Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sharmila’s date with AFSPA

The timing is right and so are the circumstances. The debate over the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act is not something new and it has been there since the late 70s or early 80s, when the Naga People's Movement for Human Rights filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India challenging the validity or legality of the said Act. The Court ruled in favour of the said Act, but in the process it laid down a certain set of dos and don'ts for the security personnel, who operate under the legal protection provided by this Act. At the moment, the debate over the continued imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has reached a crescendo, with the focus on the unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, which has so far claimed the lives of nearly 70 or more civilians in the last 60 days or so. Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has already made his position clear and that is AFSPA needs to be repealed as it has only succeeded in alienating the people of Kashmir further. This point has also been brought to the notice of the Centre numerous times, by several human rights groups from the North East and perhaps, the year 2004 will go down as a water shed in the protest against the continued imposition of the said Act. The nude protest by women folk in front of Kangla, the self immolation of Pebam Chittaranjan, the over two months long agitation which ultimately led Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh to fly down to Imphal in November , 2004 wherein the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission was constituted to look into the finer details of the said Act and see what can be done. As things have turned out, the Centre has been sleeping over the recommendations of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, but the significance of the Prime Minister's observation that a humane Act is needed, cannot be lost on anyone, especially the policy framers of the country as well as the military establishment. At that point of time, in 2004, Kashmir did not figure prominently in the debate, but today, the focus on the said Act, which is a remnant of the British Raj, has come into focus following the turmoil in Kashmir for more than two months, which has seen teenagers coming out on the streets to engage the security personnel in a battle of stone pelting or catapult war. There is something different in the present turmoil, for the security forces are not engaged by any armed or banned organisations, but by the ordinary folks, mostly comprising of young people, some of whom must have just stepped into their teens. With the body bags increasing, it took Union Home Minister P Chidambaram to admit that proposals to amend the said Act, which gives sweeping powers to the military, have met with stiff opposition from some quarters and we do not need rocket science technology to work out who are the ones opposing any move to dilute the said Act and make it more humane or make the security forces more accountable to the law of the land. The fact that the Supreme Court deemed it necessary to issue a certain set of guidelines or dos and don'ts to the security forces, operating under this Act, is a tacit acceptance of the fact that the said Act contains provisions for misuse of power, that do nothing except victimise the people.
While AFSPA has come to occupy centre stage in Delhi and elsewhere due to the turmoil in Kashmir, in Manipur too, this Act has resurfaced to occupy precious newspapers columns for two entirely different reasons. Wittingly or unwittingly, it was Chief Minister O Ibobi who raked up the AFSPA issue while addressing the people while paying tributes to late Major Laishram Jyotin, who died fighting terrorists, who had stormed the Indian Embassy at Kabul in the early part of this year. Perhaps it was over enthusiasm or perhaps it was the failure to grasp the heart beats of the people, or perhaps it was a deliberate attempt to add more punch to the questions posed against the numerous women activists, who have been crying hoarse about human rights violations, but have been keeping a deafening silence, over the increasing cases of bomb attacks and violence in Imphal area. Whatever the case, Chief Minister O Ibobi managed to rake up the AFSPA issue, when he opted for the carrot and stick policy, by hinting or subtly threatening that AFSPA may be re-imposed in the seven Assembly segments of the Indian Municipal Council, if things do not improve. That the carrot and stick policy no longer impresses an adult audience, seems to have blown over the head of the Chief Minister, but in one stroke he has been able to bring the focus back on AFSPA, while this issue is being hotly debated in other parts of the country, following the unprecedented public turmoil in Kashmir. On a more sombre but dignified manner, this said Act has come back to the consciousness of the people of Manipur, as Irom Sharmila Chanu is set to complete ten years of hunger strike, demanding the total revocation of the said Act. The lone crusader has in the last ten years or so, demonstrated to the whole world, how an issue can be kept alive or a target pursued by steering clear of threatrics and indulging in lung power or street politics, where everything is noise and din with little substance. It has been a dignified and silent protest, far removed from the type of protests that we have seen in this part of the world. So in Kashmir, it is the turmoil during the last 60 days or so of public protest, while in Manipur, it was the ‘slip of the tongue’ of the Chief Minister and the dignified and silent protest launched by Sharmila which have brought the said controversial Act into the consciousness of the people. The important and critical question lying before us, as former Health Director Dr Th Suresh pointed out in a letter to the Editor and published some days back in this newspaper is, what would be the fate of Sharmila, if everyone accepts some cuts and amendments in AFSPA instead of its total repeal ? The answer can only be provided by Sharmila herself, but let's also not forget that constructive counselling is important and that she has done more than what all the other champions of human rights have done till date.

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