Manipur Election 2017: Why it took Afspa 60 years to become a poll issue

Why did it take nearly six decades for Afspa to become an election issue in Manipur?

What could be the outcome after Irom Chanu Sharmila appears as a candidate in the Manipur Assembly election?

These are the two questions that will decide the future of the struggle to have Afspa repealed.

Why so late?

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) has been in force in Manipur since the 1950s. But it was only after Sharmila, who fasted for 16 years demanding its repealment, decided to contest the Assembly election with her newly-floated party, People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) this year that it appeared as an election issue.

Manipur that has gone through a bloody history of of both extremist and 'state-sponsored' terrorism that saw 1,528 extra-judicial killings in the past four decades, alleges the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association. Neena Ningombam, who lost her husband Nongmaithem Michael in a fake encounter on 4 November, 2008 in Imphal elaborates how the extra-judicial killings are executed: "In most cases, the army is the mastermind, although the trigger is being pulled by the Manipur Police commandos. The forces are massively empowered because of the Afspa. We are yet to receive justice."

File image of Irom Sharmila. Reuters

File image of Irom Sharmila. Reuters

Babloo Loitongbam, director of Human Rights Alert, an NGO, says that nearly 1,200 cases of such killings occurred in the 15-year tenure of the present Congress regime led by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh. "In Manipur, we have something called Unified Headquarters that is pretty much in charge of security in the state and it counts the police, paramilitary forces and the Indian Army as part of it. Before Ibobi, all other chief ministers resisted such a security structure. But he went ahead with it and these extra-judicial killings just took a quantum leap," he says.

But that has hardly ever made Afspa a political issue in elections in Manipur. No wonder then that Ibobi won three Assembly elections in a row since 2002. Loithangbam told Firstpost that the reason Afspa has not become a political issue might be due to a lack of political awareness among the people about the Act. "Repealing Afspa became an election issue in Manipur in the early 1970s. But that really did not pick up, possibly due to a lack of awareness among the people," he adds.

This is in stark contrast with the neighbouring state of Assam, where 'secret killings' during the Asom Gana Parishad regime not only emerged as a strong political issue, but also as the reason why the then chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta was ousted from power in 2001. Professor Bimal Akoijam of Jawaharlal Nehru University agrees that a lack of awareness among the public is a reason Afspa has not been an election issue for so long.

"In Manipur, elections are hardly political. Although it sounds derogatory, it is true to say that the election is more like a festival in Manipur," he says.

He also says that he has been running publicity campaigns to make people aware that issues should play the main roles in electoral politics and public life. "This time too we are also trying to launch advertisement campaigns before the election to highlight the political issues that loom over Manipur," he says. He also adds that a lack of public awareness is not the sole reason that it took such a long time for Afspa to become a political issue; the way Afspa was carried to the people was also a reason for it.

"Although the world saw a historic protest against Afspa by Sharmila, it lacked political articulation. The movement was navigated with legal arguments. But the danger Afspa poses to our democracy by determining a role for the army in the administration was hardly discussed. All over the world, the involvement of the army in domestic affairs is seen as dangerous," adds Akoijam.

Loitongbam, who has been a close associate of Sharmila's, agrees with the view that the translation of legal arguments against Afspa to political discourse did not happen, which could also be the reason it did not find a prominent place in political discussions.

What lies ahead?

Akoijam believes that Sharmila, who has pitted herself against Ibobi has a feeble chance of winning. "Even if she manages to get four or five MLAs elected, what change can one expect from such a small number of legislators?" he asks. Nevertheless, Loitongbam says that it is important that the issue of repeal of Afspa has gained importance in election. "We can now see that even the BJP has taken up the issue of fake encounters," he states, adding that the PRJA has fielded 10 candidates in Manipur which has 60 Assembly constituencies.

Akoijam says that in the near future, Sharmila is likely to face more hurdles in taking the cause of repealing Afspa forward after she joined electoral politics. "People are normally cynical about politics. Apart from fighting against Afspa, now Sharmila will also have to fight this cynicism being a politician herself," he adds.

Naba Thakuria, of the Patriotic People’s Forum of Assam has a different take about the future of the struggle against Afspa.

"The Indian Army has worked really hard for an image makeover in North East India with gestures of social service schemes such as building roads, bridges and organising cultural functions. These efforts have worked and cases of atrocities by the army have also dropped drastically. So it might become increasingly difficult to sustain the movement against Afspa,” he says.

But he adds that Sharmila will continue to be an icon for the enormous sacrifice she has made for the cause.

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Updated Date: Feb 09, 2017 11:44:00 IST