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The myth of the right moment

Irom Sharmila, a young woman in the north-eastern state of Manipur in India, has been on an indefinite hunger strike for over six years. She’s kept alive by being force-fed intravenously – attempting to commit suicide, which is how the act of indefinite fasting is interpreted, is illegal in India. So when Sharmila made her intentions clear, the State was able not only to arrest her, but to force feed-her. Sharmila’s nonviolent protest has a one point agenda: the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been in force in Manipur for many years and which allows the Indian Army to function – largely as a counter-insurgency force – with impunity.

Riven by insurgency for more than half a decade, torn apart by a confusing array of militants who battle the State, Manipur is also an area where tribal and religious identities are strong and fiercely defended. So not only are its different people pitted against the Indian State but they are also engaged in ongoing battles against each other, defending clan loyalties and claims to territory. The number of militant groups and factions who stalk the hills and plains with their AK-47s is mindboggling and confusing.

Sharmila’s demand for the removal of the AFSPA is, however, echoed by virtually everyone, although many will also say that while they want the Army to go, they are also fearful of what may happen once that ‘control’ is removed. Given how violent and politicized the terrain has become, the chances are that those for whom violence has become a way of life may run amok.

None of this takes away from the demand, or indeed its urgency. The local people do not buy the argument that the Army’s powers can’t be curtailed because things are so bad that the Manipuris cannot be depended upon to govern their land. Nor do they agree that the time is not right for such a reduction. Their argument is that the Army’s very presence and its overweening powers ensure that there will never be a ‘right’ moment. Indeed, the conditions for the moment to be ‘right’ can only be created once the Army’s presence, and its powers, are reduced.

The small state of Manipur may be insignificant on the world map. In terms of international attention and concern, it merits barely any attention – there’s no oil there for example. But if we look at it carefully, there are valuable lessons it offers. The Manipuris are firmly convinced that waiting for the right moment to pull out is a no-no. According to them, the precondition for finding the right moment is to pull out. According to them, it doesn’t need much intelligence to understand that you can’t first create the problem, then use that very thing to say you must stay on and solve the problem. The Manipuris know that the Army pull-out, or even reduction, for example, will create new problems, and they know that those problems would not have been there in the first place if such a draconian law had not been imposed on them. But, on balance, they’d rather be with a scenario in which they have the freedom to shape their own realities. But is anyone listening?

*Urvashi Butalia* is a Delhi-based writer, feminist, publisher and frequent contributor to the *NI*.