Fifteen years ago, on November 2nd, Manipuri poet Irom Charu Sharmila started her still-ongoing hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Last week, my own home state of Meghalaya demanded for the Central government to implement the act. Thankfully, the central government decided not to deploy the act. Almost characteristic of Gandhian non-violent retaliation, the contrasting duration of Sharmila’s protest shows a grim side to Indian central governance. Particularly, the management of its territories that are marginalized by ethnicity and culture. Amnesty International has deemed the now force-fed-via-nasal-tube Irom Sharmila, a “prisoner of conscience.” A prisoner, in the world’s largest democracy.
Manipur, a Northeast Indian state rampant with insurgent violence, had been under the mercy of this act after its local government declared a state of emergency. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, grants security forces the power to search properties without a warrant, to arrest people, and to use deadly force if there is “reasonable suspicion” that a person is acting against the state. Clear in the dogma is its negligence for human rights. Sharmila’s hunger strike started as a result of the Malom massacre, in which 10 innocent civilians were shot dead (including a 62-year-old woman). At least 42 persons were hospitalized after they had been brutally assaulted by the designated military faction, the 8th Assam Rifles. Yet 15 years later, the Act still remains. 15 years later, my own home state of Meghalaya is declaring a state of emergency.
In the past decade, secessionist movements within my home state have become increasingly agitated. National Independence Day, in celebration of freedom by colonial domination, is a bandh day. A bandh is a general strike by a community or political party. The public is expected to stay at home and report to work. With my home state being relatively small, transportation shuts down, schools close and everyone stays in. As a child, I’d never known any different. We figured out a way around it, playing in the streets from early in the morning to late at night. It became in its own a bittersweet celebration of freedom from regular strife. A day off. Yet, demonstrating or driving on the streets would lead to serious life-threatening repercussions from secessionist insurgents.
More recently, the central’s shutdown of coal mining in the region correlated with a drop in employment. Somehow, the demand for autonomy by coal-funded secessionists turned into blatant extortion. In particular, there have been kidnapping of government authority figures within the state. Such occurrences are sensationally covered in the news. But dialogue had been compromised for requesting the AFSPA from the centre. Perhaps, such are the benefits of a federal system. Thankfully, the central government declined the request. The implementation of the AFSPA would have only made things worse for everyone, damaging the tranquility of democracy’s still intact facade.
It is terrifyingly hopeless, to be so far away at a time when tumult seems inevitable. Yet, I scroll through my Facebook and everyone I know is leading a normal life. Yet again, the AFSPA is being implemented in other states within India. In light of recent news, my initial indifference to the act turned to fear. Fear that such an act exists in a country that supposedly values its democracy, while terrifying its very own citizens.
(Here is the source for the featured image)