For the past few days, supporters and fans have been calling Irom Sharmila to chat, share news and congratulate her. For 16 years, from November 2000 to August 2016, Sharmila observed a fast to demand the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives the armed forces unlimited powers with de facto immunity, from Manipur. The act has been in force for about three decades, and on 31 March, the Centre announced that the number of districts in Manipur, Assam and Nagaland deemed “disturbed areas” under the Act will be reduced. Sharmila’s is considered the world’s longest fast and has earned her the name Iron Lady. During those 16 years, Sharmila was force-fed through a tube, and kept under arrest and isolated in a ward in a local hospital on charges of attempted suicide. She finally broke her fast in 2016 to contest the state elections the following year. The 50-year-old activist now lives in Bengaluru with her twin daughters and her husband.
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What is your view on the announcement about lifting the AFSPA in certain parts of Manipur?
Isn’t it only certain parts of the state? In 2004, when the disturbed area status was lifted in Imphal municipal areas (the state capital area of Manipur), I was still fasting. The then chief minister Okram Ibobi (of the Congress) had attempted to cajole me to break my fast. I did not relent. The reason I continued my fast then was that I believed that the disturbed status should be lifted from all parts of the state. My stand was that lifting the disturbed status only in some parts of the state will not help. The inhabitants of those areas where the disturbed status remains will continue to suffer. There should be equal treatment for all. Looking at the state as whole, I had rejected the chief minister’s call to break my fast.
Now, too, a large part of the state remains under the disturbed areas tag. A chief minister of a state governs the whole state. He or she must consider the whole area of the state and not only a part of it. That is my comment on the recent development. My stand remains that if you lift the status, it must be for the whole state.
I definitely agree that it is a positive move. Nevertheless, I would like to reiterate my appeal to the state chief minister to consider lifting the disturbed tag from all parts of Manipur.
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The chief minister did say that if the situation continues to remain stable, the removal of AFSPA in the rest of the state will be also to be considered.
In a democracy, or a democratic country like India, such outdated, draconian laws such as AFSPA should not have a place. As an independent, sovereign, republic country, it is shameful that India and its leadership continues to enforce such laws and Acts. In reality, such laws are implemented because Manipur is a buffer zone. As a border state with Myanmar, the Act was used as a shield. That is why the leadership did not pay serious attention to the massive impact of enforcing such an Act on the lives of the people in Manipur or the North-East at large.
In comparison, there have been big terror attacks, such as the ones on the Parliament and in Mumbai, but they do not implement AFSPA in those states or places. Why? Isn’t this discrimination towards Manipur? They are using the people of Manipur like a war shield. This will not bring unity and no solution can be found if such treatment continues to be meted out to the people of the region. I agree there is insurgency but the collective Indian leadership should find out the cause of rebel movements and find solutions.
What are some of the possible alternative solutions?
If you travel across Manipur, especially in the interior and rural areas, you will see acute under-development. Why not invest in development, instead of investing crores in counter-insurgency? This is the solution for peace and progress.
Would you say that your 16-year fast demanding the repeal of AFSPA has finally born some fruit?
Not full victory, I would say a small success in the struggle.
Manipur chief minister, Nongthombam Biren Singh has publicly acknowledged your fight and applauded your contribution after the announcement to reduce the number of “disturbed areas”. Would you accept an invitation from the government for any future action, if one is extended? Will you continue to campaign?
I am grateful for the change in acknowledging me, the change from calling me an “anti-social element” to legally accepting me and my resistance. I am open to invitation from the CM or the state government. I would take it as an opportunity to express my opinion, my views. But yes, the state government’s actions will also depend on the instructions from the Centre.
Ninglun Hanghal is an independent journalist based in Manipur.