Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Irom Sharmila Vs. The Indian Army

Irom Sharmila Vs. The Indian Army

Switch on the TV it’s all about the IPL craze. Read the papers it’s all about match fixing. The news is all about cricket everywhere. And in other news, there was a protest in Delhi recently about Irom Sharmila’s deteriorating condition. Irom Sharmila for those of us who are not familiar with the name is called the Iron Lady of Manipur. She has been on a hunger strike since the year 2000. There is a criminal case against her for fasting- a case for attempted suicide. And the reason for her fast- simple – she just wants the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) removed from Manipur and all the north eastern states.

Now if you are still reading this and are curious about what the AFSPA is and does let me add a little explanation. Law and order is a police (State) subject in India- that is why in the movies you always see the commissioner of police reporting to the CM and not the PM. But the central government can interfere in the states business when it declares a particular state as a disturbed area and can send in the military. But when the military enters a civilian area they have no power to do what they do best- shoot down the enemy. That’s where the AFSPA comes- it grants full power to the military to act in a civilian area as if it’s under war. It can shoot down anyone with no questions being asked. Ordinarily this is not a problem when its militants and terrorists who are being hunted down. But sometimes innocent bystanders are also hurt- this is euphemistically termed as “collateral damage”. And that’s where the AFSPA plays a major role in protecting the army from lawsuits in civilian courts- in the high court or the Supreme Court for causing the deaths of innocent bystanders, shot accidentally.

Let’s get one thing clearly here; the blame clearly lies with the governments (successive) rather than the army. The army is a professional organization with clear rules of engagement- to shoot first and ask questions later- which is what their training equips them to do on the battlefields where they belong. Where they do not belong are civilian areas inside India. For an army which exists to shoot down Pakistanis and Chinese, to end up shooting Indians destroys the very credibility of the army. When an Indian citizen joins the Indian army, he doesn’t do it understanding that he may later be called on to shoot at fellow Indian citizens. To ask him to do that is to show that the Indian army has still not changed from the days of General Dyer and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. And the person responsible for asking the army to do this, the government clearly shows that it is least interested in developing the police force to deal with internal threats while getting the army to do its dirty work.

So to come back to the premise of this post- what Irom Sharmila and other civil rights activists say is right- the AFSPA should go and without the cover of the AFSPA the army would naturally return to the borders where it belongs. The local police forces should be solely responsible for law and order inside India, as they are both trained and equipped for it and also because they are under the oversight of the courts to prevent any excesses. Unleashing the army on our own civilians and covering up their actions under the AFSPA is playing a self goal against the army and the country. But when have our politicians ever done the right thing for the country? They use the police for bandobast on roadways and use the army for police work. 

And because large parts of our polity are inherently racist no one bothers about how the north eastern states are considered perennially disturbed while the heartland states with more incidents of violence are just law and order problems. Is it because we don’t trust the Border States? Or we don’t care what happens there?  And I am not even talking here about Kashmir, I am just referring to states like Manipur or Nagaland where the armed insurgency is tribal in nature rather than jihadi. If large swathes of India is reeling under the Naxalite menace and still the government opts to use the CRPF in states like Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, what prevents them from doing the same in the north eastern states? 

There are two obvious solutions to this issue. The first one makes the most sense. Withdraw the army to the border where it belongs and leave the civilian areas to the proper authorities the police. The second and more painful option is to remove the fig leaf of the AFSPA cover and allow the army to operate like all civilian authorities in civilian areas- under the judicial oversight. To be accountable for excesses and to be prosecuted for unauthorized acts and to be held responsible for illegal orders. This will provide the solution the protesters in Manipur and other areas have been asking for- justice for victims. Unfortunately in our subcontinent we have a tendency to deify the armed forces- both Pakistan and India place the army on a pedestal and no one is allowed to question any excess because we are more patriotic than you. This kind of unthinking deification is what allows the Pakistani army to declare martial law again and again and the women of Manipur to stand up naked and hold placards saying “rape us Indian army”.

But the problem with us Indians is that we confuse patriotism with jingoism. We should support the legitimate acts of our government. But we are seduced by media campaigns which make us hyper-jingoistic on unfair issues. The AFPSA is a patently unfair law which only serves to damage the image of the army and destroy the faith of the peaceful citizens of India in one country/one law. But any criticism of this law means the hyper-jingoistic shouting brigades get into action defending the excesses under the guise of expediency. It’s as if repealing the law in the northeastern states would immediately lead to a declaration of independence from India. Is India so weak a nation that we need to terrify our population with the army to make them stay inside the union? What difference does democratic India offer to the British Raj which used to terrify the native population with the army and only used to rule by force and censorship? I believe that contrary to what we force fed by the pliant media and shrieking retired generals (on TV), India is a far stronger and unified country and need not fear its own citizens or threaten them with the armed forces.

 And by the way I am also curious as to why the radical feminist brigades, who went hyper during the Delhi rape, fail to respond when the women who get raped are from Manipur or Nagaland or Mizoram? When women hold up placards asking the Indian army to rape them (shaming us all), shouldn’t the new defenders of feminism at least offer a pip or a sound-byte? I haven’t heard of any candle light vigils or TV shows discussing this. Have you? Irom Sharmila can starve to death for all that we care, for we are busy watching the fixed matches of IPL and showing our diehard support to CSK (as if they need us to). Makes one remember that old adage about common sense not being very common. 

So what do you say? Should this unjust law called AFSPA be allowed to exist? Should Irom Sharmila and the women of Manipur get justice? Should the north eastern states be treated as part of India? Or should they be treated as enemy territory under occupation and to be pacified with the army? Let me know your thoughts, please…..

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