaigning is irrelevant. Political maturity would mean not just that MPs try to embrace more democracy but that ordinary citizens do also. Both Manipuris and Indians of intelligence and political maturity need to start giving more respect to their fellow citizens.

    The vote is the final part of a democratic way. It’s like the annual religious act of a religion. If Manipuris want their own identity they have to start somewhere with their claims for independence and sovereignty. If they do not have sovereignty over their own self how can they claim sovereignty at all.. If the Vote is too abstract a concept for them they have to be democratized from the earliest age. Every Manipuri has to know that they count that their opinions matter that there beliefs will be respected. The Vote is the final stage and guarantor.

    Roy puts the argument simply and eloquently. If more Manipuris learnt to verbalize that way yes they’d listen.

    I see no benefit for Manipuris for on going widespread violence in Manipur. If I want to fight someone who is in my home I ask him outside. It would be a better more sane option not to use violence at all. There is no profit in it except for criminals. But if it needs to be done take it outside. The troubles in northern Ireland lasted twenty years and when the violence shifted from Belfast to Manchester and London, when the violence came to the mainland then peace followed soon enough. But then again when the Chechyns tried that the Russians perpetrated genocide and there is nothing left of the Chechyns in the follow up they killed even the widows and orphans. Is India more like Britain or Russia.

    If you had tried democratic means and failed then violence as a last resort was how the Americans secured their democracy. But as you say you have not been able to explain democracy to ordinary Manipuris. Most Indians are the same. The problem is persuasion and education take time and not everyone will agree with you no matter how passionate you may be about your beliefs. Violence is an easy option for the incompetent ignorant bully Indian or Manipuri.

    If you believe an option is to dialogue with more democratic Indian MPs, and political thinkers then you are going to have to learn and teach other Manipuris the language of democracy. And no that’s not easy. You meet with people listen to what they want, and it may be completely different from what you had hoped wanted and expected and you work with them for them for their beliefs whatever consensus emerges. That’s what a politician is supposed to do. If you are unable to do that in a small group. If you need your opinion belief to count and others not to, and you believe that you act in their best interests, then there is no point trying to court democrats in India because you sound like any other self serving Indian politician

    People you love can be stubborn and frustrating. Tell me about it. If you love Manipur then is she not worth the effort.

  6. i accept your suggestion… mafia contractors for feudals…. i wasn’t selling to the west or East … but yes you are right…. but if we awake the sleeping dragon… we cannot compare Manipur with Tibet…. simple images and better catchphrases as you put it…..will do… and their geopolitical thinking will accommodate Manipur…having said this… would not it be more productive if we argue with better sensed Indian… that their national interest would be better served by having a sovereign Manipur …..like Bhutan is to them? instead of spending huge some of money only to fuel more anti-Indianism and finance freedom movement?
    i say this because of late… it seems some Indians (including present MPs) have become matured in their nationalistic thinking and know that this undemocratic methods is not in their own national interest…. many supported when…..Arundhati Roy “not wanting people to be killed, raped, imprisoned or have their fingernails pulled out in order to force them to say they are Indians”….. do you think this can be an option….?

  7. One way I try to expose the undemocratic nature of Indian rule is to try to equate Manipur with Tibet. You are arguing that we try to unmask the undemocratic nature of the so called largest. We need simple images and better catchphrases. Manipur is India’s Tibet. Sharmila is India’s Suu Kyi.

    China is a valuable ally in this. When Sharmila is free I will happily discuss the differences between Gutenberg and Chinese Block printing with you but today here and now the sleeping dragon needs to be motivated. It still doesn’t understand the power of the print. Instead of asking India not to attend prize ceremonies for Human Rights and Peace Activist, China should be humiliating India over its continued imprisonment of Irom Sharmila without trial. It should demand that India repeal AF(SP)A. China is a more legitimate protector of the people of the north east. They should rise to fulfill their claimed responsibilities.

    They also need to update their rhetoric. I understand what is meant by saying that AF(SP)A is a tool of the running dogs of capitalist oppression and anti-bolshevik forces but if ordinary people don’t understand vote then how is that helping anyone. And talk like that pisses of the Yanks. You claim that the police in India never hassle the wealthy and harass the poor. That’s pretty well accepted in the West, may I suggest you change the rhetoric to suit your audience. Ruling feudals won’t play in the West. Communication is what is received. Slum Landlords, Mafia contractors, gangsters do these terms not better describe the same people. Don’t they teach you to play chess in Manipur. I am not asking anyone to like America. If you love Manipur and want her free then learn to fight more effectively.

    I have little access to China, Burma, North Korea or even Russia. I can send an email or letter to their embassies but no real access. If there were Manipuris who did have better access that would be one way of taking action.

    Do you want real change or is it more important to keep old fashioned rhetoric? Perhaps look to the ten questions posed by the AHRC. Watch the content and learn. What they like in the West are facts not tendentious argument and not emotional propaganda. The ten questions doesn’t just talk about bribes but offers evidence of specific about set amounts. The current bribe required to be a trainee superintendant. The beauty about capitalism is money always leaves a trail and these people are lazy because no one has called them to account. If you are serious about unmasking the undemocratic that is a way to do it that plays in the West.

    I am not saying that scientific method, historic-critical methodology are the only way. If you want to unmask India in the West that is the way.

    Now I suspect that if you wish to do the same for Easterners, for regimes like China and my enemy’s enemy is my friend, I am not judging I am trying to get Sharmila free. There is a different approach. Communist regimes tend to be influenced by simple chants, they don’t want facts or figures, if you can get the policy to sound like something from Party HQ then it gains influence. But you need to know the party rhetoric.

    There is also the whole untapped regions of the New South.

    I hope you are clever enough to change your style of speaking depending on your audience. Be all things to all men in all ways that some may be convinced.

    And maybe one option, and how can it hurt brother. Every day teach one Manipuri what the word Vote means.

  8. mr DC
    AFSPA has nothing to do with insurgency as such..
    …… it is the cause they are fighting for and the people of manipur that they are afraid of…..
    some 5000 rebels against 50,000 plus Indian Security Forces is grossly mismatched
    so this heavy militarisation… ( in every hill overlooking the valley and at every 2-3 kms there is ISF )… shows that they are afraid the people will rise against them…. sooner or latter… and AFESPA is to enable them …as it has always been … to brutally repress any uprising and demand for freedom by the masses….
    As for the rebels … the local police is doing a better job …to protect the law and order of the ruling dogs….
    Had they been for upholding law and order … we would not have to bribe them for registering an FIR or any report…. they would not be breaking the law themselves by extorting money from the public while frisking or otherwise… therefore they are solely for the purpose of protecting the ruling feudals of manipur backed by Delhi……
    …those elected by buying votes are not representatives…. so are the people to blame? No… Democracy is explained in a language alien to the people …. not every1 understand the meaning of election which is known as “Vote” in manipur….
    so we need to unmask the undemocratic nature of the so called largest Democracy of the world….

  9. No one has worked in Manipur for many years, Manipur isn’t working. The AF(SP)A provides special powers to the army and paramilitaries who apparently in Indian get to choose where they wish to be deployed. These special powers prevent them from being investigated arrested prosecuted what we term in a democracy, suspend the rule of law and replace it with the law of the jungle.

    I may be wrong I often am so what job have you been doing in Manipur that requires army officers and paramilitaries never to be investigated prosecuted for gang rape murder extortion. How in your opinion does enforcing the rule of law for trained soldiers assist UGs. Repeal AF(SP)A I will stand with Irom Sharmila against men of violence and show you how it is done.

    You have a choice in the elections that are coming. To ask the government for more of the same, more violence, completely abrogate the rule of law, or vote them out on a single issue. Einstein argued that it is insanity to repeat the same behaviour and expect a different result.

    First be honest about development and investment and tourism and allt the other doublespeak from the ministry of newspeak in Manipur

    There is no investment. There is no work. If a stock market were introduced today into Manipur it would trade on Government Jobs, with a subprime market in the office of Police Enforcement. A policeman has an office not a job but in Manipur these are bought and sold like common commodities. And soon they will be seen for the worthless pieces of paper that they are, not a guarantee of security through corruption to benefit the entire family for a lifetime.

    Is this the future you want for yourselves and your children. There is a war raging in Manipur but it is not with UGs or the Indian Army or Global Warming it is in the heart and soul of Manipuris for the heart and soul of Manipur. And who is a true Manipuri, a man who buys into corruption stands silent while he watches his motherland turned into a latrine, a man who cares nothing for his country but seeks only the short term illusory protection of a corruptly bought government position or a uniform to regulate the increase in corruption. Manipur belongs to those who love her.

    She has given ten years of her life, she has sacrificed her body for people like you because you were too cowardly and too fearful to fight for yourselves. You want wealth, you want security, perhaps you even want justice but think these things can be bought and sold with the flick of an auctioneer’s hammer. Repeal AF(SP)A. And if you are so confident that the forces of cynicism greed and hatred will always triumph, then bring it back when we lie dead. Manipur will be enriched by our blood. Someone like us will come. Someone like us will fight for the things that other Manipuris all desire but are too weak and cowardly to struggle for on their own.

    All we are saying is give us a chance.

    • Dear Kisholay,

      Assuming that you have worked in Manipur and Nagaland, can you share those experience which makes you think AFSPA is needed?

      It’d even be more shameful if you say you are in defense service and need that act to keep you alive. AFSPA is not a field-related strategy meaning it will not save your ass in the war-zone even if you write AFSPA in 100 size bold font on your chest or forehead. (but a RED CROSS might). If at all AFSPA is put up to curb insurgency, it failed… long time back. That mindset of yours is a symptom of cowardice.

      You need AFSPA because you like to cover your ass for the mess you make after a gun-fight. You want to torture a harmless civilians knowing very well that it ain’t going to help or give you any useful information BUT TO SEND A MESSAGE TO THE CONCERNED PEOPLE THAT IF YOU ARE ATTACKED, YOUR INNOCENT BROTHERS/SISTERS WILL MEET THE SAME FATE.

      come here i will be more than willing to help you lead a normal, beautiful life… Let me take the trouble to rehabilitate you 🙂

      http://www.manipurtalks.com where Manipur is beautiful once again..!!

  10. Diplomatic language is neurotic. What is the difference between accommodative and seemingly acommodative, I guess it’s similar to the difference between High Treason and what he describes as the obduracy of India’s Armed Forces.

    He argues that repeal of AF(SP)A is a fight over symbols. There is nothing else on offer for now apart from symbols. So a law providing absolute immunity for military personnel does of itself restore law and order. It does feed hatred for occupying forces. Indian police lack accountability in Manipur and elsewhere, they could continue the policy of withdrawing it from Manipur area by area and the final carrot they could always reinstitute it for the whole of Manipur at any time even though the piece argues its ineffective in law and order, this is added to appease the Military.

    Two things of interest, the writer claims no one can expect to antagonize a man in olive green, and Irom Sharmila’s protest has weakened the resolve of those who believe in peaceful protest.

    Gandhi argued that satyagraha is not for cowards, if you unwilling to stand up to men in olive green, as Bapu-ji did then you have not tried peaceful non-violent protest, there is nothing passive about it. As for weakening the resolve. The only reason Manipur is known outside of India is because of the satyagraha of and there’s no point in calling her India’s mahatma, she’d just raise her eyes and sigh, but the only reason Manipur is talked about outside of India is because of her satyagraha.

    Some demand that she be given the Nobel Peace prize. A more reasonable demand is to repeal AF(SP)A release her back into Manipur a free woman and then if she contributes to peace reconciliation a better juster gentler kindlier Manipur then offer her the Nobel Peace Prize. it is time for Indian politicians and Indian Army officers to step out of the way. They have brought murder and rapine to Manipur for over fifty years.

    She is not afraid to die for her beliefs and I am not afraid to die for her. If you need people to show you how to antagonize men in Olive Green, we shall be happy to oblige you. I’ll put flowers in their rifle muzzles and she will give them the dressing down of their lives. If you are not afraid to die then it’s not that hard to stand up to men who swore to protect their land from all enemies foreign and domestic to fight for those who were unwilling or unable to fight for themselves, no matter how fashionably dressed they may be.

    I don’t mock cowards, I know what fear is, I am just saying she believes that existence is paramount and I believe in her. Give us a chance. Repeal AF(SP)A and set her free.


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