The manner in which Irom Sharmila‘s demand for the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been handled by the Indian state is indicative of its intent to further narrow the scope for democratic protest, even opposition that is centred on the right to life itself. With such actions, the state is subtly communicating to the people that there is no democratic option left in the country.
Anand Teltumbde ([email protected]) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.
Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.
– Howard Zinn
Public protests signify that democracy is alive and well. Whatever its form, the essence of democracy is the space it provides for people to voice their protest against the government. However, while India has managed to flaunt for decades that it is the world’s largest functional democracy, it has systematically decimated such space for the masses. Today, this space has been symbolically reduced to small designated pockets in every state capital where aggrieved people can gather and shout to their hearts’ content only so that they can hear themselves. Not much unlike jails, with their barbed wire fences and narrow openings guarded by a thick posse of armed policemen, the authorities do not let public protest infect the people at large. The maximum the people protesting at these places can reach is the police sub-inspector seated there to receive their memorandums. Indian democracy has not, however, been content with this general strangulation of democratic space; it often takes offensive against the protesters by slapping criminal charges on them. Examples are legion but the recent proceedings against Irom Sharmila, the iron lady of Manipur, who was brought to Delhi to face trial for her “crime of attempting suicide” at the Jantar Mantar best highlights this trend.
Sharmila’s protest began with her indefinite fast on 3 November 2000, a day after 10 persons were shot down by the Assam Rifles, one of the Indian paramilitary forces operating in Manipur, while waiting at a bus stop just outside Imphal. The incident later came to be known as the “Malom Massacre”. Within days, Sharmila was taken by the police, and since then, she is being force-fed a liquid concoction of nutrients in a hospital, which serves as her prison. After every year in detention, she is released for a day and rearrested for attempting to commit suicide, because she refuses to call off her fast until the government repeals the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), which is in force in Manipur, Assam, Nagaland and parts of Arunachal Pradesh besides, Jammu and Kashmir. Now in its 13th year, her protest is the longest hunger strike in recorded history, which has shaken the entire world but failed to sensitise the Indian rulers. On the contrary, they chose to actuate their penal machine and charged her with an “attempt to commit suicide”, which is unlawful under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code.
The AFSPA against which Sharmila reiterated her protest to the metropolitan magistrate, Delhi however continues on the statute. This draconian Act that giving the army the unquestionable powers to shoot to kill, arrest and search or even destroy property on mere suspicion and enacted as a short-term measure to allow the deployment of the army in India’s north-eastern Naga Hills, has been in existence for over five decades. According to a report entitled “Manipur: Memorandum on Extrajudicial Summary or Arbitrary Executions” by the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights in Manipur and the United Nations, altogether 1,528 people, including 31 women and 98 children were killed in fake encounters by the security forces in Manipur alone between 1979 and May 2012. Of these, 419 were killed by the Assam Rifles, while 481 were killed by combined teams of Manipur Police and the central security forces. These are gory statistics but they do not tell the human tragedy that befell entire generations that grew up under the shadow of the gun. It is a usual sight in Manipur to find even school kids sitting in protest against the atrocities by the armed forces.
Logic of the State
The government cites the ongoing insurgency in the hilly state to explain its stand against the repeal of AFSPA. According to its argument, nearly 15 militant outfits are active in the state and in the period between 2007 and 2011, over 1,500 people were killed in militancy-related violence, among them were 1,011 militants and 406 civilians. This argument itself should prompt a simple question, if the army, with a free hand, has not been able to control the so-called insurgency over five decades, what is the justification for the Act? It may even be argued that the insurgency, given the government’s own statistics, has increased during the currency of the Act. This is because the excesses committed by the armed forces with impunity alienate people and impel them to take up the gun. If one dispassionately looks at the north-eastern states, comprising about 7% of India’s total area and 3.7% of its population, bigger than many countries but devoid of any notable development, one cannot but get a feel that they are like a colony governed by the armed might of India. The Constitution does provide for emergency clauses but they are meant to be short-lived. The arguments the government and its army establishment proffer for continuing with AFSPA are, interestingly, the same as the arguments advanced when the 1942 ordinance was enacted in order to keep the British Empire intact.
The same logic extends to the protesting people in mainland India. There are scores of draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, the National Security Act, and various provisions in the penal code, like “sedition”, which continue to mock at our claim of being a democracy. Given the increasing divide between the majority of people mired in abominable poverty and powerlessness and a miniscule minority with all the pelf and power, people’s protests are a natural outcome. During the initial decades of post-Independence India, when the ruling classes had not yet consolidated themselves, these protests were responded to by the state with colonial decency. But by the mid-1970s, an oppressive Emergency was declared, and after a spell of political turmoil, the country entered the neo-liberal era that ideologically trashed social protests and legitimated the oppressive social Darwinist ethos of the rulers. The enforcement of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) in 1985 succeeded by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in 2002 and thereafter UAPA in 2004 during this era, duly aided by global “security syndrome” unleashed by 9/11, should be seen in that light.
The much-maligned Maoist movement is essentially a public protest, notwithstanding its mode of expression, as acknowledged by the government occasionally, but the latter has chosen to criminalise it, calling it “the biggest internal security threat” and waging a full-fledged war against it. Today, it has begun to do the same to civil rights activists, trashing them as Maoist supporters. These activists along with many legal luminaries have been cautioning that the ordinary laws if operated equitably are capable of tackling any kind of criminal activity. The extraordinary laws with draconian provisions create a false notion of security but there is no empirical evidence that they really work. Invariably, they have operated as oppressive tools against innocent people and thereby aggravated the very problem which they were supposed to solve. It is the perceived injustice of the state that impels people to extremity. The paranoia of the ruling classes is proving myopic in ignoring the grave consequences to democracy.
The saga of Irom Sharmila and the Manipuri people struggling against AFSPA will surely leave an indelible mark on our democratic credentials. What could be a more intense protest by an ordinary citizen of this country within the constitutional framework than hers? Could there be a more intense expression of public anguish than the prominent women of Manipur disrobing themselves in front of the Army Headquarters and shouting “Indian army rape us”, this in the wake of the rape and murder of Thangiam Manorama in 2004? Can there be a more innocent movement than Anna Hazare’s? But none has been able to shake the power-drunk government. On the contrary, the government has variously criminalised all these protests.
There are numerous other protests happening all over the country: the recent protests against the anti-nuclear power plants at Jaitapur (Maharashtra) and Koodankulam (Tamil Nadu); spontaneous protests of dalits in Maharashtra after the Khairlanji murders; people’s nationwide protests against the Right to Education Act; the ongoing protests against corruption and black money; and those against the violation of human rights, to name just a few. All these have been spontaneous people’s protests. All of them have faced criminalisation; many of them, brutal assaults. It is being subtly communicated that there is no democratic option left in the country. The arrogance of the political class has reached the level where it defiantly challenges people to seek solutions through elections, which have been reduced to a game of money and muscle power. It is very well known that this game is beyond people’s means.
Should people mutely suffer the oppression of their representatives who behave as if they have a licence to exploit them till the next election? Even after five years, what hope does the system hold for ordinary people? The defective game also stands “fixed” by the political class, which virtually bars entry of anyone outside the club. The Association for Democratic Reforms has documented data on the personal wealth and the criminal cases of the members of the political class, which exposes their character. The entire ruling class has consolidated itself against the people. It may demonstrate differences within its ranks before the public to gain legitimacy but the fact remains that its members are all one and the same. Indeed, people are left with no democratic option and hope. It is this state of “optionlessness” and hopelessness that would inevitably push people to unconstitutional methods and, as Ambedkar warned, blast off the structure of democracy our founding fathers so laboriously built.
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