On 23 October, a delegation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), led by its chairman, Justice (retd) KG Balakrishnan, met Irom Sharmila Chanu at a hospital in the state capital Imphal. This was the first time any official NHRC delegation has visited Sharmila since she started a fast on 4 November 2000, demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur.
Sharmila was 28 when she began her epic fast following the killing of 10 people by paramilitary forces at Malom in suburban Imphal. In the nearly 13 years since then, her non-violent protest has found support from wide sections of people across the country as well as abroad. Mengoubi (the fair one), as Sharmila is popularly known in the state, has been under arrest at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital and kept alive by force-feeding.
Last December, hearing a petition filed by NGO Human Rights Alert and the Extrajudicial Execution Victims’ Families Association, Manipur (EEVFAM), the Supreme Court had directed the NHRC to send a delegation to Manipur. Almost a year later, the statutory human rights body conducted a three-day ‘camp sitting’ in Imphal and pulled up the Okram Ibobi Singh government for 46 cases of rights violations, including extra-judicial killings. However, given the fate of NHRC’s recommendations in the past, not many believe that its recent intervention would bring about any change in the government’s attitude.
“So far, such official visits have done little to resolve Manipur’s human rights crisis,” says Joykumar Singh, executive director of the NGO Human Rights Initiative. “Both the Central and state governments have flouted the NHRC’s recommendations in the past. They also didn’t act on the report of the Jeevan Reddy Commission (which asked for AFSPA’s repeal).”
Singh points out that the judicial inquiry following TEHELKA’s exposé on the extra-judicial executions of Rabina Devi and Chungkham Sanjit on 23 July 2009 did not lead to any corrective action. The NHRC has now asked the Manipur government to release the inquiry report on the infamous killings.
The Supreme Court had recently lashed out at the rights body for failing to intervene in the rampant cases of extra-judicial executions and other human rights violations in Manipur. This time, however, the NHRC seems to mean business. Singh agrees that the NHRC’s meeting with Sharmila could have some impact “if the rights body decides to support her demand for the AFSPA’s repeal”. State government sources told TEHELKA that the NHRC has recommended the removal of “arbitrary restrictions” on meeting Sharmila.
“It is unlikely that the government will act on the NHRC’s recommendations,” says human rights campaigner Babloo Loitongbam.
Earlier, the Supreme Court had sent a special probe panel to Manipur to investigate six cases of alleged fake encounters. None of the victims, including a 12-year-old boy, had any links to insurgents. The panel found all six encounters to be fake and presented its findings to the court on 4 April.
Close on the heels of that report, the NHRC’s recent visit could make it difficult for the government to dodge allegations of human rights violation. “Wherever the delegation went, it left the state government officials red-faced,” says Rakesh Meihoubam of the Human Rights Law Network.
Meanwhile, the clamour for Sharmila’s release has become louder. “She is a ‘prisoner of conscience’, who is being held solely for her peaceful expression of her beliefs,” said Shashikumar Velath of Amnesty International India. “She must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
A senior official of the Union home ministry told TEHELKA that as the AFSPA’s repeal is not possible in the near future, the Centre might instead choose to go soft on Sharmila to mend fences with the civil society in the Northeast.
“If the NHRC is serious about human rights, why did it take so long to meet Sharmila?” asks Oinam Indira Devi, a BJP leader in Manipur. “We wonder if the 2014 Lok Sabha election has something to do with the rights body’s sudden sympathy towards Sharmila.”
(With inputs from RK Suresh in Imphal)