Ravi Nitesh of the Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign (SSSC) speaks to CIVICUS about the vicious cycle of judicial harassment Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila faces merely due to her peaceful resistance to India’s draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, (AFSPA).
1. Can you tell us what AFSPA is, and how it has affected civic freedoms in India?
AFSPA is a special law passed by the Indian Parliament in 1958. It provides extraordinary powers to the armed forces in ‘disturbed areas’. Currently, AFSPA is predominantly exercised in Jammu and Kashmir but is imposed in all 8 states of northeastern India except Sikkim.
RaviAFSPA has not only negatively affected civic freedoms, but has also resulted in large scale, grave human rights violations, and has been detrimental to democracy in North East India. Of critical concern are the overly broad and extraordinary powers granted to security officials through AFSPA including the right to kill on mere suspicion of a disturbance of “public order”. Moreover, AFSPA grants impunity to armed forces as no charges can be brought against any security personal without the approval of the central government.
Over the past years, human rights organisations have documented incidents of murder, rape, looting, custodial killings and enforced disappearances by India’s security forces involved in counter-insurgency operations. Unfortunately, our understanding is that the judicial system as well as the security apparatus of the state is very well aware of the violations committed under AFSPA, but fail to undertake the necessary measures to address ongoing violations. The lack of accountability with the use of excessive force under AFSPA by security forces remains a glaring problem.
AFSPA is spreading a culture of fear and intimidation in North-East India, and its psychological affects on the local community are injurious. The presence of AFSPA is a major obstacle to expressing dissent, as a lot of human rights defenders are afraid of losing their life if they are engaged in any kind of advocacy calling for the repeal of the law.
2. How has Irom Sharmila been resisting AFSPA? Are there other civic initiatives in India engaged in advocacy calling for the repeal of AFSPA?
In Malom (Imphal district of Manipur) at least 10 people were killed in 2000 by the Assam Rifles, a security force while they were waiting at a bus stand. The incident has been named as the Malom Massacre. Irom Sharmila, who at the time was 28 years old, decided to raise awareness and call for the repeal of the law through her hunger strike. She has been carrying on for the past 15 years now. Her protest became a symbol and rallying cry for Indians to demand dignified treatment from their own state. Irom’s legitimate human rights advocacy was also widely recognized around the world, when she was named the Iron Lady of Manipur, or Iron Irom. She is now an emblematic figure of non violent struggle in India as a means to address gross human rights violations.
Without doubt AFSPA is a pressing human rights concern in India. There are numerous national and international human rights organisations putting pressure on the Indian government to call for the repeal of AFSPA. India’s diversity, including the diversity of its human rights problems, prevent AFSPA from becoming a central issue in the overall struggle, given the regional prevalence of the draconian law. This is why SSSC aims to attract more visibility to the human rights advocacy addressing AFSPA, and ensure that it is recognized as a key human rights issue also in mainland India where AFSPA is not currently imposed.
SSSC and other groups working on AFSPA observed that around 1500 individuals were murdered by security officials due to powers granted to them through the repressive law, and their cases were brought before the Supreme Court of India. In the case of Manorama, who was allegedly raped and murdered by the Assam Rifles in 2004, the Manipur Court decided to provide compensation in December 2014. Therefore, local groups monitoring violations committed under AFSPA utilise court procedures constantly to provide legal remedies.
Human rights groups have also played a pivotal role in providing support to the families and friends of victims murdered by the Assam Rifles. There have been unprecedented efforts of local civil society groups to monitor violations committed under AFSPA and bring them before the national courts.
3. Irom Sharmila has been calling for the repeal of AFSPA for the past 14 years and has been facing a vicious cycle of judicial persecution for her peaceful human rights advocacy. How does Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign address her case?
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About Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign:
Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign is a nationwide campaign in India dedicated to provide more visibility to the peaceful struggle of Irom Sharmila, ensure her unconditional and immediate release, and call for the repeal of AFSPA.
The above excerpt from the interview has been reproduced from CIVICUS.
CIVICUS is an international non-profit organisation, which describes itself as “a global alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. Founded in 1993, the organisation today has members in more than 145 countries, with its headquarters in Johannesburg and offices in London, Geneva and New York.