Irom Sharmila will have greater freedom to broaden her campaign against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) after her release but her fight may be far from over and she will continue to face the threat of re-arrest, human rights activists and lawyers say.
Irom, who has been on a 14-year long fast demanding the repeal of the Afspa, was released from judicial custody following a court order on Wednesday evening.
Activists and Irom’s family members say her release signify that the judiciary has finally accepted that her prolonged fast was not an act of ‘trying to commit suicide’.
But, at the same time, they are wary of the fact that the decision is not reflective of any change in the government’s stance regarding the imposition of the Afspa, which has been in force in Manipur since 1958.
“The court has ruled that Irom is not attempting suicide. Of course, Irom’s fight has always been for the human rights violation in Manipur under the Afspa. And, until and unless the government responds to the quest for justice in cases of human rights violations under Afspa, justice cannot be done to Irom Sharmila,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of the Human Rights Watch.
She pointed out the decision to release her has nothing to do with the actual issues Irom is fighting against.
The Afspa grants special powers to the armed forces, including those to detain, use lethal force and enter and search premises without warrant. The most criticised aspect of the act is the legal immunity it provides to army officers.
Though charges of atrocities have often been brought up against the army for the misuse of the act in the Northeast and Kashmir, the government says the Afspa is a functional requirement for the armed forces in disturbed areas.
In July this year, Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju told Lok Sabha there is no immediate plan to repeal the act, but he stressed that restrictions would be imposed upon the armed forces to prevent its misuse.
Suhas Chakma, director of Asian Centre for Human Rights, said, “Successive Central governments have expressed no desire for repealing the Afspa. Other than the blatant abuse of the act, nothing has been done about it.”
Chakma added that the government’s realisation that Irom’s fast was not intended at killing herself, but an act of political resistance, after 14 years has made a ‘mockery of the Indian judiciary’.
Activists also say that Irom’s arrest had handicapped her protest to a large extent, but after her release Manipur’s Iron Lady can take her message to a wider audience.
“Now that no one can arrest her, Irom could probably take her campaign, to a whole new audience. She can travel freely and talk to new people about the outrageous ‘license to kill’ that the Afspa is,” said Colin Gonsalves, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, and the founder-director of Human Rights Law Network.
Irom walked out from Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Science (JNIMS) on Wednesday evening.
“I am happy to be released but will continue to fast,” a visibly pale and emotional Irom told reporters after her release.
Irom’s family, however, is apprehensive that she might have to go back to hospital as she cannot survive fasting without being force-fed.
“Her health is good now but how long can she last without being force-fed through nose? Her health will deteriorate in the next few days and then she will again be taken back to the same hospital,” Sharmila’s brother, Singhajit, told PTI.
Irom’s lawyer and human rights activist from Manipur, Babloo Loitongbam, too fears that after the government has been advised to take care of Irom’s health, she might be arrested and forced fed yet again.
“The chief minister is not here currently, and the home minister has just arrived from a trip and is yet to take stock of the situation. We have no idea what would be the government’s next step. But, yes, there is a probability of an arrest,” said Loitongbam.
“With the entire hullabaloo about right to food and access to health care going on in the state, does Irom have to be a prisoner to avail that?” he asked.
When asked about Irom’s plans, Loitongbam said she is yet to decide.
This article was published in the Hindustan Times on August 21, 2014.