Parliament sessions become a game of wits between Parliamentarians and the Executive, at least on the issue of answering Parliament Questions. The unstated ground rules about providing answers are very clear. State the truth, but be as vague as possible, and give out as little as possible. And frame the reply in such a way, that it can never be interpreted as an assurance that can tether the minister and the ministry for ever.
An erudite member of the Rajya Sabha, who is an active participant in matters close to his heart, asked the Home Minister the following question on 3.12.2014.
"*149. SHRI D. RAJA : Will the Minister of HOME AFFAIRS be pleased to state:
"(a) whether Government's attention has been drawn to the 15 years old fast by Irom Chanu Sharmila demanding withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur; and
"(b) if so, the details thereof and Government's reaction to her demand?"
To this he got some cryptic answer consisting of the following four lines, well in keeping with the ground rules for answering Parliament Questions:
"Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs (Shri Kiren Rijiju) –
"(a): Yes, Sir
"(b): Several Insurgent/militant groups are operating in the North East Region including Manipur with cross-border support challenging the sovereignty and integrity of the Nation. Decisions on matters concerning security of the Nation are taken, keeping in view the ground realities."
That was a typical answer. But Irom Sharmila, also known as Mangoubi, the fair one, deserves every bit the title she is described by — the Iron Lady of Manipur. She has in her dedicated and self-imposed torture remained unwavering to her cause that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) should be repealed. She has earned universal admiration for her tenacity and simplicity in the non-violent activism she is practising.
It all started on 2 November 2000, when an Assam Rifles convoy was attacked near Malom, Manipur by insurgents. In retaliation, the troops shot at civilians at a nearby bus-stop, leaving 10 civilians dead, including an elderly woman and a young child, and followed it with a brutal combing operation. This incident seems to have traumatised Sharmila, then a young woman of 28 years, who started her fast in protest of the killing. And that fast, without food or water, has continued to this day, making her "the world's longest hunger striker". She has almost continuously been under arrest and imprisonment, for "attempt to commit suicide", and is force-fed a mixture of liquefied carbohydrates and proteins by a nasal tube three times a day. But she continues to be unrelenting in her objective that the AFSPA be scrapped, and has become a civil rights icon. An enigma, with an almost mystical faith in her cause.
Even though she has brought trauma to her own body, is pale and frail, I am informed she remains cheerful and bright, and writes poetry and reads. On International Women's Day, 2014 she was voted as the top woman icon of India in an open poll. Clearly, she is not hungry or greedy for power, as is amply demonstrated by her refusal to enter active politics, turning down offers from Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress to fight the recent Lok Sabha elections. The Pune University announced a scholarship programme for 40 women Manipuri students to take degree courses in honour of the Iron Lady. Amnesty India honoured her as Prisoner of Conscience, who is suffering for peaceful expression of her beliefs. But neither the past Central governments, nor the influential Delhi club seem to have taken her individual campaign for repeal of AFSPA, or her personal precarious situation seriously enough yet, to even commence a dialogue, and enable the young soul to restart her life with a semblance of normalcy. This is perhaps because she is agitating in faraway Manipur, not Jantar Mantar, the eye catching venue of VIP agitations.
Doubtless, our government was right that the operation of AFSPA, even in Manipur, is justified to counter several insurgent militant groups that are challenging the sovereignty and integrity of the nation. I have no reason to dispute the correctness of the minister's reply in Parliament. But what perhaps could be examined is whether the operation of the AFSPA could be limited to the border, and known hubs of insurgents and militants, and how its operation in the rest of the state can be reduced.
As far as underground operations within Manipur are concerned, I am informed that they are to a large extent state supported, if not state sponsored, and have become livelihoods of affluence for some. Under the political garb of separatism in insurgency mode, they thrive on extortion, certainly from the common people, but mostly from the state treasury. State treasury cheques are cleared only after "underground" extortionists get their due, or else there may be abduction or blood. And what better allies can they have than the local state bureaucracy and police. It is not surprising therefore that Manipur continues to be the most backward of the Seven Sisters of the Northeast. It remains primitively agrarian, with hardly a trace of development or industry, despite its great natural beauty and resources, and potential for hydropower. Its non-monetised economy, to a large extent, rests upon smuggling of commodities ranging from narcotics to arms through its long porous border with Myanmar. Sadly, it plays a pivotal transit role in the golden triangle drug route. Drug addiction and HIV AIDS have become major social problems.
Underground organisations and insurgency, though still prevalent, have decreased. However, insurgency in Manipur is not the result of an international boundary dispute. It has grown because of internal separatist demands from the Nagas and Kukis, which need to be and can be resolved urgently through enlightened political will and public interest. The complete lack of governance, high levels of corruption and extortion, and neglect of development and economic progress that Manipur has seen under the Congress regime of Ibobi Singh during the last 12 years are certainly not the answer, but neither is the AFSPA in Manipur a long-term solution.
Speaking for myself and the Kashmir Committee, I have publicly stated that there is no need for the AFSPA to be enforced in residential and urban areas. Of course, I was speaking for Srinagar, but this could well apply to areas of Manipur as well. To whatever extent the Act is directed towards internal insurgency and terror, whether in Kashmir or Manipur, its need can be mitigated by tough and sensible dialogue. To the extent that they are fomented by foreign infiltration and terror outfits, the AFSPA must have targeted application in vulnerable areas.
In this respect, Manipur and Kashmir are poles apart. The security threat in Manipur comes mostly from internal underground outfits, often patronised by the state government. Certainly, the state has become a breeding and transit point for Maoists, Naga rebels, Kuki rebels, and a host of others who have declared war against the Indian state. But these can be addressed through serious, sustained and meaningful dialogue and political will, but first good governance. Once this happens, our neighbours will also stop fishing in troubled waters, and it will be possible to restrict the AFSPA to the border areas that are vulnerable to infiltration.
But even this risk might be a little too much for Jammu and Kashmir. I remember that sometime in November 2011, the J&K Chief Minister, the young Omar Abdullah, made a dramatic announcement that some parts of the state might do away with AFSPA and that there would be peace all around. In my opinion, the young CM had spoken a little too soon, without taking note of the tragic developments happening in Pakistan, which are anything but peaceful. Our unfortunate neighbour is witnessing the rise and growth of Islamic militant groups that are threatening not only India but also the very society which sustains them.
In spite of the Pakistan government's efforts that we believe are sincere, the jihadi groups continue to thrive there with the tacit support of sections of the military and intelligence establishments. It is no exaggeration to say that Pakistan has, for long, been on the verge of Talibanisation. Yes, Pakistan, and indeed the United States, cannot deny that this Frankenstein was created by them and it is now out to devour its own creators. The Afghans have long been complaining that Afghanistan caught the disease from the religious seminaries of Pakistan where their Taliban leaders were trained. These seminaries attracted enormous Saudi funds and these funds were accompanied by the dangerous Wahhabi creed. Despite long commitments, Pakistan has not yet decided to live in complete peace with India. Young Omar did not realise that any talk of wholly or partially withdrawing the AFSPA from some areas was dangerous and subversive to India's security. Pakistan's ISI and terror outfits would use this non-AFSPA window to consolidate in these areas. Coming back to Irom Sharmila, I think it's high time that our government takes note of her protest, and engages with her in a humane manner, so that she may end the torture she is inflicting upon herself, which will sooner or later take its toll. I call upon her kinsman from the Northeast, Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs, to take the initiative in this regard. We owe this to the brave Iron Lady and to our collective conscience.
P.S.: As I write this piece, there is news of another terrorist attack on an Army base in the Uri sector of J&K, taking many lives. Uri town goes to the polls on 9 December. The ASFPA debate returns to square one.