An Appeal to the Women of the World: Stand with Irom Sharmila. Call for the Repeal of AFSPA
On September 11, 1958 the Indian Government passed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a law that gives the armed forces unfettered power and complete immunity in areas that officially designated as “disturbed”. This draconian law, the first such legislation in post Independence India, impacted the entire population of the states of Assam and Manipur, where the “disturbed” tag has been repeatedly renewed to keep this law in force.
Ironically AFSPA is a colonial law first promulgated by the British rulers of India in 1942 in an attempt to quell 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 northeastern 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 “law or 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 proceedings under section 4 of the Act. Nor is the government’s judgment on declaring an area “disturbed” subject to judicial review.
There is a long history of struggle against the AFSPA by ordinary people in all the areas where the Act has been imposed; women have spearheaded many of these struggles, especially in Manipur. These struggles were given a new momentum when Irom Sharmila Chanu, quietly began a fast in protest against the AFSPA which made her an iconic symbol of non-violent resistance in India and across the world. Sharmila had begun her protest 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 – who 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 often 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 thousands 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 even though the AFSPA does not expilictly indemnify rapes under its provisions. The ordinary woman citizen is simply denied judicial remedy in an ordinary court of law even though the Justice Verma Committee had recommended in 2013 that such a remedy should be available to them but which the Government of India has chosen to ignore.
AFSPA has been repeatedly challenged in the Supreme Court. The legislature in Kashmir has voted against it. In the northeastern state of Tripura, the council of ministers has decided that it should be withdrawn. Experience has shown that 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.
In July 2016, in a landmark decision on a petition from the families of civilians killed by the armed forces in Manipur, the Supreme Court of India has recently ordered a probe into 1528 cases of false encounters documented by the petitioners. The judgement is a clear indictment of the government’s actions in keeping AFSPA in force for more than 40 years, characterising it as a failure of governance. The judgement is unequivocal in rejecting the claim that impunity for violence is a necessary strategy in combating insurgency, holding that “democracy would be in grave danger if armed forces were permitted to kill citizens on mere allegation or suspicion that they are “enemies of the state”.
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.
Sharmila’s mode of protest may have been unique. but she is not a lone voice against AFSPA. 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.
Sharmila’s fast was 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 was treated as a criminal by the Indian government, which refused even to acknowledge her protest. Instead, she was charged with attempted suicide, incarcerated and subjected to force-feeding through a tube painfully and permanently inserted into her nose. Because the maximum penalty for attempted suicide in India is a jail term of one year, she had to go through a farcical process of release and re-arrest each year.
So, after almost 16 years, Sharmila ended her fast on 9 August 2016, freeing herself from her forced isolation and taking her protest into the larger public arena where the Supreme Court judgement has revived the energies of all those who have been calling for an end to AFSPA. She demands an answer 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?
We believe that this question is not Sharmila’s 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 others who are calling for an end to 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.
Stand with Irom Sharmila – Sign our Letter to the President of India
THE APPEAL TO THE PRESIDENT OF INDIA
WE STAND WITH IROM SHARMILA: WE CALL ON YOU TO REPEAL AFSPA
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.
The petition to the President of India demanding immediate repeal of AFSPA is signed by leading Indian feminists including Uma Chakravarti, Mary John, Suneetha Dhar, Monisha Behal, Kamla Bhasin, Roshmi Goswami, Nivedita Menon, Ayesha Kidwai, Gabriele Dietrich, Abha Bhaiya, Ritu Menon, J Devika, Kalyani Menon-Sen, Urvashi Butalia, Kalpana Mehta, and others; organisations and networks such as All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), Saheli Women’s Resource Centre, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, All India Students Association (AISA) and Labia – A Queer Feminist LBT Collective; leading academicians such as Romila Thapar and Jayati Ghosh; human rights defenders like Parveena Ahangar of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP); Syeda Hameed, formerly of the Planning Commission; Maimoona Sheikh and Rashida Bee of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Adhikar Samiti; Advocates Indira Jaising and Vrinda Grover, feminist lawyers and human rights defenders; Ruth Manorama, Prof Vimal Thorat, and Rajni Tilak, prominent Dalit feminist activists and leading academicians; Shabnam Hashmi of Anhad (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy),artists Neelima Sheikh, Maya Rao, Malika Sarabhai and Vidya Rao; Aruna Roy of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the Right to Information Campaign and the Right to Food Campaign; Lalita Ramdas from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace; journalists Pamela Philipose, Laxmi Murthy and Geeta Seshu.
Prominent international feminists who have endorsed the campaign include Angela Davis, black feminist activist and human rights campaigner; Eve Ensler, American playwright, performer and activist, Charlotte Bunch, women’s rights advocate; Prof Barbara Harriss-White and Prof Andrea Cornwall, respected feminist academics and South Asia experts; Kumari Jayawardena, pioneering feminist activist and campaigner for human rights; Liepollo Lebohang Pheko, feminist economist and women’s rights advocate from South Africa; Khushi Kabir of Naripokkho and Hameeda Hossain, Bangladesh, Sumathy Sivamohan, Sri Lanka and Sabiha Sumar, Afghanistan and many more.
Hundreds of academicians, students, media persons, lawyers, development professionals and activists and concerned citizens have sent signed postcards and posters from West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala and other states all across India to the President to stand up and assert our Constitutional rights to life and liberty that are consistently violated under the AFSPA. Well over fifteen hundred voices that speak out loud and clear against AFSPA.
Sir, we do hope you will respond to this global call for peace, justice and democracy.