North East: Ambit Of AFSPA Reduced In Three States, Final Triumph For Irom Sharmila!

In a historic move today the Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has announced a reduction in the ambit of the dreaded Armed Forces Special Powers Act-1958 (AFSPA) in three North Eastern states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. As per the details of the announcement the AFSPA has been removed in 23 districts of Assam, in 7 in Nagaland and in 6 districts of Manipur (under 20 police stations). The home minister said that this decision is made following a drastic improvement in the security situation of the insurgency-infested states and a palpable progress in moving toward peace and development. He claims the move as a credit for the devoted commitment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. No doubt, the present Chief Minister of Assam Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, after defecting from the Congress, had led BJP (ruling Bharatiya Janata Party) to victory in Assam in 2016 and in 2021, and has contributed immensely in establishing dominance of the BJP in nearly all states of the region. So then, some credit is obviously due to the ruling party and a positive move like this is always welcome despite the others on the contrary.


The AFSPA has, for the last few decades, always been bitterly contested in the three North East states and in Jammu and Kashmir for its draconian provisions of allowing the army and paramilitary forces to search or arrest or detain any property or individual without any warrant and also the right to shoot anyone on justified or mistaken doubts while enjoying full immunity against prosecution. Massacres of civilians have been happening in all these states over the decades and the Act has been consistently opposed on human rights violations. The United Nations had also questioned the constitutional validity of the AFSPA in view of basic human rights.


The AFSPA comes into force whenever the Government of India decides to declare a certain area as ‘disturbed’ due to the failure of local administration to control law and order or to carry on the counter-insurgency operations effectively. Once the AFSPA becomes operative the local police lose their powers to prosecute anybody and have to ask for the approval of the central military forces to go ahead. The killing of 14 civilians in Nagaland in December last year by paramilitary forces had ignited strong opposition against the Act one more time. In 2016 the Supreme Court of India made filing FIRs compulsory for any extrajudicial killings irrespective of whether the victims were common persons or terrorists. The Court was giving this verdict after examining the petition filed by the families of the victims of extrajudicial killings in Manipur seeking justice for the alleged fake encounters of 1528 civilians since the enforcement of AFSPA.


History was created in the protests against the AFSPA in Manipur in November 2000 when a massacre of 10 civilians at Malom convinced a young lady of 28 of the state to undertake a fast unto death. The massacre happened on 2nd November and the lady started her hunger strike on 5th November, vowing to not eat, drink, comb her hair or even look into the mirror. Three days after her strike the police arrested her on the charge of trying to commit suicide and remanded her to judicial custody. And her hunger strike continued for nearly 16 long years during which she got repeatedly arrested and released briefly every year while she was nasally force-fed (nasogastric intubation) in jail to keep her alive in custody. The lady is Irom Chanu Sharmila, called the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ and Mengoubi (the fair one), who came to be known as the ‘world’s longest hunger striker’.


Irom Sharmila has been an icon of public resistance and a human rights activist, widely acclaimed nationally and internationally. She came into contact with all crusading national and international leaders and also a few Nobel laureates. As the AFSPA continued to be in force in all her years of fast Irom got increasingly disillusioned and finally ended her fast on 9th August 2016 with the objective of entering politics to carry on the fight more effectively. Declining offers from several parties she formed her own political party and fought the Manipur assembly elections in 2017, but lost miserably that made her give up all hope for her own people and land.


She then married her longtime fiancĂ© Desmond Coutinho, a Goa-born British national, and left Manipur to live in Tamil Nadu and then in Karnataka. Fortunately for her, although there had been much discontent and rage among her supporters after her decision the Supreme Court verdict contributed to some extent in reducing AFSPA excesses. Today, Irom Sharmila’s astounding sacrifices have got some rewards at last and we salute the Iron Lady of Manipur at this historic moment.


Assam Chief Minister today has addressed the media expressing his gratitude to his central leadership and welcoming the decision while saying that the presence of the central paramilitary forces in Assam has become insignificant now and is set toward near-full removal with only three districts remaining under AFSPA after the decision. Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh who just got his second term wholeheartedly welcomed the announcement and hoped that this would enable the state move fully in the path of peace and development. We also hope for the complete removal of the dreaded Act in all the states including Jammu and Kashmir in the near future while, at the same time, fully understanding the compulsions of the Government to carry on its counter-terrorism operations effectively.


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