A Renegade’s People: Rupam Sindhu Kalita

This is a guest post by Rupam Sindhu Kalita

What unites anti-homophobia campaigners, defenders of the poor’s right to clean water, university student collectives, women rights’ groups and academics under a premature summer sun in New Delhi on the 30th of March earlier this year? It is the unacceptable means employed by the Indian state in response to armed rebellions in North east India and the threat to civilian life that it has precipitated. The contagion of a military approach to a largely political problem was promulgated as an ordinance in 1958 under the presidency of Dr Rajendra Prasad to help quell the Naga movement and was developed into the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Assam and Nagaland) later in the same year. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (from here on AFSPA) persists in violating human rights in Kashmir and North east India despite its incompatibility with national and international human rights declarations. Over the years this Act has been sanctified in the inner sanctum of India’s centralised quasi-military administration. The government has been extremely guarded in its approach to growing popular demands for annulling this Act. The civil leadership’s reluctance to temper with the ritualized provisions of this Act has raised the disquieting question of who runs the country.

On 30th March central Delhi woke up to a motley group of protestors unified by a concern for violation of human rights under AFSPA. [Photo credit: V Arun Kumar].
On 30th March central Delhi woke up to a motley group of protestors unified by a concern for violation of human rights under AFSPA. [Photo credit: V Arun Kumar].

The Indian state’s avowed refusal to revisit the provisions of AFSPA has aroused a series of responses in North east India.[1] The most resolute champion against AFSPA is the Manipuri activist Ms Irom Chanu Sharmila whose fast against this Act has entered its fourteenth year. Ms Sharmila’s defiant gesture has come to represent the extraordinary endurance of a cross section of people whose lives have been transformed by the Indian state’s aggressive military posture. Over the years she has developed into an exemplum of resistance against military absolutism. The state, on the other hand has managed to perpetuate its self-deception in its outright neglect of the popular creed that Ms Sharmila has come to stand for.

Who is Sharmila?

Ms. Sharmila’s voice today is lost in the clutter and contingency of India’s boisterous political culture. The manifestos of the two biggest political parties – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the ongoing Lok Sabha election do not mention a stand on AFSPA. It logically follows that their promises of development and clean governance for a better working democracy in the North east betray a total lack of understanding of political consciousness in the region. How can a state apparatus conceive of a mature democracy if the government disregards rapes and murders carried under the protection of an extraordinary law? This gives the lie to the myth, often retailed in political circles that a centralized government in New Delhi is committed to tapping the dormant energy of people inhabiting the resource-rich North east region. Development, be it actual or cosmetic is locked in a relationship of irreconcilable contradiction in an area where people live under shadows of AFSPA.

The Indian government has dismissed Ms. Sharmila’s fast as a ‘law and order problem’ by arresting her more than once over charges of attempting to commit suicide, most recently in March 2013. It is the standard response every time there is an interrogation of the Indian state’s legitimacy in the region. This tactless way of responding to political discontent gestures towards a complete misreading of the ethico-political condition in the North east. The larger problem is the inability of the government to historicize the violent secessionist movements that have erupted time and again in the region. Officialdom has tried to deal with the rebel or insurgent in the region as an individual or as a member of a tribe or community but not as a thinking, representative figure with the will and resources to open up a discursive space for re-thinking polity. The crux of the problem is the state’s dismal failure to face the problem on a political plane. The state’s tenacity in denying the insurgents the agency of reason and hence a place in political history is summed up in these revealing words of Ranajit Guha (though written in a different context)[2], “The risk in ‘turning things upside down’ under these conditions was indeed so great that he [the insurgent] could hardly afford to engage in such a project in a state of absent-mindedness.” Over the years acts of violence have been isolated for extraordinary treatment by the state. The subterranean political grumbling of which armed violence is only a specific form of expression has been sidelined. Given the disjointed history of India’s North east region, the secessionist movements that have developed here are driven by a certain historical trajectory.[3] They are certainly not sudden outbursts of rebellious energy. The germ is ingrained in the peculiar ethnocentric body-politic of this region. And Ms Sharmila’s fast is the logical corollary of the government’s repeated failure to recognise the faultlines of history, territory and contingency which become the North east in the country’s eastern frontier. The fallacy of positioning itself on a high politico-moral ground surrounded by the cold logic of military force has driven the government to flounder in different policy paradigms towards the region.

Ms. Sharmila has now turned into a spectacle. The act of fasting is a mode of registering political dissent that shifts the public gaze onto the body of the protestor. She has become in Foucault’s fitting words, “an object of information” for the state but “never a subject of communication.” Her visibility is now at an all-time high thanks to the state’s panoptical vision and the stirred public imagination. But she has been shorn of the faculty of reason. The state wouldn’t listen to her. She is only to be stared at, disciplined and kept under constant surveillance. Her body has become the site of an unholy tug-of war between the guardians and antagonists of post-colonial India’s most absurd law.

In 2011 when mass protests inspired by anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare’s fast rocked New Delhi, the general turmoil shot down voices lamenting people’s lack of sympathy for a woman fasting for a decade in the country’s eastern frontier. The lack of commiseration for Sharmila was not an outgrowth of India’s historical apathy towards its North east but a prescient grasping of the political meaning that the fast transpires in the public imagination. Sharmila’s fast is a rebuttal to the essentialist Indian state’s perceived legitimacy in the North east. She embodies slices of a time now past but which constitutes the present and anticipates a certain future for the North east. We can detect in her fast a symbolic enactment of historical susceptibility. The fictionality that fissures the Indian state’s monologue of nation-building in the North east seeps into our daily life every time we think about Ms Sharmila. She has become a remarkable example of courage that goes into recuperating subjectivity from the control of the state.

The illegal structure of a legal document

The legal text of AFSPA is a freewheeling exercise in impunity. There is something quixotic in the way the Act does away with legal warrants. Section 4 of the Act outlines certain extraordinary powers to be conferred on “any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces, in a disturbed area” (104). The officer can “[…] fireupon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being […]” (105) (Italics mine). The officer can therefore kill if he perceives that “it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary […]”( 105).

The curt legal terminology of the Act leaves the nebulous term “public order” entirely at the sovereign discretion of the concerned soldiers. The power to use force “even to the causing of death” dramatically clashes with Article 21 of the Indian constitution which guarantees the fundamental Right to Life to all Indian citizens.

The provisions of the Act authorize soldiers to “arrest, without warrant, any persons who has committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists” and “enterandsearch, without warrant, any premises to make any such arrest […]” (105). Therefore the Act invests soldiers with the power to arbitrarily encroach upon the privacy of individuals. How does one define “reasonable suspicion” which would make men with assault rifles enter homes in the dead of the night? Will taking the effort to procure a legal warrant before arresting or searching premises delay security operations to a point of no return? But this is not the end. The soldiers who act under the provisions of this Act are immune to any form of legal proceeding against them unless express sanction is obtained from the Central government. The text of AFSPA categorically states, “Noprosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act” (106). This is the final nail in the coffin whose stony echo sounds the death of imagination.

Sharmila and after: The way ahead

In 2005 the Government of India set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee chaired by a retired justice of the Supreme Court to review the provisions of the Act. The Committee dismissed the Act as “too sketchy, too bald and quite inadequate in several particulars” and found it imperative to add that“[…] the Act, for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and highhandedness. It is highly desirable and advisable to repeal this Act altogether […] (119).”

The Committee showed excellent foresight in suggesting that the hated AFSPA should be supplanted by a set of new and appropriate provisions in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (ULA) which is the premier legal means in the country to deal with militant organizations. The ULA covers the entire country and its ambit subsumes the different forms of militant violence in the North east. This would be an excellent step in restoring the battered faith of people in the North east. What is so different in the North east that it requires a separate law to deal with insurgency?

But the Jeevan Reddy Committee report was never officially made public for reasons best known to the Union Home Ministry.[1] Is it because the report’s contents could expose the emaciated bottom of India’s internal security policy?

The way ahead is clear. The constitutional framework must be followed in deed and spirit if the Indian state wants to preserve its moral authority. The clotted, constipated prose of national security should be torn apart if it operates at the cost of our own people. After all we are the nation. The national security imperatives that justify laws like AFSPA which in turn provide legal immunity to men accused of rape and murder should be expunged from our consciousness. The AFSPA adds to and encourages sexual crimes against women at a time when the country is still recovering from a series of shameful acts of violation against women. Even in the last dystopia we would like to see men accused of violating a woman held guilty, incarcerated and punished.

Ms Irom Sharmila’s greatest contribution to the country is that she has taught us the importance of revitalizing modes of dissent as a way of thought. She has encouraged us to go beyond the illicit and infectious complacency of society. She retains a high moral ground as an emblem of people’s victory. She is important because her destiny is the collective destiny of a people who value freedom. She is the standard bearer of a radical culture that is premised on infusing the dogma of national security with a human feel. This passive, weakened woman lodged in a hospital-prison has nevertheless acquired a strange mode of power. She has to be kept alive by the State to keep the masses from erupting in angry revolt. She has to be forced to take in nutrients. The fear she has struck in the heart of the state is materialized in the leathery duct forcefully inserted in her nose through which wardens feed her. In the state’s terminology she is a political dissident whose survival is essential for the preservation of public order. Her body has to be preserved to serve the perverse logic of this politico-military farce. Her cause is dispensable but her body is not. But she has been dispossessed of her body too. Then what can we do? Well we can only nod in kinship and learn from her not to take for granted our precious certainties.


[1] The report was published by The Hindu even though no official state publication was made.

[1] Of immense significance is the protest staged in July 2004 by a group of Manipuri women by posing naked in front of the historic Kangla Fort now turned into the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force in the state accused of brutally ‘murdering’ one Manorama Devi . They flashed a white banner embossed with bold red letters- INDIAN ARMY RAPE US.

[2] Guha’s assertion though made in the case of the peasant insurgent in colonial India can easily be appropriated to understand the politics of military operations against insurgents in North east India today.

[3] The greatest challenge that the Indian government faced while warming up to a ‘historically’ alienated North east after Independence was how to naturalize a non-natural frontier zone. The body of land that became the North east part of India was never a part of any state or monarchy before its annexation by the British in early nineteenth century. The violent secessionist movements that have erupted in the region should be studied keeping in mind the (in)compatibility of their demand with the pre-colonial past of the region.


Guha, Ranajit. ‘The Prose of counter-insurgency,’ The Small Voice of History: Collected Essays. Ed. Chatterjee, Partha. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. tr. Sheridan, Alan. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Baruah, Sanjib. Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Armed Forces Special Powers Act: The Debate. Ed. Vivek Chadha. New Delhi: Lancer’s Books, 2013.

One thought on “A Renegade’s People: Rupam Sindhu Kalita”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I keep harping along the same lines, and I think this is not a part of the mainstream discourse as much as it ought to be . That being said, there is still a lot of relative visibility to Sharmila’s campaign. I wonder how many similar protests are passing by unnoticed.


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