Ema Gyaneshwari opens her notebook, showing me her record of events, memories and thoughts over the decades of protests against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) of 1958. “It has been a long journey, and this has been our demand for decades. It will be a happy occasion only if the Act is lifted from all of Manipur,” she says.
The “disturbed areas” tag under the law, in force in the state since 1972, has been lifted now from 15 police station areas and six districts of Manipur, as well as parts of Assam and Nagaland. In 2004, it had been removed from the Imphal municipal area. It is still in force, though, in nine Manipuri districts in the hills.
The Act, which gives security forces countering insurgency the power to search, arrest and use force as they deem fit without fear of inquiry, prosecution or legal consequences, has seen major protests over the years. So, while people are happy with the partial lifting, the painful memories are still fresh, the scars remain. And they would like to see the law repealed altogether.
Gyaneshwari is one of the 12 Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers, a civil society group) who protested in the nude at the Kangla Fort in July 2004, against the rape and killing of 32-year-old Thanjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles.
“Three of the 12 mothers are no more,” says Gyaneshwari, stopping at the page with photographs of the protest that made headlines around the world. “We were very, very angry,” recalls the protester, who is now in her 70s. “We cried a lot that day. That act of defiance was an outburst of emotions that had built up over many years,” she says.
“We had lived with that Act for decades,” she says, showing me a photo album and a diary with pictures of protests, meetings and gatherings over the years, with the dates and places neatly written below each. “It is a record for the future generations who may want to know more about our fight and our struggles.”
Outside her home in Imphal, the party flags flapping from rooftops and street corners, testimony to last month’s state assembly election, are beginning to look ragged. The photographs and posters of candidates are peeling off the walls and gates on which they were pasted.
The announcement on Afspa, which came a few weeks after the election results were declared, did little to distract people from their routines, the bustle of preparing for school exams, which are being held after two years of pandemic-related school closures, and their plans for the Meitei New Year. For, the Act has been lifted only partially.
“A large part of the state remains under the disturbed areas tag,” says Irom Sharmila, who fasted for 16 years, from November 2000 to August 2016, to demand the repeal of Afspa.
“(This is) not full victory. I would say a small success in the struggle,” says Sharmila, 50, who now lives in Bengaluru with her husband and twin daughters. “My stand remains that if you lift the status, it must be for the whole state.” It’s an opinion many seem to share.
The Union government decision comes three months after it set up a high-level committee to examine the possibility of lifting Afspa in Nagaland, where 14 civilians were killed by the army in December 2021 in a case of “mistaken identity”.
Sharmila’s 16-year-long fast had begun in response to a similar incident on 2 November 2000, when 10 men, women and children were killed in Malom Makha Leikai, about 5km from Imphal, by the Assam Rifles after insurgents ambushed their convoy on the NH150, or Tiddim Road. “In a democracy, or a democratic country like India, such outdated, draconian laws such as Afspa should not have a place,” says Sharmila.
Two decades later, beside the bus stop where the killings took place in Malom, stands a memorial to the 10 villagers. Nimai and Bimola, a couple in their 60s who live nearby, don’t want to dwell on those days. “It has been a long time now,” says Nimai, a farmer, with a sigh. “It’s good to hear that things are improving.” Nimai says all the villagers of Malom Makha Leikai, particularly the men, were roughed up, arrested and assaulted as the Armed Forces retaliated for the attack on their convoy. “That entire night is one we will never forget.”
Bimola adds: “Those days were really scary, I lived in fear. Security persons would do whatever they wanted. Now, things are much better.”
Among the 10 killed were two of Sinam Chandrajini’s sons, Sinam Robinson, 27, and Sinam Chandramani, 17, and her sister. Sinam Chandramani, who had received the Prime Minister’s Bravery Award as a five-year-old, was gunned down while waiting for a bus. Sinam Robinson happened to be on the same road, dropping their aunt to her house.
“It (the announcement) is nothing to celebrate for our family,” says Kiranbala, Chandrajini’s daughter-in-law. “For our family, 2 November is observed as a memorial every year and we will continue to do so,” she says. “We light candles, say prayers.” Chandrajini, now in her late 70s, had gone to the hospital when I visited.
“It is good she wasn’t here to meet you. The deaths still haunt her. My mother-in-law is a strong woman but talking about the ordeal makes her cry a lot and leaves her depressed for days,” says Kiranbala, who was a teenager in 2000. “We would hide whenever we saw paramilitary forces. We were very scared, anything could trigger violence,” says Kiranbala, who has participated in meetings and rallies organised by the Meira Paibi.
Also read: Why Ahom heritage stands tall in Sivasagar
In August 2021, the Manipur State Human Rights Commission (MHRC) had recommended the withdrawal of the “disturbed areas” tag from the state. “Reducing the disturbed areas is a breather, a positive step,” says MHRC chairman Khaidem Mani, recalling the protests by Irom Sharmila, the Meira Paibis, and others. “But the Afspa is still there. It has not been repealed or removed.” As he explains, it can still be used or reimposed.
In the 40 years since the outcry against the Act gained momentum, the number of districts with “disturbed area” status has been extended every year. “The disturbed area is declared by the state government. The repeal or removal of Afspa has to be done by the Union government in Parliament,” says Khaidem. “Ideally, Afspa should be removed as a statutory law by Parliament.”
While appreciating “these first steps”, Khaidem doesn’t believe Afspa has contained insurgency. “The government should talk to the armed rebel groups. A political dialogue is the only solution and should be sincerely initiated.”
Babloo Loitongbam, director of Imphal-based Human Rights Alert, draws attention to the numerous extrajudicial incidents. “There has been no prosecution…so the partial removal doesn’t make much of a difference,” he says.
Irom Shinghajit, Sharmila’s eldest brother, who lives in Imphal’s Kongpal Kongkham Leikai locality, says, rather philosophically, “Many waters have flown”. Most Manipuris, he says, want a complete repeal of the Act—and not just in the North-East. “It should not have a place in this country.”
Ninglun Hanghal is an Imphal-based journalist.