On July 15, three days after the alleged rape and killing of Manorama Devi, a dozen Meira Paibis arrived at the gates of Kangla Palace. They took off their clothes and stood naked outside the military camp with white cloth banners screaming in bold red letters, INDIAN ARMY RAPE US! INDIAN ARMY TAKE OUR FLESH!
“We saw the body and what they did to her — the bite marks, the bullets in her vagina — and that is how we found the courage to shed our own clothes in protest,” Ramani explained. This unorthodox mode of protest was a difficult decision for the traditional Meira Paibis. “At that time, we thought that even if we died, got raped or even if people laughed at us, we wouldn’t care. We went crying in front of the Kangla. Our tears washed our fear and shame.” Hundreds of protesters had gathered in the area and people broke down as they saw the elderly Meira Paibis challenging the might of the military with their bodies.
The images of the naked protest were broadcast on television throughout India and printed in newspapers and magazines across the country. Reports on Sharmila’s strike followed as the journalists visiting from New Delhi heard about her while covering the naked protest. Widespread public derision of governmental apathy and support for the brave women of Manipur led the Congress Party’s government to remove the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from an area of 20 square kilometers in Imphal city that August.
Further, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed a committee led by a retired Supreme Court judge, B. P. Jeevan Reddy, to review the controversial military law. The Reddy Committee submitted its report in June 2005 and called for a repeal of the AFSPA while suggesting a mechanism to allow the military to work in extraordinary situations. Partly scared of losing votes to the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party on the military’s legal immunity, and partly thwarted by stiff opposition by the Indian military, whose current and former commanders have been arguing that withdrawal of the AFSPA would impede their ability to function as a counterinsurgency force, Singh’s government did nothing.
“The army is too strong. When the Reddy Committee report was discussed by (the) Cabinet of Ministers (the prime minister and the federal ministers), the Defense Ministry and the army refused to accept any amendments,” explained Sanjoy Hazarika, one of the foremost analysts of northeast India’s politics, who was a member of the committee. “The prime minister never wanted to go out on a limb to repeal the law. They just let it be.”
Although the Indian military is under civilian control, its power and influence on public policy has been increasing. “The army makes operational arguments, but the political leadership has failed to assert that insurgencies are fundamentally political questions. Unpopular laws like the AFSPA defeat the very purpose of military presence,” said Srinath Raghavan, a leading military historian and senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. Raghavan, who served as an officer in the Indian army, believes that the Indian army’s opposition to the repeal of the AFSPA is essentially rooted in coziness with the culture of impunity the law has created. “Basic legal protections for soldiers in military operations are important, but the army wants the blanket impunity, which makes them answerable to nobody but its own chain of command.”