A Billion Women Rise for Irom Sharmila: Dear Mr President, Repeal AFSPA
NEW DELHI: The One Billion Rising initiative of women across the globe to fight against a patriarchal structure has come out in strong support of Irom Sharmila, who has just announced her decision to call off her 16 year old fast and yet continue the struggle against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that has been used with impunity in the north eastern states and in Jammu and Kashmir.
The global initiative has decided to submit a petition to the Government of India to repeal AFSPA, and to “re-establish democracy and constitutional rights in every part” of India. A letter to the President of India Pranab Mukherjee for which signatures are being collected states, “AFSPA has provided the cover for hundreds of documented cases of abduction and torture of young men, custodial killings and execution-style shootings of captured militants. The chronicle of violence against women in AFSPA areas includes the mass rapes of more than 100 women in Kunan Poshpora, Kashmir in 1991; the abduction, rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama in Manipur in 2004; the abduction, rape and murder of two young women in Shopian, Kashmir in 2004 and mass sexual assaults and rapes of women in Karbi Anglong, Assam in 2015. Not a single soldier has been brought to book for any of these incidents.”
Urging the President to intervene the letter points out, “The question that she (Sharmila) is asking through her protest is a simple one: How can India pride itself on being the largest democracy in the world if it continues to uphold a law that violates every tenet of democracy?
There can be only one answer to this question: this undemocratic and repressive law must be struck down.”
The letter asks the President as “the guardian of the Constitution of India” to “direct your government to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and restore the promise of democracy and Constitutional rights for every citizen of India.”
The letter is as follows:
We, women of the world, are standing with Irom Sharmila Chanu and joining our voices with hers in appealing to you to heal a 58-year old wound on India’s democracy: the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
For the last 16 years, Irom Sharmila, a poet and human rights defender from Manipur, has been on a fast in protest against this obnoxious law. Her protest has been systematically ignored by the Government of India and she has been treated as a criminal, imprisoned and force-fed, without even the courtesy of a response to her requests for a dialogue.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act violates the Indian Constitution’s promise of the right to life and personal liberty (Article 21), the right to equality before the law (Article 14) and the right to protection against arbitrary arrest and detention (Article 22). The Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, set up by the government in 2004 to review the law, found it to be both unconstitutional and ineffective in securing peace, and strongly recommended that it be repealed. It has been condemned by human rights organisations and rights activists for its role in creating a climate of brutality, violence and abuse of authority, and for undermining efforts for political dialogue and peace-building. The Kashmir legislature has voted against its continuance. The council of ministers in Tripura has decided that it is unnecessary.
AFSPA has provided the cover for hundreds of documented cases of abduction and torture of young men, custodial killings and execution-style shootings of captured militants. The chronicle of violence against women in AFSPA areas includes the mass rapes of more than 100 women in Kunan Poshpora, Kashmir in 1991; the abduction, rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama in Manipur in 2004; the abduction, rape and murder of two young women in Shopian, Kashmir in 2004 and mass sexual assaults and rapes of women in Karbi Anglong, Assam in 2015. Not a single soldier has been brought to book for any of these incidents.
AFSPA has attracted international criticism and placed a question mark against India’s claims to democracy. It was judged to be unconstitutional by the UN Human Rights Committee in 1991. In 2009, the UN Commissioner on Human Rights condemned AFSPA for violating international human rights standards, and urged that it be struck down. In 2012, the UN once again asked India to remove the law from the statute books since it was violative of India’s commitments under international treaties including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CEDAW and the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
India is respected for the principles of truth and non-violence that inspired the freedom struggle. Irom Sharmila’s satyagraha is based on these principles – she is following the path of Mahatma Gandhi. The question that she is asking through her protest is a simple one: How can India pride itself on being the largest democracy in the world if it continues to uphold a law that violates every tenet of democracy?
There can be only one answer to this question: this undemocratic and repressive law must be struck down.
You are the guardian of the Constitution of India. We urge you to direct your government to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and restore the promise of democracy and Constitutional rights for every citizen of India.
A quick capsule about the life and struggle of Irom Sharmila is as follows:
Irom Sharmila loves life. She dreams of being free – of flying like a bird, uncaring of borders and boundaries, carrying her poems - imbued with the fragrance of peace and her message of non-violent resistance - to all the lands where women are struggling for freedom and justice.
But Sharmila does not know when her dream will come true. For the last 16 years, this indomitable woman has been incarcerated in a small hospital room, a prisoner of conscience. Her crime: she is demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian law that gives the armed forces unfettered power and complete immunity in areas that the Government of India has designated as “disturbed”.
AFSPA was first promulgated by the British rulers of India in 1942 and was aimed at quelling the freedom struggle. Despite this inglorious history, it has been kept alive in independent India by successive governments. Intended as a temporary measure, AFSPA mandates a review every 6 months, yet it has been continuously operative in several north eastern states, including Sharmila’s home state of Manipur since 1958. It was also invoked in Kashmir in 1990. Under this law, armed forces in “disturbed” areas have the license to shoot to kill anyone whom they consider to be disrupting “public order”, make arrests without warrants, enter and search any home or establishment, detain and question anyone. Armed forces personnel have complete immunity for actions taken under this law, and are protected from prosecution, investigation or any other legal proceeding. Nor is the government’s judgment on declaring an area “disturbed” subject to judicial review.
Sharmila began her fast on 2 November 2000, the day that ten unarmed people waiting for a bus in Malom, a small town in Manipur, were gunned down by a paramilitary patrol on the rampage after a bomb blast near their camp earlier that day. The victims – that included a 60 year old woman and three teenagers – had nothing to do with the blast: they were ordinary citizens going about their daily lives. An explosion of shock and outrage engulfed Manipur. Sharmila, a young poet and activist who describes herself as “an ordinary woman”, acted with extraordinary personal and political courage: she resolved not to eat or drink until AFSPA was struck down.
In the nearly 16 years that have passed since the Malom massacre, there have been thousands of similar atrocities. In Manipur alone, 8,000 civilians have been killed since 1980, many of them shot in cold blood in full public view for “acting suspicious” or “looking like a militant”. Human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of abduction and torture of young men, violent deaths in custody and execution-style shootings of captured militants in staged encounters. The chronicle of violence against women under AFSPA includes the mass rapes of more than 100 women in Kunan Poshpora, Kashmir in 1991; the abduction, rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama by a search party of soldiers in Manipur in 2004; the abduction, rape and murder of two young women in Shopian, Kashmir in 2004; the sexual assaults and rapes of women in Karbi Anglong, Assam in 2015. Not a single soldier has been brought to book for any of these incidents.
Sharmila’s fast is a satyagraha, an act of speaking truth to power. Her steadfast opposition to a law that makes a mockery of India’s claims to democracy has earned the respect of all those who value human rights. Yet, this woman who names Mahatma Gandhi as her inspiration is treated as a criminal by the Indian government, which refuses even to acknowledge her protest. Instead, she has been charged with attempted suicide, incarcerated and subjected to force-feeding. The last 16 years of her life have been spent alone in a small room with a tube permanently and painfully inserted into her stomach through her nose. She is cut off from her family and supporters: anyone wanting to meet her must submit a written request a month in advance along with a “security deposit” of INR 100,000 (more than a year’s income for millions of Indians). Because the maximum penalty for attempted suicide in India is a jail term of one year, Sharmila is forced to go through a farcical process of release and re-arrest each year.
Opposition to AFSPA is growing. It has been criticised as anti-people and anti-democratic by human rights groups and civil society organisations inside and outside the country. It has been repeatedly challenged in the Supreme Court. The legislature in Kashmir has voted against it. In the north eastern state of Tripura, the council of ministers has decided that it is unnecessary and should be withdrawn. Indeed, AFSPA has proved to be an ineffective weapon against separatism and militancy, turning civilian populations against the government and undermining the search for political solutions.
The UN Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly urged the Government of India to strike down AFSPA, emphasising that it has no place in a democracy. Other UN bodies have pointed out that it violates India’s obligations under international law. An official review committee recommended its immediate repeal, noting that it had become “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness”; the report was suppressed by the government.
Women across the country have come on to the streets hundreds of times to demand justice for the women and girls who have been assaulted, raped and murdered in states where AFSPA is in force. In 2004, in a gesture of utter despair and frustration, a group of Meira Paibis, the famous torch-bearing mothers of Manipur, stripped naked and stood in front of the army headquarters holding a banner saying “Indian Army, Rape Us”. The government remained unmoved.
But Sharmila refuses to give up hope. She believes that the Government of India can and must respond to her simple question : How can a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy continue to implement a law that violates every tenet of democracy?
Sharmila believes that this question is not hers alone – it is a question that every peace-loving citizen of the world has a right to ask. And it is a question with only one answer – AFSPA must go.
Sharmila appeals to the women of the world to stand with her and with the thousands of other women who are speaking out against this repressive and brutal law. She urges you to add your voice to theirs in calling on the Government of India to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and re-establish democracy and Constitutional rights in every part of the country.