By accepting that Irom Sharmila Chanu was agitating for “a political demand through a lawful means for repealing a valid statute”, an Imphal Sessions court has driven a dagger through the farce that the government has been playing for the past 14 years. In arresting and then charging Sharmila with attempting to commit suicide, the State has for long been in denial of her heroic struggle to get the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) repealed in Manipur. The strategy of pinning down and shaming a renowned international human rights activist with a heavily contested section of the Indian Penal Code(IPC) is tenable no longer with the court’s categorical assertion that Sharmila was not attempting suicide. This attempt at depoliticising Sharmila’s struggle and wearing her out physically and mentally is also reminiscent of the charges of sedition that are routinely imposed on activists and intellectuals who espouse political beliefs which conflict with establishment narratives.
That Sharmila has triumphed in this battle of attrition, where the political morality of the State has repeatedly been called into question, should merit a change of approach from the new dispensation in Delhi. The sagacity displayed by the Sessions court which noted that “from her past conduct, it seems that she may continue with the fast till her demand is met politically by the government” must be accepted. This should serve to dissuade the government from appealing against this judgment in the Guwahati high court and instead pursue political steps to exhort Sharmila to call off her strike that has taken a heavy toll on her health. Unfortunately, the government is no more closer to repealing AFSPA than it was in 2000 when Sharmila began her hunger strike in response to the killing of ten civilians at Malom near Imphal, allegedly by paramilitary forces. This is despite the Supreme Court-appointed Santosh Hegde panel reporting in July 2013 that the Act had failed to tackle insurgency even as gross human rights violations were happening under its cover. In September 2012, the Extrajudicial Execution Victims Families’ Association along with Human Rights Alert had approached the Supreme Court with a list of 1,528 cases of killings in Manipur since 1979.
It is rather cruel irony that the two laws that Sharmila finds ranged against her have their origins from the colonial era. AFSPA draws its sustenance from Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code that mandates government sanction before public servants accused of offences in the discharge of their duty can be prosecuted. Rather than see them as victims of circumstances who need counselling, Section 309 of the IPC, by criminalising attempted suicide, is but a patriarchal and antiquated approach of the State to a social problem. By choosing to apply this provision to Sharmila’s non-violent Gandhian protest, the government was obviously stretching a suspect law to its incredulous limits.
That it has taken 14 years for a court of this land to see through this moral and legal infirmity in Sharmila’s case is also a pointer to the endless wait for a judicial intervention on repealing AFSPA. For all the Army’s claims that AFSPA is effective in helping maintain peace, it was political negotiations rather than any Army action that helped lift the 121-day Naga blockade of Manipur. Sharmila’s release is a timely reminder to the Modi government to review AFSPA and its provisions sparing armed forces from prosecution.