Breaking a Butterfly — Irom Sharmila’s Hunger-Strike for Justice in India

Irom Chanu Sharmila: World’s Longest Hunger-striker

Sharmila’s story is one of horror mixed with hope, unspeakable corruption mingled with unaccountable compassion, secret killings, tortures, and rapes of thousands of innocents by those sworn to protect them, confessions by authorities complicit in murder, and, amidst a land staggering under the stench of death, unfulfilled but enduring love stretching across continents.

“They’re breaking a butterfly on a wheel,” says Desmond Coutinho, fiancé of Irom Sharmila Chanu, after her Spring 2016 acquittal in a Delhi court on a 2006 charge of attempting to commit suicide by staging a 15-year political hunger-strike.

Speaking from his home in southern Ireland on the day of the verdict, Desmond remarks, “People will see ‘not guilty,’ think it’s a great victory, the Facebook world will click ‘like’ and not think about what’s going on. They’re trying to kill her off.” He believes the March 30, 2016 verdict marks the beginning of the end for the longest hunger-strike in history, yet his love burns bright even while his hopes are fading.

Irom Sharmila & Desmond Coutinho

In response to a Nov. 2, 2000 massacre by the Assam Rifles (an Indian paramilitary group) of 10 civilians at a bus stop in Malom, a village in India’s State of Manipur, the 28-year-old Sharmila immediately vowed not to eat, drink, comb her hair, or look in a mirror until repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which prevents prosecution of Indian security forces for any action committed on duty.

On Nov. 5, 2000, three days after beginning her strike, she was arrested in Malom, charged with attempting to commit suicide, and subsequently fed by authorities through a nasal tube. Ever since, Sharmila has been stuck in a cycle of arrest, release, and re-arrest under Indian Penal Code (IPC) section 309, which declares a person who “attempts to commit suicide … shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year.” [1]

Most recently, she was acquitted of the charge by a Manipuri court on Feb. 29, 2016, then re-arrested by Manipuri police on March 2 despite the fact that, according to NDTV, they are still “seeking a relevant law to justify the arrest.” [2]

Discovering Love Amidst Misery

By Indian standards, the 2000 Malom Massacre was small-scale, barely a blip on the radar compared to other state-sponsored crimes in the past few decades. In sheer body count, for instance, it is surpassed in northwestern India’s state of Punjab in June 1984, in the national capital of Delhi in November 1984, in various regions of central India in 1992 and 1993, in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, and in the eastern state of Odisha in 2008. Yet while the quantity of those killed in Malom pales in comparison to many other atrocities, the quality of the attack — the innocence of the victims, the identity of the perpetrators, and the impunity with which the guilty parties were rewarded — matches the pattern of larger massacres.

In every case of a large-scale slaughter in India since 1984, those responsible are members of the state or national ruling party, elected officials serving in a local, state, or national capacity, officers in a local police force (or else protected by the police), or soldiers from one of India’s several military branches — and the Malom Massacre was no different.

Victims of the 2000 Malom Massacre ranged from 18-year-old boys to 62-year-old women, none of whom were linked to any militant or criminal activities. [3] Although no one has ever been held accountable for the massacre, the Manipur High Court ordered in 2014 a payment of 500,000 rupees to each of the victims’ families. NDTV reported: “While troops of the Assam Rifles claim they were exchanging fire with extremists after its convoy came under attack, the High Court observed there was no evidence of any encounter.” [4]

“If you’re giving compensation, you’re admitting guilt,” notes Desmond, a retired social worker. He was born in the island of Zanzibar to a family from Goa, India; his father was a British civil servant and his uncle was a Zanzibari attorney general. He first learned about Sharmila in 2009 when, while studying in northeastern India, he read Deepti Priya Mehotra’s book, Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and Her Struggle for Peace in Manipur.

Mehotra nicknamed Sharmila “The Iron Lady of Manipur,” — Desmond found her description of the determined hunger-striker compelling as she wrote: “I think of Sharmila’s sensitive eyes, questioning look, and a delighted smile waiting to break out. Yet her sorrow is pervasive, deep. With wisdom beyond her years, she has decided to act — an original move aimed at changing, against all odds, the course of history.” [5]

“After a while, I started flirting with her in my letters,” Desmond says. Leaning forward and smiling as he speaks, he admits his audacity as he jokingly remarks, “No one told me you’re not supposed to flirt with a hunger-striker! She wrote back, asking if she had misunderstood and if I would clarify my intentions.”

She had not misunderstood him, and in Feb. 2011 he traveled to Manipur’s capital city, Imphal, where Sharmila has spent most of the past 15 years held in virtual isolation in the secure wing of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital (JNIMS). In Imphal, when Sharmila was in court on March 9, Desmond finally managed to meet for the first time the woman who had captured his heart and soon began advocating on her behalf.

“Yes, he loves me a lot and cares for me,” said Sharmila in 2011. According to India Today: “Sharmila’s room is full of gifts from Coutinho-a wooden statue of Krishna and Radha, Santa Claus cap and bells, a calendar, a diary and a laptop.” [6] Desmond home in Ireland is similarly decorated with keepsakes from his beloved.

Aside from Sharmila’s imprisonment, and her commitment not to marry until her hunger-strike achieves repeal of AFSPA, her romance with Desmond faced another and even stranger barrier. Upon learning that she was in love with a foreigner, Sharmila’s elder brother, Singhajit, threatened to murder her.

In October 2012, she wrote: “In this society, a woman is assumed to live for the benefit of her family and is treated as property which can be acquired and disposed off at the will of a man. My own elder brother Singhajit, who has been supporting my protest from the very beginning, is also keen to project this outlook to the public.” Bluntly describing Singhajit’s reaction to her relationship, she said, “My brother sent me a letter castigating me and swearing he was ready to go to Gaol without bringing up his children for the sake of honor killing.” [7]

Commenting on the threat, Desmond says, “So, for Sharmila, you’ve got this wonderful brother who’s threatening her with honor killing. It’s not a big deal in India. When it first came out, they said, ‘Oh, you’re lying and making it up,’ then they checked and said, ‘Ok, maybe he was joking,’ then they pressed and said, ‘Ok, he’s serious, but it’s a private family matter’. But you will not find one Indian feminist to say anything about it.”

Sharmila suggests disregard for women’s rights is a core issue behind not only the response to her relationship, but the refusal of the state to recognize her demand for AFSPA’s repeal, writing, “I can’t help feeling that if I were born a man, I would have succeeded ten years before now in my movement of fast unto death.”

Her family and supporters, she claims, have helped state security forces to isolate her from the world. “I have been assumed to be an alien person who is free from human desires and woes, who cannot experience the pleasures of distinct stages of life…. Thus, instead of people sitting with me and conversing with me, I have been placed apart and kept aloof from the people, and as a result, people have been prevented from taking up my ideal.” [8]

Speaking of her supporters in desolate terms during a November 2013 interview with NDTV, she declared: “They are acting like the Taliban. They don’t understand that my love has nothing to do with religion or politics. I have even received honour killing threats.” [9]

Over the ensuing years, despite the impediments, Desmond continued traveling back and forth to Manipur to visit Sharmila whenever possible.

On Dec. 24, 2014, however, Desmond’s time in the state came to a conclusion when Manipur police arrested him at JNIMS, booking him under a public nuisance ordinance after he protested being denied access to visit Sharmila. “They had him arrested on the next day on false charges,” she says. His arrest, as Sharmila recounts, “kept him in jail for 77 days under physical and mental harassment.” [10]

After the Irish government interceded for his release, Desmond was let go in Feb. 2015. Although all charges were dropped, he faced a thoroughly hostile environment in Manipur and returned to his home in Ireland. From there, he regularly exchanges letters with Sharmila, sends her books, and treasures in frames on his living room wall the self-portraits, Valentine’s Day, and birthday greetings she sends him.

Both Sharmila and Desmond look forward to marriage with an optimism measured by reality. “If my demand is fulfilled, after I am getting married to my fiancé, Desmond, I will never stop [being] committed to social works,” said Sharmila in Nov. 2015. [11] Perhaps realism outweighs optimism in Desmond’s case, however, as he remarks after her recent acquittal: “The only thing I want for her is to try and stay alive this year. I can’t see a way forward.”

The only barrier preventing the couple from a joyful union is AFSPA, a 58-year-old colonial-style law that seems set in stone when it cannot even be toppled by the Iron Lady of Manipur’s 15-year hunger-strike. Yet she will not give up. “This is her Alamo,” says Desmond. Sharmila, meanwhile, said after her acquittal in Delhi: “My struggle will continue till the time AFPSA is repealed. It does not matter whether I am released from the jail or not.” [12]

AFSPA: A Draconian Law

“I have been demanding that AFSPA be repealed or lifted from Manipur as the same has caused immense hardship to the common man of Manipur,” declared Sharmila in October 2015. “Thousands of innocent people have been killed, hundreds of rapes have taken place on Manipur’s women. No action has been taken under the garb of AFSPA.” [13]

The law is a direct replica of one imposed on India to stifle dissent during the British Empire’s occupation of the subcontinent. “In 1958, the Indian Parliament imposed on the northeast’s Seven Sister States, including Manipur, a law first used by the colonial British in 1942 to attack the free India movement,” explains Desmond. In short, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act grants Indian security forces nearly unlimited powers, including the right to:

– Shoot to kill any person “reasonably suspected” of breaking the law

– Arrest suspicious persons without a warrant

– Search and seize property without a warrant

– Destroy any structure suspected of use by insurgent groups

– Avoid prosecution for any actions committed under the Act

In “Burning Bright,” Mehotra summarized the result of AFSPA’s imposition by security forces: “They often target ordinary people, misusing these special powers. Newspapers report innumerable incidents of false encounters. Human rights organizations have documented hundreds of cases of killing, arrest, rape, and torture of innocent people.”

Innocent civilians are “caught in the crossfire,” Mehotra warned, writing: “People throughout Manipur live in a state of fear: on the one hand they fear insurgents, on the other hand security forces…. Ordinary people have lost all semblance of normal life.” When her book was published in 2009, Manipur was a full-scale war-zone with 60,000 military and paramilitary troops deployed throughout the state. [14]

“Basically,” says Desmond, “AFSPA is a draconian law allowing Indian paramilitaries to rape and kill with impunity. Sharmila wants the basic democratic guarantee that, if a crime occurs at the hands of an Indian soldier, there will be an investigation and, if there’s sufficient evidence, a prosecution. That’s all she’s asking for.”

Around the globe, AFSPA has faced harsh criticism from the most distinguished human rights watchdogs and international bodies, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

To mark the law’s 50th anniversary in 2008, HRW published a comprehensive report describing AFSPA as a “a tool of state abuse, oppression, and discrimination” which “protects military personnel responsible for serious crimes from prosecution, creating a pervasive culture of impunity.” Noting that nearly identical laws were imposed on Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir (the former was repealed in 1997; the latter remains in effect), HRW cited the draconian legislation as a cause of the insurgencies for which its apologists say it is necessary to combat:

Enacted on August 18, 1958 as a short-term measure to allow deployment of the army against an armed separatist movement in India’s northeastern Naga Hills, the AFSPA has been invoked for five decades. It has since been used throughout the northeast, particularly in Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur. A variant of the law was also used in Punjab during a separatist movement in the 1980s and 90s, and has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990. Indian officials have long sought to justify use of the law by citing the need for the armed forces to have extraordinary powers to combat armed insurgents. Human Rights Watch said that abuses facilitated by the AFSPA, especially extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and “disappearances,” have fed public anger and disillusionment with the Indian state. This has permitted militant groups to flourish in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir.

The AFSPA has not only led to human rights violations, but it has allowed members of the armed forces to perpetrate abuses with impunity. They have been shielded by clauses in the AFSPA that prohibit prosecutions from being initiated without permission from the central government. Such permission is rarely granted.

“Violations under the AFSPA have served as a recruiting agent for militant groups,” said Ganguly. “In both Kashmir and the northeast, we have heard over and over again that abuses by troops, who are never punished for their crimes, have only shrunk the space for those supporting peaceful change.” [15]

In 2012, the United Nations also denounced AFSPA. “I have heard extensive evidence of action taken under this law that resulted in innocent lives being lost,” said UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns after touring regions where it is enforced. “The AFSPA in effect allows the state to override rights in the disturbed areas in a much more intrusive way than would be the case under a state of emergency, since the right to life is in effect suspended…. The repeal of this law will not only bring domestic law more in line with international standards, but also send out a powerful message that instead of a military approach the government is committed to respect for the right to life of all people of the country.”

Heyns additionally expressed concern over human rights violations such as “excessive use of force by police including fake encounters, custodial deaths and traditional practices affecting women such as honour killings.” [16]

“People are being murdered all the time and nothing happens,” comments Desmond. “We’ve got these victims saying, ‘Why are they being killed?’ They’re called encounters. Each one, the security forces say they’re insurgents, they’re evil, they’re bad people generally. No trial. Nothing. So the Human Rights Alert decides to take these to the Supreme Court.”

The issue of encounter killings of innocent Manipuri civilians by security forces over the past several decades has produced such a crescendo of misery in the state that the national government can no longer ignore it. In Jan 2013, the Supreme Court was prompted by the initiative of Manipur-based Human Rights Alert to appoint the Santosh Hegde Commission. The commission began investigating claims that “1,528 innocents, including 31 women and 98 children, [were] extra-judicially executed by the security forces during 1979-2012.” [17]

“There’s no evidence of these people having anything to do with insurgency,” notes Desmond. “No evidence that they had any weapons or were doing anything at all. They were just shot.”

As described in an Indian Express article, one shocking but tragically typical incident was the murder of a 12-year-old boy:

The Santosh Hegde Commission, set up by the Supreme Court to probe “fake encounters,” tried six sample cases of alleged fake encounters and found each and every one of them to be “not an encounter’’ and not carried out by the security forces in self-defence.

One of these cases was the death of Azad Khan, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by a joint group of the Assam Rifles and the Manipur commandos.

According to the family’s version, on March 4, 2009, months before Meitei was killed, Azad was sitting with his friend Kiyam Anand Singh on the family verandah when 30 security personnel arrived at his home and dragged Azad to a nearby field. His parents and a cousin were at home at the time. The officers allegedly locked Azad’s family members and his friend in a room. From a window in the room, which overlooked the field, Azad’s parents watched him fall to the ground and the security men shoot him and then throw a pistol near his body. [18]

Rape, gang-rape, and the murder of rape victims also number among the horrifying atrocities committed by security forces shielded behind AFSPA. One incident in 2014 brought the law’s shelter for rapists to international attention.

On July 10, 2014, 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama was arrested from her home by soldiers from the Assam Rifles, raped, shot six times, and dumped dead in a field, where her body was discovered the next morning. [19] Five days later, the brutal rape and murder famously inspired several dozen Manipuri women to strip naked and stage a protest outside the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal, shouting: “Indian Army, rape us, kill us! We are all Manorama’s mothers. Come, rape us, you bastards!” [20] Inadvertently admitting guilt but still refusing to prosecute anyone involved, the Manipuri government paid out one million rupees to Manorama’s family. [21] Yet, protected by AFSPA, no one faced prosecution.

With outrage in his voice, Desmond asks: “If a soldier is accused of raping someone, should he not at least be investigated? That seems reasonable enough. But it’s impossible under the martial law of AFSPA.”

Passed in 1958, AFSPA gave governors of a state the power to declare areas “disturbed” — in 1980, when the entire State of Manipur was first declared a “disturbed zone,” there were only four major insurgent groups. Yet, after hearing the Santosh Hegde Commission’s findings, the Supreme Court reached similar conclusions as HRW — namely, that AFSPA is fueling militancy in Manipur. When a Manipuri legal representative admitted the number of insurgent groups has since increased to over a dozen at present, the Supreme Court asked: “You mean to say that in 35 years of Army presence in the state, the situation has not improved to remove the disturbed area tag from the state? Has nothing changed on the law and order front for the last three decades?” [22]

Ultimately, wrote American Consul General (Kolkata) Henry Jardine in a leaked 2006 cable, “AFSPA has become a symbol of oppression and only serves to radicalize the ethnic groups.” Its colonial origins do not escape the attentions of Manipuris. Recalling his “many interactions, even with some government officials,” Jardine reported:

A reoccurring comment was that Manipur was less a state and more a colony of India. The general use of the AFSPA meant that the Manipuris did not have the same rights of other Indian citizens and restrictions on travel to the state added to a sense of isolation and separation from the rest of India “proper.” The overwhelming presence of military, paramilitary and police officers contributed to the impression that Imphal was under military occupation. Several Manipuris argued that they had greater rights under the British Raj than under the present federation. [23]

Since then, a coalition of over 60 prominent Indian social activists publicly condemned AFSPA for identical reasons. In November 2015, the coalition, including Aruna Roy, Prashant Bhushan, Nikhil Dey, Teesta Setalvad (described earlier that year by the BBC as India’s “most hounded activist” for her role in exposing state complicity in the 2002 Gujarat Genocide [24]), jointly stated:

The law exposes people to wanton and reckless use of force by security forces as it grants them absolute power and authority to use force. Over the years, a consensus has emerged on the AFSPA being a security measure of colonial origin in that it is a distinctively regressive tool, which sets up a military ecosystem where security forces act with impunity and whip up an environment of fear and terror in the hearts and minds of people living in these places. [25]

Reporting on the situation for Manipuris as of February 2016, Kadayam Subramanian, a former Director General of Police (DGP) in northeast India, says, “Enforced disappearances, arbitrary executions, torture, rape, housebreak, loot, and arbitrary detention became everyday features of life in Manipur. And yet, few perpetrators of these gross violations of human rights were ever prosecuted. Thus, the armed forces enjoy complete immunity.” [26]

Complete immunity is typical policy for occupying military forces in a colonial state. Whether indigenous Australians under British occupation, African Congolese under Belgian occupation, or Native Americans under U.S occupation, colonized peoples are routinely treated as subhuman. Entire philosophies are spun by the occupiers to justify their supposed superiority and right to complete immunity.

India holds true to that pattern as its ruling elite cling to any and every excuse under the sun as legitimate reasons for treating the powerless as inferior people with no natural right to the most basic civil liberties. Whether attacking religious institutions like the Golden Temple in Punjab in 1984 or the Babri Mosque in Uttar Pradesh in 1992, or orchestrating pogroms against minorities like the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 or the Christians in Odisha in 2008, the state agents behind the atrocities invariably find a justification for massacring innocent civilians. When protests against atrocities are too loud to ignore, they will concede only by investigating, selecting low-level scapegoats, and absolving themselves of all guilt — often while arguing the necessity of the atrocity at the same time they pay millions in compensation to the families of victims.

It is increasingly clear that the ruling elite are subject to a different law than the rest of society. Politicians, soldiers, police, and those who bribe them are free to pillage, rape, and murder with complete immunity while those who endure these crimes are denied the legal right to do anything but silently suffer. The situation is eerily reminiscent of the social structure instituted by “Manusmriti,” the ancient Hindu law-book which teaches people are born into division, falling into four segregated classes of humanity ranked from superior to inferior, with Brahmans at the top as the philosophers and guides and sole beneficiaries of society and Shudras at the bottom as the slaves of all those above them.

Is AFSPA a symbol of Brahmanocracy reigning over the oppressed masses of India?

The Failed State of Manipur

In 2012, Sharmila provided the aptest summary of Manipur’s situation, writing: “It seems that the dark lesson of acquisition of position and power by hook or by crook is most valued as the way of governance in Manipur.” [27] Years earlier, Consul Jardine’s cable harmonized with that grim evaluation. Prefacing his conclusions with an overview of the state’s demographics, he wrote:

Manipur is situated in the remote corner of Northeast India, sharing a 358 kilometer border with Burma. The population of 2.3 million people is predominantly tribal. The Meiteis are the major ethnic group and are primarily in the Imphal Valley, while the Nagas occupy much of the hill districts. Numerous other ethnic groups, including the Kukis and Paites, inhabit the state, and each community has its own socio-economic-political aspirations. Manipur is economically backward, ethnically diverse and politically unstable. Violence, kidnappings, extortion and killings by militant groups are common occurrences. [28]

Describing the background of Manipur’s ongoing conflict, Indian activist Bhavana Mahajan wrote: “Originally a kingdom, Manipur acceded to India in 1949. However, many groups within Manipur viewed this merger as being against their ethnic and territorial interests.”

Dissent against Manipur’s assimilation into India (also a cause of conflict in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and other areas of the country) initially sparked the ongoing insurgency. Unlike in other conflict zones, however, Manipur’s militant groups are sharply divided and totally disunited. “There are over 30 different ethnic and tribal groups in Manipur,” explains Mahajan, “with some wanting a separate state under the Indian Constitution, some seeking sovereignty in alliance with sister tribes from neighbouring countries, and others demanding protection of their customary laws.” [29]

Jardine recognized the lack of cohesion or even political purpose behind the insurgency, writing: “Manipur suffers from over 30 active insurgency groups claiming to represent various ethnic and community interests but mostly are simply kidnapping and extortion rackets.” Desmond agrees that, whatever they may have been in the past, today’s insurgent movements are little more than criminal enterprises. “Not a single Manipuri I’ve spoken with believes there is any real insurgency anymore,” he says. “It’s all just family or money connections.” He suggests the various insurgent movements are closely linked to state security forces and have become self-perpetuating.

“Complicating effort to control the rising violence is the rampant corruption,” reported Jardine. The corruption produces an unbelievably blurry line dividing the state from those it claims to be fighting. After speaking with Indian civil servants in Manipur, Jardine says they are “clearly frustrated with their inability to stem the growing violence and anarchy in the state, feeling their efforts to effectively control the insurgencies was hamstrung by local politicians either in league with or at least through corruption, helping to finance the insurgents.”

A member of the state’s Legislative Assembly, speaking to Jardine, characterized Manipuri Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh (in office since 2002) as “Mr. Ten Percent,” a nickname earned “for the amount of money that he takes from contracts and government projects.” Several other sources “agreed that many key government officers and politicians receive kick-backs and skim-off money from government funds.” Bribes equivalent to thousands of U.S. dollars are a basic requirement for obtaining a Manipuri government job; Jardine’s cable, released by Wikileaks, said the bribes are paid out to state government ministers.

“The corruption results in a nexus between politicians and the insurgent groups,” wrote Jardine. Naming various sources, including the state’s Chief Secretary, the state’s Youth Congress leader, and the Indian Army’s Chief of Staff, Jardine reported that not only did they claim strong links between politicians and insurgents, but that the Army Chief of Staff even accuses Chief Minister Singh of directly contributing 15 million rupees to militant groups. [30]

Meanwhile, in January 2016, a Hindustan Times columnist noted: “Manipur is a failed state. No one’s really interested in it. Insurgency and the killings will not end. In fact, they can’t. There are too many vested interests involved there: Promotions and political careers, and, most importantly, insurgency is a money-spinner and everyone, just about everyone in power, has their hand in the till. It’s Manipur’s one and only functioning industry.” [31]

A Grim Future for Manipuris

In her struggle against AFSPA, Sharmila has achieved some small measure of victory, as the Act was repealed from the municipal limits of Imphal in August 2004 after intense public outcry against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama. Chief Minister Singh brags about his part in the withdrawal, noting that Imphal “comprises seven Assembly constituencies,” yet neglecting to mention that Manipur’s 53 other constituencies remain under shadow of the Act. [32]

While he thinks Sharmila should be credited for the partial repeal, Desmond sees it as a meaningless political concession arranged without her participation. “Sharmila’s brother, who is completely owned by the police, did a private deal Manipur’s Chief Minister in 2004 to remove AFSPA from Imphal, at least,” he says. “So, the Chief Minister used Sharmila’s protest and her brother to get AFSPA removed just from Imphal, where 65% of the population live, including all the Meitei. But her campaign for removal of AFSPA was never that simple, because she’s trying to get rid of the immunity and lack of accountability. Yet they never credit her with that change, anyway. It’s gone from 65% of the population, but it’s played down because it was designed purely to give the Chief Minister power and help him make his fortune.”

“There’s no real complaint in Imphal about AFSPA anymore,” continues Desmond. “It’s gone from the Meitei. So now AFSPA is there for the Army to play war-games among low-caste or outcaste hill tribals. Their problem is whether to replace the Indian Army, with whom they have some —not much, but some — redress with the Manipuri police who are obviously getting away with murder.”

In the early 1980s, shortly after Manipur was declared a “disturbed” area subject to AFSPA, the state government formed a militarized police wing known as the Manipur Police Commandos. As The Indian Express reports, “The commandos were to be used only to fight insurgents, not for day-to-day law and order enforcement of the police.” [33] Upon withdrawal of AFSPA from Imphal, commandos became the primary anti-insurgency force, with the result that, “as their profile increased, the commandos have, to a large extent, replaced the military in Manipur as the face of power and terror.” According to retired DGP Kadayam Subramanian:

The sense of immunity from prosecution available to central armed forces under AFSPA has percolated to the state security forces as well. Hence, Manipur Police Commandos have freely killed people on their own without fearing the consequences. Instituted for the purpose of containing insurgency in the state, the Manipur Police Commandos have digressed from their original purpose to embark on a path of fulfilling personal agendas of getting police medals and other recognitions for career advancement. [34]

A case filed against the police by the mother of one victim, 22-year-old Chungkham Sanjit Meitei, illustrates how even public exposure of their modus operandi fails to make a dent in the system’s cycle of oppression. The mother alleges her son was unarmed when police dragged him into a shop in Imphal on July 23, 2009 and executed him in cold blood; a pregnant woman standing on the street outside was also killed in the same incident by a stray police bullet. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is still investigating the charges against nine police officers (none of whom are under arrest), even though one of them confessed in Jan. 2016 to pulling the trigger on orders from his superiors.

Speaking to The Indian Express, police commando Thounaojam Herojit Singh said, “Yes, I shot him. I shot Sanjit Meitei. No, he was not armed. I felt no remorse, no sympathy after I killed Sanjit. I felt nothing. It was an order and I had to simply carry it out.” Herojit says he was directly ordered to “finish him off” by Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) Dr. Akoijam Jhalajhit, who was subsequently promoted to Superintendent of Police (SP). Furthermore, the commando claims the execution was authorized from the top, with orders passed down from Chief Minister Ibobi Singh to DGP Yumnam Joykumar to the police officers on the streets. [35]

This was not Herojit’s first time as an executioner. Terming him “Manipur police’s main ‘hitman’,” The Indian Express reported: “Associates close to Herojit in Manipur’s police force say that this may have been the most high profile incident (the incident which got most media attention) that the encounter cop was involved in but he is alleged to have been involved in other cases too.” [36]

In total, according to Asia Times, Herojit has reportedly killed 133 people in similar encounters. For his hard work, he received a gallantry award. His example is typical, as officers commit encounter killings to “please their political masters,” or for “awards and promotions,” or even for “economic benefits.” [37]

Despite the most blatant confession imaginable, the system remains unchanged. “Even the head constable is not in custody,” mourns Desmond. “He’s been saying, ‘Yes, I murdered this man, I was given an award for that, my boss was given promotion, and he got his permission from the Chief Minister,’ and nothing happens to him. From the head down, the police commandos were set up to replace the army in Imphal to just murder people at will. The politicians back them. There is no protection in law for what they’re doing. There is no AFSPA for the police, so there is not even a bad law to repeal.”

One can understand the lack of action, despite the clear confession of a killer cop, in context of how widespread encounter killings are throughout the rest of India. Awards are handed out for murdering detainees and promotions are linked to filling body count quotas, reports Human Rights Watch: “The government awarded gallantry medals and promotions to police who ‘scored’ dozens of encounter deaths, crediting the deaths, rather than arrests, with breaking organized crime’s stronghold on Mumbai and Delhi, and reducing gang violence in Bangalore.” [38] As seen in the case of Manipur, however, the victims are not only killed in cold blood, and while unarmed, but often are entirely innocent people unaffiliated with any criminal endeavor. Of course, regardless of their guilt or innocence, no democratic country enforces law and order through secret, extra-judicial lynchings of suspects.

There have been glimmers of light in recent days as small cracks appear in the system of impunity. In early April 2016, 47 Indian police officers were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering 11 Sikh men in an encounter killing. On July 12, 1991, the cops had stopped a bus, arrested the men in sight of other passengers, detained them without charges at local police stations, and then killed them that night.

Yet, while a minor victory, the conviction hardly represents a systemic change. After all, it took 25 years to achieve the judgement despite clear evidence of guilt; 57 were originally charged, but ten died during the course of the trial; and only low-level officers were charged even though, as reported by The Indian Express, “police officers who were holding important posts must be behind the incident, but the CBI kept them away from the investigation.” [39]

At issue, then, especially considering the routine failure of the judicial system to prosecute commanding officers (when it prosecutes anyone at all) is not only the corruption, the totalitarian legal system, or even the atrocities committed by the security forces, but the unapologetic and unflinching willingness of the individuals involved to carry out even the cruelest and most unjust orders with unquestioning obedience.

As Herojit says, he has no remorse or sympathy for murdering a man in cold blood. “He presents himself as the perfect professional, doing his duty as best as he could within the confines of the job profile he is given,” writes Imphal Free Press editor Pradip Phanjoubam. “The picture is as chilling as one of the Grim Ripper himself. It is still more frightful because it is unlikely Herojit is the only executioner in the Manipur Police, or for that matter any other armed law enforcing unit operating in the state.”

“The entire episode,” Phanjoubam further wrote, “almost evokes the debate in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna literally coerces a reluctant Arjuna to pick up his weapons to kill his enemies as a soldier should, without once worrying about the consequences. Herojit too had come to believe the insurgents – actual or suspected – were his enemy, and killing them was his duty. With robotic compliance, he followed orders to perform actions which were, for the law abiding and human at heart, monstrous.” [40]

Therein lies the real horror for Manipuris. The central government in Delhi passed a law permitting the nation’s army to commit atrocities with impunity. The state government in Imphal created a police force that operates as a death squad. The entire system of state terrorism is laid bare, even by the unvarnished confession of the executioners involved, and yet the judiciary does nothing to stop it. Meanwhile, the only person who has ever consistently stood in the midst of this wave of bloodshed, Irom Sharmila, remains locked away from the world as punishment for her dissent.

The Iron Lady Soldiers on in Isolation

“Irom Sharmila is not fasting unto death,” wrote Deepti Mehotra. “Rather, she is fasting unto life, to remove a brutal law that allows the murder of innocent people.” [41]

Sharmila, however, thinks many people are missing the point. “The world seems to be think of me as if I am demanding for my right to death, so they are just campaigning for my release without condition,” she said in Nov. 2015. “They don’t bother to touch on my cause, my real hopes, which is to repeal AFSPA.” [42]

Yet her ability to speak her mind freely is deeply restricted by an almost complete isolation. Desmond has been unable to return to Manipur to visit her since being freed from detainment. She is estranged from her family and supporters, who she says treat her like property, try to control her actions, and have even threatened her with death over her engagement.

Moreover, the national Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in July 2015 passed new guidelines for visiting prisoners; supposedly intended “to regulate the entry of NGOs and filmmakers into the prison for making documentaries,” the guidelines require visitors deposit one million rupees before entering a prison — or, in Sharmila’s case, a secured hospital wing. Protesting the stringency of the new guidelines, Sharmila said, “The MHAs terms and conditions to deposit Rs one lakh to meet a prisoner like me is nothing but to shatter the freedom of speech of political prisoners in the country.” [43]

“There are three things no one is talking about regarding Sharmila,” says Desmond. “First, how Herojit’s confession shows the police have impunity to murder just like the army. Second, how she’s being kept in total isolation by these MHA guidelines. Third, how the repeal of AFSPA is her only demand, which groups like Amnesty International miss by insisting on her immediate and unconditional release. If she’s released, she will continue her hunger-strike without the feeding tube and be dead in weeks. What anyone who supports her should be demanding is the end of AFSPA.”

The struggle remains in deadlock, however. The Iron Lady of Manipur shows no signs of giving up, but neither have the central or state governments relented. “I know that violence will never solve any problems,” said Sharmila in June 2015. “With love and kindness everything can be solved.” [44] Yet where are those willing to show love and kindness to the suffering hunger-striker by joining her demand for justice?

Determined as she remains, she knows what the future holds, remarking: “The absence of mass support is certain to have me face death due to starvation without fulfilling my demands.” Speaking in a mournful voice in a Nov. 2015 video, she implored people to take up her cause. “I just want to gain success — which is so rightful — with the intervention of the public. I am really in need of their joining hands.” [45]

“She will neither compromise, nor give up the fight halfway,” wrote Deepti Mehotra. “In staking a claim to peace as a basic right due to all people, she has become a symbol, an icon and an inspiration. The symbolism is powerful in its surrealism. She is down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, yet her act of daring is, literally, unthinkable for the rest of us.” [46]

Yet as much as of a symbol as Sharmila has become, she asks: “Why should our people remain contented just seeing me as a symbol of resistance?” She insists she wants to “resume my past normal life,” and reiterating her love for Desmond, says that, if AFSPA is ever repealed and she can give up her hunger-strike, “I want to commit to him, my life partner, just like a couple of peace birds to give message of hope to the world.” [47]

For the foreseeable future, however, Sharmila remains isolated in JNIMS in Imphal with a feeding tube attached to her nose. Desmond remains in Ireland, his heart and mind still devoted to Sharmila, periodically appealing to local Irish politicians to speak out for the hunger-striker as he spends his time walking his dog, Carruthers, writing letters and sending books to Sharmila, and telling everyone he meets about the Iron Lady of Manipur.

“Her hunger-strike is an attempt to shame the government into recognizing its wrongs,” says Desmond. “It’s just like Yeats wrote in ‘The King’s Threshold.’” Written by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, the play about a bard’s hunger-strike to demand justice from the king is, as Desmond notes, a mirror of Sharmila’s struggle —

Seanchan went out, and from that hour to this,

Although there is good food and drink beside him,

Has eaten nothing. If a man is wronged,

Or thinks that he is wronged, and will lie down

Upon another’s threshold until he dies,

The common people for all time to come

Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,

Even though it is the King’s. He lies there now

Perishing; he is calling against my majesty.

Will the governments of India and of Manipur listen to Irom Chanu Sharmila as she lies down upon their thresholds, now perishing as she is calling out against their majesty? As this poor, perishing woman remains caged and cut off from society, one of the most important lessons she offers the world is that even the most feeble creatures can strike fear into the hearts of even the most powerful by refusing to let them forget the wrongs they’ve committed. Forbid the thought, but should she die, the common people for all time must raise a heavy cry against the tyrants who failed to heed the gentle Manipuri lady’s demands for truth, justice, and peace.

Citations
1. Central Government Act, Section 309 in The Indian Penal Code.
2. “Irom Sharmila Arrested Yet Again After Resuming Her Hunger Strike.” NDTV. March 2, 2016.
3. Thokchom, Khelen. “Relief for Malom victims’ kin.” The Telegraph. December 6, 2014.
4. Pandey, Alok and B. Sunzu. “Manipur’s Malom Massacre: High Court Orders Rs. 5 Lakh Compensation For Victims’ Families.” NDTV. December 7, 2014.
5. Mehotra, Deepti Priya. Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and Her Struggle for Peace in Manipur. London: Penguin Books, 2009. Preface.
6. Deka, Kaushik. “Irom in Love.” India Today. September 17, 2011.
7. Coutinho, Desmond. “Sharmila in her own words.” SaddaHaq 2.0. March 25, 2015.
8. Ibid.
9. Pandey, Alok. “Faced ‘honour killing’ threats for relationship with foreigner, says activist Irom Sharmila.” NDTV. November 7, 2013.
10. “15 Year Hunger-Striker Irom Sharmila: ‘Repeal India’s AFSPA or I Die of Starvation’.” Sikh24.com. November 19, 2015.
11. Ibid.
12. “Irom Sharmila Acquitted In 2006 Case Of Attempt To Suicide.” NDTV. March 30, 2016.
13. “Irom Sharmila breaks down in Delhi court, reiterates demand for AFSPA repeal.” The Hindu. October 6, 2015.
14. Mehotra. Burning Bright.
15. “India: Repeal Armed Forces Special Powers Act.” Human Rights Watch. August 18, 2008.
16. Dhar, Aarti. “U.N. asks India to repeal AFSPA.” The Hindu. March 31, 2012.
17. Subramanian, Kadayam. “India must repeal law that gives military sweeping powers in Manipur.” Asia Times. February 23, 2016.
18. Roy, Esha. “A ‘confession’ brings Manipur and its shadowy encounters back in focus.” The Indian Express. February 1, 2016.
19. “‘These Fellows Must Be Eliminated’: Relentless Violence and Impunity in Manipur.” Human Rights Watch. September 2008.
20. Bhonsle, Anubha. “Indian Army, Rape Us.” Outlook. February 10, 2016.
21. Nitesh, Ravi. “‘Right to Justice’ Deprived by State: Case of ‘Manorama Vs AFSPA’ from Manipur, India.” Oxford Human RIghts Hub. January 7, 2015.
22. Mahapatra, Dhananjay. “SC: Is AFSPA in Manipur eternal?” The Times of India. January 15, 2016.
23. Jardine, Henry. “NORTHEAST INDIAN STATE OF MANIPUR EXPERIENCES ESCALATING VIOLENCE.” Wikileaks: Public Library of US Diplomacy. September 1, 2006.
24. Biswas, Soutik. “Is Teesta Setalvad India’s most hounded activist?” BBC news. September 2, 2015.
25. “Eminent citizens oppose HC order on AFSPA.” The Hindu. November 27, 2015.
26. Subramanian, K.S. State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016.
27. Coutinho. SaddaHaq 2.0. March 2015.
28. Jardine. Wikileaks. September 2006.
29. Mahajan, Bhavana. “A woman challenging state-sanctioned violence in Northeast India.” openDemocracy. January 27, 2016.
30. Jardine.
31. Dasgupta, KumKum. “Insurgency: Manipur’s one and only functioning industry.” The Hindustan Times. January 29, 2016.
32. Sunil, Oinam. “Can’t remove AFSPA from Manipur yet: Okram Ibobi Singh.” The Times of India. January 23, 2012.
33. Roy. The Indian Express. February 2016.
34. Subramanian. Asia Times. February 2016.
35. Roy, Esha. “Imphal encounter: 6 years later, the admission — ‘Yes, I shot him dead, he was unarmed, officer told me to’.” The Indian Express. January 27, 2016.
36. Roy, Esha. “Why Manipur head constable Herojit Singh became an encounter cop.” The Indian Express. January 28, 2016.
37. Ramachandran, Sudha. “Most ‘encounter’ killings by Indian police to please officials, get promotion.” Asia Times. February 11, 2016.
38. Human Rights Watch. “Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police.” August 4, 2009. 92.
39. Sahu, Manish. “1991 Pilibhit fake encounter: CBI court awards life sentence to 47 cops.” The Indian Express. April 5, 2016.
40. Phanjoubam, Pradip. “Killer Cop Confessions and the Banality of Evil in Manipur.” The Wire. Jan. 29, 2016.
41. Mehotra. Burning Bright.
42. Sikh24.com. November 19, 2015.
43. “Irom Sharmila opposes MHA guidelines to meet prisoners.” The Economic Times. Nov. 9, 2015.
44. Singh, Sanjeev. “AFSPA Responsible for Attack on Armymen in Manipur, Says Irom Sharmila.” NDTV. June 6, 2015.
45. Sikh24.com. November 19, 2015.
46. Mehotra. Burning Bright.
47. Sikh24.com. November 19, 2015.

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