Every Indian city has a road named after Mahatma Gandhi, each presenting in its own way a mocking thumbs-down to the Mahatma’s legacy. The M.G. Road of my home town, Bangalore, is a celebration of consumerism, with its array of shop-windows advertising the most expensive goods in India. In other cities, government offices are housed on their M.G. Road, where work — or laze — politicians and officials consumed by power and corruption.
The Mahatma stood, among other things, for non-possession, integrity and non-violence. The M.G. Road of Imphal chooses to violate the last tenet, demanding that citizens negotiate pickets of heavily armed jawans every few metres. When I visited Manipur last year, I was staying at a lodge on M.G. Road, from where I watched a boy aged not more than ten clasp the hand of his even littler sister as he walked her past the pickets on their way to school. He was terribly tense, as the urgency by which he guided his sibling along the barricades made manifest. Back in Bangalore, for my own son and his younger sister the everyday act of going to school has been wholly relaxed, and mostly enjoyable — and yet, in this other state of our shared Union, it was fraught with fear.
Exactly five years ago, in November 2004, the Prime Minister visited Manipur. He had come in response to a massive popular protest against army excesses, among them the brutalisation of women. After meeting a cross-section of the population he agreed to vacate the historic Kangla Fort of armed detachments, and to ‘sympathetically consider’ the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), under which the security forces are given wide powers to arrest without warrant and to shoot without provocation.
The opposition to the AFSPA in Manipur is near-unanimous. However, by the nature and duration of her protest one individual has made her opposition distinctive. This is Irom Sharmila, a young woman who in November 2001 began an indefinite fast for the repeal of the Act. (The immediate provocation was the killing, by the Assam Rifles, of ten bystanders at a village bus-stop.) Arrested for ‘attempted suicide’, she continues her fast in her hospital-cum-jail, where she does yoga, and reads religious texts, political memoirs, and folk-tales. As her biographer Deepti Priya Mehrotra points out, while the law accuses her of fasting-unto-death, Sharmila is better seen as ‘fasting unto life, to remove a brutal law that allows the murder of innocent people’.
On his return to New Delhi from Manipur, the PM set up a committee to report on whether the AFSPA should be scrapped. Headed by a respected former judge of the Supreme Court, the committee’s members included a highly decorated general and a very knowledgeable journalist. The committee’s report is based on visits to several states, and conversations with a wide spectrum of public opinion. It makes for fascinating reading. The entire text is up on the Web; here, however, a few excerpts must suffice.
The committee found that ‘the dominant view-point expressed by a large number of organisations/individuals was that the Act is undemocratic, harsh and discriminatory. It is applicable only to the North-eastern states and, therefore, discriminates against the people of the region. Under the protection provided by the Act, several illegal killings, torture, molestations, rapes and extortions have taken place particularly since the Act does not provide for or create a machinery which provides protection against the excesses committed by armed forces/paramilitary forces… The Act should, therefore, be repealed.’
The committee agreed, recommending that AFSPA be taken off the statute books. It noted that with the insertion of suitable provisions in the existing Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (ULP), the security needs of the state would be served without impinging on the human rights of its citizens. The ULP Act, it pointed out, permitted swift deployment of the army to combat terrorism, while simultaneously ensuring that those arrested would be handed over to the police and provided legal protection.
In making its recommendations, the committee also offered this astute assessment of the popular discontent in the state: ‘[A]gitations such as those in Manipur and elsewhere are merely the symptoms of a malaise, which goes much deeper. The recurring phenomena of one agitation after another over various issues and the fact that public sentiments can be roused so easily and frequently to unleash unrest, confrontation and violence also points to deep-rooted causes which are often not addressed. Unless the core issues are tackled, any issue or non-issue may continue to trigger another upsurge or
When I was in Imphal, I was driven to the Kangla Fort by a respected professor of economics. As he took me through the various shrines and memorials, he wondered when — or if — the PM would match the removal of the Assam Rifles from Kangla with a repeal of the AFSPA. Only that, he felt, would signal that the Government of India treated the residents of Manipur as full and equal citizens. As the professor put it, ‘if you love a people, do so wholly — not half-heartedly’.
The AFSPA was first enacted in parts of Manipur in 1960. Even from a narrow security point of view it does not seem to have worked, for the discontent and the violence have only escalated in the decades it has been in operation. It is past time that it is done away with. A generous deadline for its repeal might be November 2010 — before the 10th anniversary of Irom Sharmila’s fast, which, as matters presently stand, may be the only thing Gandhian about the whole state of Manipur.
Ramachandra Guha is a historian and the author of India After Gandhi
The views expressed by the author are personal