AFSPA – Kashmir, Manipur and a little discrimination
On the 11th of September 1958, the Parliament of India passed an Act that conferred special powers upon armed forces in what was described as "Disturbed Areas". These "disturbed" areas primarily included the north eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. According to this Act, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), an officer had the legitimate power in any area declared as "disturbed", fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law against “assembly of five or more persons" or possession of deadly weapons. To arrest without a warrant and with the use of "necessary" force anyone who has committed certain offenses or is suspected of having done so to enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests.
In simpler terms, the folks that were hired for the defense of the nation were given ‘James Bond’ like powers – ‘License to Kill’. The Act was later extended to the conflicted Jammu and Kashmir. Although the Act was initiated with the intention of curbing armed insurgency or terrorism, the collateral damage has been anything but obvious. Soon, unarmed civilians began to bear the brunt of it with the surfacing of cases like harassments, abuse, rape and fake encounters.
The Act has been employed in the Indian administrated state of Jammu and Kashmir since 1990.The Kashmir Valley which has had a history of conflict witnessed ten thousand more troops were deployed in an already highly militarized region, curfews were imposed, and several protesters were killed (AP) by the security forces. Ever since it has been a saga of protests and violence in the scenic valley.In June 2010 alone, Kashmir witnessed more than 15 deaths all of them caused by Indian security forces firing upon the protesting crowds. These crowds were comprised largely of teenagers pelting stones at the security forces especially in and around areas of old Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. The list of the dead included minors, the youngest being just nine year old. The catastrophic cycle of death started when security forces, purportedly in self-defense, opened fire on these teenagers claiming that pelting of stones caused grave danger to their lives. The first death caused by the security forces led to large scale protests by the common citizenry when the security forces fired again killing more people and inciting more protests as a consequence. Violent protests and stone pelting continued until the Central Government was compelled to open it eyes and ears. By mid September, a little smoke rose in the air about the Cabinet Committee's Eid package.
In a similar saga, a journalist and social activist from the picturesque land of Manipur, Irom Chanu Sharmila, launched a peace campaign- fast unto death. It started with an ill fated day of November, 2000, when ten innocent people were gunned down at a bus station in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley of Manipur A huge admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, she decided to follow the footsteps. The deceased included a 62 year old woman Leisangbam Ibetomi, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. The incident which later came to be known as the "Malom Massacre" was driven by the Assam Rifles and the state was unable to investigate the issue or run an investigation on them, thanks to AFSPA.
Sharmila, an ardent admirer of Mahatma Gandhi took the high road and started her hunger strike in protest of these undemocratic atrocities launched on the 4th of November. She was shortly arrested by the police and charged with “attempt to commit suicide”.Despite her protests, she has been forced on nasal feeding. The single most determined objective of her protest then was the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 from the state of Manipur. However, over the last nine years, she has extended the scope of her demand to all regions of India's north east where AFSPA has been imposed.
On October 6, 2006 she escaped her confinement in Manipur and reached Delhi. After paying a floral tribute to her idol Mahatma Gandhi, she headed for Jantar Mantar for a protest demonstration.She was charged again with suicidal attempts and it has been an annual ritual of charging and arresting her for the same charge since then;but apart from the withdrawal of AFSPA from certain constituencies (n spite of the Central government not favoring withdrawal of the act) nothing much has happened.
Despite facing severe criticism from organizations like Human Rights Watch and The South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre, the AFSPA Act continues to reign full swing in the valley of Manipur.
The irony however arises from the very nature of these two protests. Here is a nation that won it's freedom struggle with Non-violence as it's weapon, here is a party that was formed based on Gandhian principles, but when it comes down seeking the attention of the “for the people” government run by the same political party, it was the pelting of stones that made a bigger noise and not the non-violent contest against the rulers of the state. Is there a valid excuse for such discrimination? Is it because of the age-old step motherly attitude towards North East India or the common man just needs to pick up and hurl the pen instead of writing with it?
Small Strokes by Subhadeep Bhattacharjee)
(Photograph taken from - http://www.e-pao.net/epRelatedNews.asp?heading=1&src=141006)