South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights


As Anna Hazare took sips of water, flanked by supporters, many in the political circle were relieved. An immediate political crisis had been averted. It seemed like a story with a perfect ending. But even as I watched the anti-corruption campaign unfold, I thought of Irom Sharmila.

I wish that her exemplary courage and grit would be honoured. For over 10 years, Sharmila, a Manipuri woman, has been on fast demanding the repeal of the repressive Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. But no one seems to be moved. In fact, she has been arrested several times by the police, and force-fed. In 2006, Sharmila had also protested at Jantar Mantar. Needless to say, this received almost no media coverage.

The indifference towards Sharmila and her struggle is symptomatic of the brutal crackdown by the authorities on any form of dissent in the Northeast, in Chhattisgarh, Kashmir and elsewhere. The AFSPA impedes accountability for serious human rights violations, and provides immunity to the security forces. The army has often been found to misuse the extraordinary powers vested in it.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights estimates that as many as 1,184 persons have died in India as a result of custodial torture between April 2001 and March 2009. The actual numbers could be higher. In addition, many survivors of torture and inhuman treatment have described the coercive interrogation methods used against them in custody: handcuffing, sleep deprivation, sexual abuse, incessant beating and electrocution. The office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture had sought the permission of the Indian government as far back as in 1993 for conducting a fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of torture in India. Eighteen years and several reminders later, the request of the Rapporteur is still pending. Why is there so little public outcry on these issues?

Urgent measures

The overwhelming public support to Anna Hazare’s protest against corruption — which some claim was grossly exaggerated — and the silence over Sharmila’s crusade remind us that not all struggles for justice attract the moral outrage they deserve. But the uncanny similarity between the non-violent, Gandhian means of protest employed by both Hazare and Sharmila means that parallels would inevitably be drawn with regard to the responses to each of these.

Why are we indifferent to the important issues that Sharmila is raising? Is it because they involve uncomfortable questions? Is it because Hazare’s cause is linked to the middle class’s dislike of corruption in politics, while Sharmila’s cause seems important only to those who have to suffer the consequences of the draconian laws? While there is substantial tolerance towards a people’s movement against corruption, even if it criticizes the entire political and bureaucratic class of the country, the minute the issue of impunity of the security forces is raised, allegations of sedition and of war against the State overshadow the principal debate on democratic rights.

But as Sharmila’s protest underscores, urgent measures are required to challenge the existing culture of impunity. These include the repeal of the repressive AFSPA, facilitating the visit of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, redrafting the prevention of torture bill, and holding perpetrators accountable. Moreover, India needs to promote accountability for human rights violations not only at home but also in its neighbourhood.

Only when we respect Sharmila’s struggle can we claim the moral high ground as a regional power. Otherwise, serious human rights violations and the use of coercive interrogation methods would continue. So would our collective culpability in looking away from Irom Sharmila and what she represents.