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Irom Chanu Sharmila: The Iron lady of Manipur

Irom Chanu Sharmila is fasting since 16 years against AFSPA

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Irom Chanu Sharmila, Wikimedia Commons
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By Pashchiema Bhatia

When Anna Hazare began his hunger strike, he became the centre of media attention and everybody was concerned about his life. He stimulated the whole nation to support his cause. A 42 year old lady of Manipur who is fasting since 2 November, 2000, is demanding to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Irom Sharmila, the Iron lady of Manipur, who has not drunk a single drop of water since November, 2000, never got the media coverage to this extent. Is she not a human? Then why nobody is concerned about her life? May be because she belongs to north-east, the part of India about which nobody is concerned.

AFSPA, 1958

Under this act, all the army men are provided with unrestrained powers to arrest or to shoot or to kill anyone just on the basis of mere suspicion that the person is acting against the state or might be linked to some terrorists groups. This act is applicable to the seven sister states of north-east (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) which has suffered insurgency, tribal-warfare including terrorism. A similar act is imposed in Jammu and Kashmir.

I respect the army men and I am obliged that they suffer for the purpose of our security. Officers deployed in Siachen suffer a lot but still they work.  But giving unrestrained powers to them is problematic.

Irom Chanu Shramila grew up in Manipur. She is a civil rights as well as political activist. She began a hunger strike on November, 2000, after the Malom Massacre, when 10 civilian were shot allegedly by the Assam Rifles, one of the Indian Paramilitary forces operating in the state.  Later the encounters were alleged to be fake and Manipur High Court ordered 5 lakhs compensation for each of the families of the 10 people who were killed. Irom said, “I was shocked to see the dead bodies. There was no means to stop further violations by the armed forces. Fast is the most effective way because it is based on a spiritual fight. My fast is on behalf of the people of Manipur. This is not a personal battle, it is symbolic. It is a symbol of truth, love and peace”. Irom has been forcibly kept alive by nasogastric tubation. She had been arrested several times on the charges of ‘attempt to suicide’ but since the maximum sentence cannot exceed one year she is released by the court after the completion of one year and is re-arrested on the same charges within 2-3 days of her release. Police justifies this by saying that they are concerned about her and they cannot see her die but arresting and re-arresting has been the only concern of the authorities.

On July 2004, Thangjam Manorama, a Manipuri woman was picked up from her home by Indian paramilitary unit on some uncertain allegations of being associated with People’s Liberation Army. Next day, her dead body was found and the post-mortem report revealed that she was raped. After the Nirbhaya case, the whole nation was criticising the culprits but the brutal rape case of Thangjam Manorama came to light only after the protests of Manipuri women standing naked in front of Assam Rifles Headquarters with banners proclaiming, ‘Come Indian Army, Rape Us’. Watch this video: @youtube video on protests in Manipur

When AFSPA was imposed, it was supposed to be a temporary law but now it’s been 60 years, it still persists. The aim of AFSPA was to bring normalcy but now it appears that AFSPA has changed the definition of normalcy. There are several cases of mysterious disappearances of people, fake encounters and rapes which are reported. I believe that if we want to know the relevance of an act we must inquire into the improvements which it has brought in. When AFSPA was imposed there were two insurgent groups and now there are at least 40 insurgent groups. Instead of being a solution it has probably encouraged more people to take up arms. The army won’t oppose it as it provides unrestrained powers to them and thinking about the State government, AFSPA attracts funds from the Centre. It’s an escape route for the Centre to hide administrative failures in these areas.

I agree that some relevant police force must be there to tackle the insurgency but there should be some control over the uncontrolled powers given to the army. The government must ensure that no one is misusing the powers. Either a new act should replace AFSPA and come into being or it should be revoked because it is violating the human rights.

In the era of rising intolerance, it is Irom Sharmila who still has faith in peace and democracy. She says that she wants to eat rice from her mother’s hand after the withdrawal of AFSPA. She is a living legend of non-violence and history will remember her.

Pashchiema is an intern at NewsGram and a student of journalism and mass communication in New Delhi. Twitter: @pashchiema5

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  • Akanksha Sharma

    This is really sad, I never knew this side of AFSPA. Government should take action against it.

    • Pashchiema Bhatia

      Hardly anyone knows.. Acc to a survey, more than 80% of the north-easterns face some sort of discrimination in Metropolitan cities.. They are beaten up and humiliated. When Indian students were facing discrimination in Australia then all Indians were criticising but when Indians are beaten up in India then our Indian media is busy in covering bollywood stuff..

  • Akanksha Sharma

    This is really sad, I didn’t know this side of AFSPA

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  • Akanksha Sharma

    This is really sad, I never knew this side of AFSPA. Government should take action against it.

    • Pashchiema Bhatia

      Hardly anyone knows.. Acc to a survey, more than 80% of the north-easterns face some sort of discrimination in Metropolitan cities.. They are beaten up and humiliated. When Indian students were facing discrimination in Australia then all Indians were criticising but when Indians are beaten up in India then our Indian media is busy in covering bollywood stuff..

  • Akanksha Sharma

    This is really sad, I didn’t know this side of AFSPA

Next Story

Here’s How Strict India’s Citizenship Test Can Really Be

To be recognized as Indian citizens, all residents of Assam have had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in the country before March 24, 1971.

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Indian Citizenship
In India's Citizenship Test, a Spelling Error Can Ruin a Family. VOA

Riyazul Islam says he had to produce family documents going back to 1951 to prove he was of India and not an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant. But a draft list of citizens released in July excluded him and his mother, among a total of about 4 million people left off.

A wiry 33-year-old living in the northeastern state of Assam, Islam says he and his mother have no further documents left to prove they are Indians, although his father and many others in his family have been included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

“If my father is an Indian citizen how come I am not?” said Islam in an interview in the small Assam town of Dhubri, close to the border with Muslim-majority Bangladesh. “What more proof do they need?”

Anguish like this is now commonplace in Assam, where the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi accelerated work on the citizen’s list after coming to power in the state two years ago, promising to act against immigrants accused of stealing jobs and resources from locals.

The government has not given details of the four million excluded from the list. But most are believed to be minority Bengali-speaking Muslims living in the state, which has a total population of 33 million, mostly Assamese-speaking Hindus.

Many of those excluded are illiterate and poor, and some are victims of a spelling error in their names or a mistake in their age in documents offered for proof of citizenship, according to a review of their documents by Reuters.

Opposition parties say Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is denying citizenship to Muslims through the Assam list, and demonstrating its Hindu nationalist credentials with an eye on a general election due by May.

The BJP’s Assam spokesman, Bijan Mahajan said there was no religion-based motive behind the citizenship drive.

“(This is) being opposed for political mileage whereas at ground zero there is absolutely no tension,” he said.

However, Arun Jaitley, one of Modi’s senior-most cabinet colleagues, said in a Facebook post this month that the NRC was necessary because the growth in the Hindu population of Assam had been overtaken by that of Muslims.

Ethnic Assamese have been agitating against outsiders in the state for decades. In 1983, about 2,000 people were chased down and killed by machete-armed mobs intent on hounding out Muslim immigrants. It has not been clearly established which group was behind the carnage.

India n Passport
The government has not given details of the four million excluded from the list. Flickr

The Assam NRC draft has excluded many Hindus too, but last weekend BJP chief Amit Shah assured citizenship to all non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan by framing a new law.

It is not clear what will happen to those excluded from the final list of citizens, due to be published by the end of the year. But lawyers say they may end up in detention camps, or at the very least be denied citizenship rights and government subsidies.

They could also be struck off voter rolls, which will be an important factor in at least half a dozen Assam constituencies in a general election.

Spelling Errors

In Dhubri, a farming town on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra River upstream from the Bangladesh border, those who did not make it to the list were fearful of discussing it in public.

But inside their homes, several of those excluded showed a Reuters reporter tattered pieces of paper, including birth, school and marriage certificates dating back years and preserved carefully in plastic envelopes.

Such government-issued documents in the countryside often contain spelling or numerical errors, as the illiterate depend on others to write down details. Getting birth certificates made was also not common until recent years in many parts of the country.

Such mistakes can lead to loss of citizenship, said Aman Wadud, a lawyer who has handled dozens of cases of illegal immigration at Assam’s foreigner tribunals.

“With Muslims, there is a problem of title (surnames),” said Wadud. “Because most of the accused are illiterate they don’t use a constant title. Ali, Ahmed, Hussain are used interchangeably.”

He showed Reuters a tribunal judgment on a resident named Tajab Ali, who submitted a series of voters lists as proof of his citizenship going back to 1966. He said his name had been wrongly recorded as Tajap Ali instead of Tajab Ali in the 1985 voters list, and his father’s name wrongly recorded as Surman Ali Munshi instead of Surman Ali. There were also discrepancies in his age.

The tribunal said Ali submitted an affidavit “declaring various names of himself, his projected father, and mother. But an affidavit being only a self-declaration, it has no evidentiary value.”

Sajida Bibi, Islam’s mother, also fell victim to a wrongly entered name.

One of the documents she submitted to prove citizenship and shown to Reuters by the family, was an affidavit saying her name had been wrongly recorded as “Sabahan Bibi” in the 1951 citizenship registry, the first one drawn up in the state after India’s independence in 1947. The affidavit also said she was named as “Sahajadi Begum” in her school certificate, and that she changed her name to “Sajida Bibi” from “Sajida Begum” after her marriage.

She swore in the affidavit that all three were the same person here. The tribunal did not accept the affidavit.

Reuters reviewed copies of at least two other recent tribunal judgements in which people had been declared foreigners because of name and age-related errors and in which affidavits were not accepted.

“Not Against Muslims”

Much of the over 2,500-mile-long border between India and Bangladesh is porous, through which hundreds of thousands of people fled from Bangladesh during its India-backed war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

India Citizenship
A man, whose name is left off of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) draft, stands in a line to collect forms to file appeals at an NRC Sewa Kendra (NSK) in Guwahati. VOA

To be recognized as Indian citizens, all residents of Assam have had to produce documents proving that they or their families lived in the country before March 24, 1971.

New Delhi said in 2016 that around 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants were living in India. Activists who filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2009 to expel such immigrants alleged over 4 million of them had been included in Assam’s 2006 voter list.

Also Read: High Cholesterol Level Increased Risk of Death, Even In Healthy People

“For 38 years, we’ve been fighting to protect the language, culture and identity of our indigenous people in our own motherland,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, an adviser to the All Assam Students Union (AASU), an organization that has spearheaded the campaign against illegal immigrants.

But Bhattacharya said the NRC was not biased against any community.

“It’s not against Muslims, it is not against Hindus, it is not against Bengalis,” Bhattacharya said. “It’s against illegal Bangladeshis. It is a question of citizens and non-citizens.” (VOA)