Aug. 9, 2016 marked a significant day in democratic India’s history, when Irom Sharmila, a woman activist from the northeastern state of Manipur ended her 16- year-old hunger strike against the controversial and draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that the Indian state has used liberally to hold on to provinces — loosely connected to the Union — facing secessionism.
Sharmila’s decision to opt for electoral politics after abandoning the world’s longest non-violent resistance, initiated to protest the brutal killing of 10 innocent civilian bystanders by India’s trigger-happy military, may be music to all nationalist Indians’ ears, but it does raise a very thought-provoking question, which is extremely uncomfortable too for any honest democrat.
Why is it that this extraordinarily non-violent struggle, which began with a vow to continue till the brutal martial law was repealed, has proved to be ineffective in front of repressive state machinery that has dug its heels in Kashmir and elsewhere, where their authority has been challenged? After all, this is the land of Mahatma Gandhi, who resisted injustice without showing hatred toward the perpetrators.
Did, India’s leadership, always falling back on Gandhi to wriggle out of critical crisis, actually encouraged state-sponsored violence discreetly, by refusing to discontinue with a provision that has only brought endless miseries to its own people? As a senior Indian security official once confessed to this writer, AFSPA has been a liability for the Indian state even from a security point of view. And how correct the gentleman was can be gauged from the fact that wherever this law, with special provisions to curtail individual rights, was put into use there has been a proliferation of militant armed groups.
During AFSPA’s enforcement in 1958, on an experimental basis, to tackle violent insurrections in India’s volatile northeast, there was only one terror outfit in the region. Today, instead of keeping the underground secessionist movements in check, AFSPA has ended up granting certain legitimacy to the anti-India resistance movements. Surely, by not engaging with Sharmila, who survived on state-forced nasal feeding in solitary confinement for years together, on her just demands, New Delhi has effectively proved that India has not only disowned Gandhi’s legacy but also incentivized armed resistance in territories, peripheral to national politics and without sizable representation in parliament.
Indeed, as Nelson Mandela once said, there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon, and Satyagraha (Gandhi’s passive political resistance) has been converted into a useless tool by his own country. The hardest thing to do in life is to confront brutality without being brutal and decades ago a frail-bodied man from India had shown the world by example how to fight a difficult battle without losing one’s own morality. Unfortunately, the ineffectiveness of Sharmila’s non-violent method of registering protest against usurpation of constitutional rights and dignity of fellow Manipuri citizens, by Indian security agencies will only draw disenchanted youths to rebellion or defiance of the establishment in a region where conflict and violence has been perennial problems.
Besides, festering identity crisis, in places like the northeastern theatre and Kashmir should be resolved politically because the forms of conflict here are multi-dimensional in nature. India as a nation should realize that the image of a gun-totting country ruthlessly violating citizens’ dignity does not bode well for any functional democracy, which is thriving as well. The nation need to ask its conscience as to why an independent republic requires the might of the military, which itself has committed grave human rights violations in addition to staging thousands of fake encounters over the past decades in areas declared disturbed, to police some citizens?
If accession of the princely state of Manipur into the Indian Union was a festering sore, Sharmila’s Gandhian protest embarrassed the Indian government in no less extent. And, New Delhi wasted no time in enforcing the cardinal principles of Chanakya, the great Indian philosopher statesman-cum-policy adviser, to manipulate the resilient rights activist by exploiting her personal secrets and weaknesses. A unique blend of time-tested carrots and sticks, which included nurturing the iron lady’s basic instincts through a strategic agent of British-Goan descent paid dividend ultimately. But, in the process, the Indian state exposed itself badly.
The one question — of who actually rules India — that tormented every sane Indian’s mind has been addressed finally. It was indeed the greatest mystery as to why successive Indian governments, elected through universal suffrage, stumbled when it came to the issue of withdrawing AFSPA, a law that is based on a pre-independent colonial decree, promulgated in 1942, in response to Gandhi’s Quit India campaign. And eventually, former Home Minister P. Chidambaram took it upon himself to spill the beans on something that many knew already, but there was no official confirmation — that “the government cannot move an inch in making AFSPA more humane because the army does not want it diluted, leave alone repealed.”
So, why is India’s military extremely adamant on continuing with a legal provision that has provided protection to criminals in uniform, accused of committing all sorts of inhuman acts, including rape? What is the rationale behind making AFSPA an inevitable destiny in India’s peripheries, notwithstanding the recommendations of three high-powered government panels to do away with the draconian law?
Surely, there is no point in victimizing people who due to genetic affinity felt closer to Southeast Asian nations, with whom their now economically captive homeland had flourishing trade ties historically.