Repeal India’s AFSPA, End Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike now
31 October 2010 1:04 am
FORUM-ASIA is initiating an international petition against India's Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This is in solidarity with the hunger strike of woman human rights defender Irom Sharmila in protest of the draconian law. The petition is also aimed to complement the initiatives of its members and partners in India. These activities are aimed towards facilitating the human rights movement in Asia and around the world to stand as one in demanding that the Indian government should repeal the AFSPA so that Irom Sharmila ceases her hunger strike once and for all.
Commemorating Irom Sharmila’s decade of fasting
At the same time, Civil society groups in India are launching a 100 Days Countdown Campaign to mark the 10th year of Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike. A series of cultural programs, literary and artistic activities, public meetings, public rallies, and poster campaigns will mark the countdown which will culminate into a Festival of Hope, Justice and Peace from 2 to 6 November 2010.
Who is Irom Sharmila?
Irom Sharmila, also known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, is a civil rights and political activist, journalist and poet from Manipur. Since the beginning of November 2000, she has been on a hunger strike demanding the Indian state government to abolish the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
Irom Sharmila was prompted to go on a hunger strike after the Malom massacre, where 10 civilians, including women and children, were killed by a paramilitary group in 2 November 2000. At that time, Irom Sharmila was a volunteer working for Human Rights Alert and was involved in preparing for the Independent People’s Commission of Inquiry (IPCI). Human Rights Alert had set up this initiative headed by H. Suresh, a former justice of the Bombay High Court, to examine the prolonged impact of the AFSPA in Manipur. The IPCI released its findings which it submitted to the Union of Home Ministry and called for the immediate repeal of the AFSPA.
The Malom massacre occurred a week after the IPCI released its findings. On 2 November 2000, the 8th Assam Rifles, a paramilitary group, fired indiscriminately at a group of civilians gathered at a bus shed at Malom. It was said to be a retaliatory act by the 8th Assam Rifles after it was ambushed by armed insurgents a few days earlier.
It was this incident which made Irom Sharmila determined to go on a hunger strike until the AFSPA is repealed. On November 6 2000, three days after she started her hunger strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with attempted suicide, a crime under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, and was later transferred to judicial custody. Because of her refusal to take food or water, Indian authorities had to use nasogastric intubation to keep her alive while under arrest.
Under the Indian Penal Code, a person convicted of the crime of attempted suicide may only be imprisoned for no more than one year. Hence, the Indian authorities, after the lapse of one year, would momentarily release Irom Sharmila, only to re-arrest her under the same charges immediately thereafter.
Irom Sharmila has been recognized internationally for her work on the issues of women’s empowerment, peace and human rights, and her non-violent means of fighting for human rights. In 2007, Irom Sharmila has been awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights and in 2010, the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize (1).
Manipur state under the AFSPA
For nearly 2000 years, Manipur enjoyed independence and sovereignty as one of the kingdoms in Southeast Asia and had its own traditions and cultural heritage. In 1949, India annexed Manipur to become one of its states. Since the annexation of Manipur by India, various nationalist armed groups have been active in Manipur. General discontent, plundering of local resources and lack of development became the primary reasons for armed groups to thrive in northeast India and ask for an independent state separated from the Indian Union. The Indian government responded to this growing discontent through violent military attacks which in turn widened and deepened the degree and complexity of unrest and disharmony even among the Manipuri in the region.
According to Okram Ibobi, chief minister of Manipur, 8,000 civilians and 12,000 members of Government Forces and Armed Opposition Groups (AOGs) have been killed until 2004 since the separatist movements started (1). From 2006 onwards, average of ½ persons are killed extra judicially every day(3). These killing include forced labors and internal displacement, plunders, arsons, human shields, tortures, rapes, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and massacres.
It is during this chaotic situation that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was enacted in 1958 by the Indian government in order to maintain public order in areas it had considered as “disturbed”.(4) The Act allows an officer of the armed forces 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. Moreover, the Act also grants officers of the armed forces to fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order as well as to enter and search without warrant any premises to make arrests. The Act also stipulates that the central government must give its permission to prosecute any officer of the armed forces, which in effect further consolidates the phenomena of immunity.
In 1980, the state of Manipur was declared by the Indian government to be one of the “disturbed areas” and hence, was placed under the AFSPA (5). This has contributed to the rise of more and more armed groups in the region.
In 2004, the Union of Home Ministry of India established the Committee to Review the AFSPA of 1958. This committee was led by Justice Jeevan Reddy, a former Judge of the Supreme Court. In 2009, a bill amending the AFSPA was placed before the Indian Parliament for discussion by the Government of India. To this day, the proposed amendments have not yet been made public for a discussion.(6)
UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimation, and the European Parliament. In 2009, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navanethem Pillay, during her visit to India in March 2009, said that the Act breached "contemporary international human rights standards." (7)
(1) The Hindu, Irom Sharmila awarded Tagore peace prize (12 September 2010), available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article627268.ece
(2) Human Rights initiative for indigenous advancement and conflict resolution, Human Rights in Manipur (2010), available at http://hrimanipur.org/index.php/human-rights-in-manipur
(4) The State of Arunachai Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura are considered as “disturbed” under the AFSPA 1958.
(5) Amnesty International, India: Briefing on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (9 May 2005), available at http://hrimanipur.org/index.php/human-rights-in-manipur.
(6) INDIA: Briefing on Armed Forces Special Powers Act for Members of Parliament (29 November 2009), available at http://www.ahrchk.net/pr/mainfile.php/2009mr/691/
(7) IPS, Draconian Law under the Lens (21 September 2010), available at http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=52919