The 44-year-old Irom Chanu Sharmila, also known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur”, has decided to end her hunger-strike that started sixteen years ago in November 2000. Believed to be the “world&’s longest hunger-striker”, she has been the face of dissent and debate on the repeal of the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) in Manipur. Force-fed through a nasal tube in Imphal&’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital — which also serves as her prison ward — the civil rights activist has led a powerful satyagraha rooted in a restive state that has the dubious distinction of the highest number of terror groups in the country (34 of the 65 terror groups active in the country are said to be operating in Manipur).
The fractious “Seven Sister States” of the North-East are precariously perched on the other side of the narrow 23 km wide “Siliguri Corridor”. The land of thousand mutinies dates back to independence. The Naga insurgency started in 1947. Apathetic integration post-independence, tribal turf wars, the conflict between locals and “foreigners”, and the overall lack of development have bred extensive disaffection amongst the people against Delhi. These groups have been clamouring for statehood, regional autonomy, redrawing of borders and also secession from India. Easy availability of arms and anti-India governments in Bangladesh, Myanmar and China have fueled the fire and exacerbated the bloody insurgencies. A schizophrenic and inconsistent approach by the Centre has fluctuated from the overtly military to piece-meal development packages, peace overtures to insurgents, surrenders, rehabilitation and economic doles. For all that, peace has been elusive whenever the military is deployed. It is always the multi-dimensional approach of involving civil societies, tribal and religious leadership, political integration, economic initiative — along with the military — that worked in favour of rapprochement and peace in the restive state. Mizoram, Assam, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh showcase the relative success in curbing secessionist tendencies and addressing the dissenting voices by mainstreaming the popular disillusionment.
Tackling the 1966 Mizo secessionist uprising is a textbook case of success. The multidimensional approach was followed. From a situation where the Indian Air Force was called in to bomb Aizwal (the only occasion when the IAF conducted bombing operations within the country) to the emergence of a Union Territory called Mizoram in 1972, the journey entailed a measure of give-and-take that was not bereft of the state&’s military might. And yet the authorities gave a patient hearing to certain socio-economic and societal concerns involving the local people. The political experiment and innovation continued thereafter, and it culminated in the unprecedented anointment of Laldenga as the first Chief Minister of the “state” of Mizoram in 1987. Laldenga was once the leader of the Mizo National Army (MNA) which had led the bloody secessionist war seeking independence from India. He had also stayed in exile in both Bangladesh and Pakistan.
This political rapprochement was preceded by the Mizoram Accord 1986, which had entailed the stepping down of Lalthanhawla from the office of Chief Minister to Deputy Chief Minister so as to accommodate Laldenga as the interim CM. Basically, the secessionist overtones of the movement were subsumed in the political rehabilitation and inclusion within the framework of the Constitution.
Today, Manipur and Nagaland remain the last two bastions of active militancy, though there were signs of normalcy with the signing of the peace-agreement with the NSCN (Isak-Muivah). However, given the constant shadow of the gun and the perennial insurgency-like situation in Manipur (six soldiers of the Assam Rifles were killed in the attack in Chandel district in May), alternative means of expressing dissent — in the manner of Irom Chanu Sharmila — ought to be appreciated primarily because she did not follow the usual praxis of violence or terror. A fast is inherently designed to express vulnerability, compassion and empathy towards an issue. This template of expressing dissent is powerful and contrary to the means deployed by the insurgents. It mocks at the futility of an armed struggle against the Indian state. Irrespective of the merits of her case against the AFSPA, her method calls for reflection if only to ensure a political settlement towards normalcy in Manipur. Ironically, Irom had been continuously alluding to a “normal” life.
Certain concessions such as the vacating of Kangla fort by Assam Rifles and the lifting of AFSPA from certain areas of Imphal had yielded political space and opportunity to accommodate and reassure the people. However, the little gains were frittered away amidst the overwhelming indifference and a unidimensional approach.
Chanu has called off her hunger-strike out of a sense of frustration over the government&’s failure to bring about a more favourable situation. Her future course of action offers yet another political opportunity of “mainstreaming” her voice, within the ambit of the Constitution. Her decision to contest the impending Assembly election as an Independent should be welcomed as an effort to arrive at a political solution, as opposed to violence and the intervention of the army. She was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2007 as “an outstanding person or group, active in the promotion and advocacy of peace, democracy and human rights”. It is the precise denominator of peace, democracy and human rights that is rarely found in conflict zones, and one that needs to be recognised, lauded and tapped with an inclusive political approach to address the phenomenon of dissent.
In terms of people&’s unrest, Jammu and Kashmir offers a parallel case-study. Of course, the Valley lacks the voice of a local stakeholder who is agreeable to a political solution for normalcy, without raking up secessionism, violence or external influence. To be impervious to local concerns is not a solution as the history of the North-East, J&K, Punjab and the Maoist “Red Corridor” illustrate. Boots on the ground can yield diminishing returns, and a misconception that AFSPA is a “privilege” of the military sets in. AFSPA is only an operational “enabler” that is required to carry out functional requirements. Therefore, any opportunity to incorporate political, civic and economic imperatives and discourses in a conflict zone along with a military role to rein in subversive elements is the only way forward. Political solutions to buttress the imperative of rapprochement need to be harnessed and it is in this context that the role of Irom Chanu Sharmila as a conscientious objector — either as a hunger-striker or as an aspiring politician — needs to be lauded.
The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.