Don't be Warmongers'
Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila,
who is fighting against the AFSPA, asks people to shun weapons
IROM SHARMILA CHANU, the symbol of Manipur’s outrage against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, feels strongly against arming villagers to take on militants. From the secluded
high-security ward at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, the activist, who has been on a fast-unto-deathsince 2000 demanding the repeal of the AFSPA, urged people not to be “war-mongers”.
When told about the militant attack that led to the villagers’ demand, she had a message for the extremists. “Demands can never be fulfilled through weapons. Any kind of demand
should emerge from sincerity, perseverance, dedication and love.” Does she think the women of Manipur are very strong, in the context of the Meira Paibis views on the arming of villagers? “Yes, they are somewhat powerful. Our women can dedicate their lives for the society very easily. There are so many examples As the jail official looks at his watch, she too looks at hers. She smiles, “My watch is very important. Time keeps me going and my mind. I keep looking at the watch all the time.”
AN EYE for an eye may have maimed Chhattisgarh’s tribals caught between the security forces and the state-armed Salva Judum militia but for residents of two Manipur villages what matters most is surviving attacks by militants
The villagers of Heirok in Thoubal district and Chajing Konjeng Leikai in Imphal West district had sought arms from the government to protect themselves from militants after a series of attacks. On March 24 this year, three people were killed and a 17-year-old girl, W. Rebika Devi, blinded in Heirok following an attack by the proscribed People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) cadres. In Chajing Konjeng Leikai village, a 53-year-old man was killed by the banned Kangleipak Communist Party in the last week of April.
The Union home ministry has approved the proposal for issuing licensed guns and the government has decided to arm these villagers by creating 500 posts of Special Police Officers (SPO) — 300 for Heirok and 200 for Chajing.
But after the initial process of recruitment was initiated in Heirok, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) comprising of village elders is now in two minds due to the strong opposition from civil society groups cautioning of such a move backfiring and leading to internecine wars and retaliation attacks from militants, like with Salva Judum in Chhattisgarh.
Babloo Loitongbam, of Human Rights Alert, an Imphal-based NGO asks, “In Chhattisgarh, the Salva Judum’s volunteers are used as human fodder and are placed in the frontline in any kind of operation. What is the guarantee that it will not happen in this trouble-torn state too?”
Civil society groups in Manipur apprehend that this new move will further devastate this bordering state ravaged by insurgency, where at least 17 rebel groups are operating — demanding sovereignty, indulging in extortion and killing civilians seen as loyal to the state. There are also several smaller breakaway factions of the big groups. Moreover, Manipur is yet to initiate peace talks with any of the insurgent groups.
Ironically, Manipur had seen popular reprisals against the atrocities of the security forces under the garb of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958. There is Irom Sharmila who has been on a fast unto death demanding the repeal of the draconian Act since 2001. Then there was the protest by the 12 middle-aged women who stripped themselves in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal urging the Indian Army to rape them to protest against the death of Kr. Th. Manorama Devi in the custody of the Assam Rifles. The agitation led the Central government to set up the five-member Jeevan Reddy Commission to review the Act.
But the security of villages like Heirok, loca ted close to the Indo-Myanmar border and a route for militants, is literally non-existent. Comprising 12,000 voters, Heirok itself constitutes an Assembly constituency. The people of Heirok wanted arms to protect themselves and not to fight insurgents and they don’t want their youths to be used for counter-insurgency operations. Perplexed at the turn of events, N. Priyo Sakhi, a housewife, says, “We wanted guns for peace. Its purely a people’s movement and a culmination of the suppressed feeling of the people.”
The local Meira Paibis, or groups of traditional women activists, have been keeping vigil at night till 12 midnight at Heirok. Ima Gyaneswari, one of the 12 mothers who had protested in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters told TEHELKA, “It’s not a wise decision to arm young boys. They might even fight among themselves. A better way of handling such matters is us, Meira Paibis, protesting against any such atrocity committed by militant groups and putting pressure on the groups to take action against their cadre.
”Ironically, the JAC of Heirok had also made other demands apart from seeking arms and included setting up of solar lamps to lightup the roads at night, loudspeakers in each locality and proper treatment and rehabilitation of the blinded girl.
A recruit with his mother
BUT, ONLY their demand for arming themselves has been instantly fulfilled. N. Joy Singh, a farmer and vice-president of the JAC of Heirok village rues, “We are against any force which disrupts the peace of the village and our homestead — be it armed forces or UGs (Underground, as the villagers refer to militants).”
The JAC had also wanted proper consultation with them when any of the procedures were implemented.
However, N. Joy Singh points out, “The Home department marginalised us when they started the first phase of recruitment of SPOs. We have approached the CM as we don’t want our youngsters to be used as soft targets.”
Emotions of Heirok villagers are running high, specially when they think about the plight of Rebika Devi, a student of class nine, who was blinded after a bullet hit her forehead in the attack on March 24. Her father W. Inaobi Singh, a carpenter, says, “We cannot let the culprits who did this to my daughter go scot-free. If this appointment of SPOs is for protecting civilians, I want it to happen. I am hoping the government will give us some compensation so that we can take her for better treatment outside so that she can regain her eyesight.” In fact, during the shraddha ceremony of the other three victims of that days firing, Rebika spoke of her plight and the villagers were in tears.
The JAC had even destroyed some houses sheltering militants. N. Joy Singh rues, “Heirok takes a leading role in state issues like protesting against the AFSPA or territorial integrity. But when Heirok is in trouble, civil society groups do not even empathise with
Rebika Devi flanked by her parents
us. Now we are tense as we have challenged the militants.”
Babloo Loitongbam adds that it’s a dilemma for the civil rights groups when UGs are involved as they violate the international humanitarian law which does not apply in Manipur. He says, “We want Manipur to be declared a conflict zone but the state calls it a law and order problem. The police and the military also pursue their vested interests when it comes to addressing the grievances of ordinary people.” And since the process of recruitment has started, it remains to be seen how much control will the JAC actually wield on the modus operandi of the SPOs. It might also be difficult to dissuade the shortlisted youth who now nurture hopes of getting a government job. In such a scenario, provoking the villagers to “resist” militants in these vulnerable villages will only invite bloody reprisals and a war without winners.