“AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) plays the role of a violent instrument and it is horrible that it still exists, ignoring the sentiments of the population. We are trying to be one nation, speak like one nation under one democracy with uniform rights and degree of struggle”, said Irom Sharmila, the “Iron Lady” who began her 16- year long hunger strike in November, 2000 against AFSPA in the Northeast. She ended it on August 9, 2016.

“With differential treatment given to the population under AFSPA, it tarnishes the image of a democracy, denying rights”, Sharmila said.

Talking to The Citizen after the removal of the Act from Meghalaya and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Irom Sharmila said “The act gives way to the army to commit crimes against humanity. They cannot be prosecuted because of the immunity given to them. Mainly in Manipur, thousands of victims still await justice”.

Talking about the need to repeal the Act in Manipur as well, Irom who is also known as “Mengoubi”, called for the need in a democracy to address the injustices that have taken place in these decades. She further added, “Removal of AFSPA(Armed Forces Special Powers Act) should be natural and not a processed act in a democratic country like India”

Responding to The Citizen on what lies ahead of Irom’s efforts to restore ‘normal peace’ in Manipur, Des Coutinho, her husband described the current sentiment with, “The people of Meghalaya and Tripura may rejoice that AFSPA has gone and the Central Police Reserve Force (CRPF) regiments with them. But the people of Manipur rejoiced this year when the same BJP government announced it would raise two more IRB regiments for Manipur and increase the spending on security forces there. Manipur will not be rid of AFSPA until the goondas are driven out.”

He further added, “If Manipur is allowed to develop a non-conflict driven economy it will automatically end AFSPA.”

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been revoked from all regions of Meghalaya and restricted to only eight out of 16 police stations in Arunachal Pradesh by the Home Ministry, with effect from April 1, 2018. Earlier the act was effective in 20 km area along the Assam-Meghalaya border, giving the armed forces “sweeping powers” to combat insurgency problems and establish peace in the conflicted areas.

On April 23, 2018 Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju tweeted, “The revocation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act by Home Ministry from Assam, Meghalaya & most areas of Arunachal Pradesh is due to significant improvement of security scenario in North-East India in last 4 years.”

The Act has however been extended by another six months in three eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh namely Tirap, Longding and Changlang- the three districts which have been under the AFSPA since January 2016. The Act was withdrawn from Tripura in 2015 and in the recent past, a scaling down of AFSPA operated zones in North- eastern states of the country is being witnessed. Along with this, the special act has been in force in Nagaland, Manipur (excluding seven assembly constituencies of Imphal) and Jammu and Kashmir for a long time along with Assam which came under the ambit in the early 1990s.

The Act came into force in the context of increasing violence in the Northeastern States in the early decades of ‘free India’. Passed by both the Houses of Parliament, The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Bill was subsequently approved by the President on September 11, 1958. It became known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958. It extends discretionary powers to armed forces to maintain peace and order in the conflicting states where prohibiting a gathering of five or more, arrest without warrant and detention over suspicion are a few features out of the many.

Meanwhile, discussing the new nature of struggle through dialogue that Irom Sharmila has taken up, her husband Des Coutinho toldThe Citizen, “Since leaving Manipur Sharmila has travelled the country but more so in the South wherever she has been invited to seek alliances for the repeal of the AFSPA. She met with the former Union Health Minister now a Tamil MLA who advised her to try to form regional alliances. He believed AFSPA could be repealed in a four to six year window. He believed the BJP would probably be returned but would rely more and more on regional support for its second term. So if a grand alliance of local issues could be made resolute he believe AFSPA could be repealed by the Union government”.

Irom Sharmila had launched a political party named Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance to contest two Assembly constituencies of Khurai and Khangabok. In the 2017 elections, the winner in Thoubal, Ibobi Singh, received 18,649 and Sharmila received just 90 votes.

“Sharmila is invited to speak at Universities, Bangalore, Chennai, Tuticorin, Trichy and Delhi. Though University authorities are becoming more fearful. Two Colleges of Delhi University withdrew the invitation on the grounds that they were afraid of Government and Government sponsored reactions”, Des said.

Travelling the road which she is not ready to give up, Sharmila is travelling extensively to different parts of the country and looking at other options in support as well such as “First an appeal to the Prosecutor of the ICC to start a preliminary investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Manipur. Second the preparation of arrest warrants for all the named officers who have escaped prosecution because of the AFSPA in the Indian Army to be presented if they ever set foot in Europe. Third, the preparation of a tort litigation to assign responsibility to the British Crown for the passing of law that enabled war crimes and crimes against humanity with their AFSOA 1942. If the students seek nominal damages one guinea (about 95 rupees) then they need only have a British jury assign partial guilt and responsibility to the British crown i.e. one tenth of one percent. It is important that a jury hear the evidence and be given the chance to start the process to define the AFSPA as an attempt to legitimize war crimes and therefore incompatible with the Indian Constitution International law and the international treaties against war crimes and crimes against Humanity to which the Indian Government is a signatory”, Des said.

Deeply anguished at the manhandling of the issue and reports, Des added, “There has not been a real insurgency in Manipur since the 1980s. What exists now is purely a Mafia state with so called scribes too frightened to report the truth or merely so uninterested in it they would rather put out the same old story claiming to be in the known”.

Meanwhile, the demand to repeal AFSPA from Manipur remains central to Sharmila’s struggle. She appealed to the “democratic government” to establish a connect with the people of the state and “not alienate them with their draconian laws in the age of civilisation even after 70 years of struggle in Independent India”.