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Irom Sharmila’s trial, and India’s

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-06-2014 Sudeep Chakravarti

Human rights icon Irom Sharmila will likely go on trial a month from now on 7 July. If that happens, her home state of Manipur will be on trial too. So will India.

Because Sharmila’s tale, and the attendant trail of horror, tragedy, sadness, anger, bitterness, and the cynicism and brazenness of state apparatus is about much that is wrong with Manipur—and the government of India’s active complicity. It’s also about much that needs to be urgently set right.

Near Imphal’s Tulihal airport, in Malom, there’s a simple arched gateway. It leads into a small enclosure.

The place has a name: Ten Innocents Memorial Park.

Ten people were shot dead by troops of 8 Assam Rifles on 2 November 2000 as they waited at a bus stop near the state capital.

The troopers were earlier attacked by undergrounds, a local euphemism for armed rebels of all ethnic and political shades that have proliferated since the 1970s, riding waves of policy and administrative arrogance and mismanagement. Following a disturbing template, these troopers chose civilians for reprisal.

The youngest to die was a 17-year-old boy, the oldest a lady of 60. The event prompted Sharmila, already a human rights activist, to begin a fast to demand the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, or AFSPA, from Manipur. Her protest and demand continue to this day to press for the repeal of the law that offers immunity and impunity to armed forces to do what they wish in pursuit of defending India—even kill innocents on the merest suspicion or whim.

Sharmila said she wouldn’t eat till AFSPA was repealed. She was arrested on the charge of attempting to commit suicide under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. To ensure she doesn’t die and become a martyr, Sharmila is force-fed through a nasal drip under the supervision of Manipur’s prison authorities.

The Kafkaesque episode has another aspect. Under provisions of Section 309, attempted suicide is punishable by simple imprisonment for up to a year, or a fine, or both. So, before a year of Sharmila’s incarceration is up, she is released and rearrested for attempting to commit suicide. A ritual without trial, now in its 14th year.

The ritual has turned Sharmila into what I can only term a living martyr.

There’s now a new twist to the story. On 4 June, the chief judicial magistrate of Imphal East district ruled that prima facie evidence had been found against Sharmila on the charge of attempting to commit suicide, and that the courts would begin hearing prosecution witnesses on 7 July.

Sharmila’s defence team has argued that she has never attempted suicide, that her act of refusing to voluntarily take food is one of protest. I recall a conversation in Imphal not too long ago with Arambam Lokendra, a respected historian and iconic theatre personality. Arambam termed Sharmila’s protest “an urgent plea” to repeal AFSPA—not unlike what several respected jurists, politicians, governors and policemen have officially, repeatedly, recommended for the past decade.

The professor had also made a film about Sharmila. “(She) said in my film: ‘If I wanted to kill myself who would obstruct me? There’s a (ceiling) fan (in her hospital room jail), there’s a lot of cloth. I could have hanged myself any time. I am not saying that I want to commit suicide.’” Arambam had burst into laughter. “She is aware of the nuances.”

In a way, that studied, resolute nuance is on trial.

But what triggered the trial after so many years? Is it a clever path to Sharmila’s roundabout acquittal brought on by a weak, morally decrepit case for the prosecution? Sharmila freed would immediately reduce human rights overhang for the governments of Manipur and India, besides diminishing the iconic force of a person—not unlike what happened on a much larger scale in Myanmar with Aung San Suu Kyi.

It would be even more convenient were Sharmila to plead guilty. Her years of incarceration could offset any sentencing, and she would go free. But that may mean a deal to cease her protest, and Sharmila won’t play along.

Of course, it would be best if the new government in New Delhi prepares the ground to soften provisions of AFSPA if repeal proves initially difficult—a balancing act aimed at hastening the resolution of Manipur’s insane tangle of conflict as well as appeasing security hawks. That would be a step in the larger journey of calming India’s far east.

Whatever the outcome, it will be a trial to watch.

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays. Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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