By focusing on individuals like Irom Sharmila, the cause or reason for protest is often forgotten. In this particular case, the cause — repeal of the AFSPA — is crucial.
She appears in our line of vision, and then disappears. When we see her, we remember. When we don’t, we forget.
When Irom Sharmila, that frail woman from Manipur, with a feeding tube taped to her nose, was asked to travel to Delhi earlier this month, it was “news”. Her name was in the newspapers, her image on television channels. Yet, how many people really knew why she had been brought to Delhi, why after six years had a court summoned her to face charges under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code for attempting to commit suicide?
In 2006, Sharmila travelled to Delhi for the first time in her life. In fact, it was the first time she sat in an airplane. Then she had travelled to Delhi by choice. She did so because she reckoned, and rightly so, that her voice would only be heard if she went to Delhi. And she was not wrong. As she sat at Jantar Mantar, continuing a protest that began on November 2, 2000 demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur, the “national” media paid heed to her voice, and relayed it to a wider audience.
And how did the authorities respond? By charging her for attempting to commit suicide and force-feeding her. Eventually, Sharmila returned to her hospital jail in Imphal, where she is forcibly fed through that tube in her nose. She has remained in that room, a year at a time. A court in Imphal charges her under the same section of IPC, imprisons her for a year, the maximum sentence, releases her, and then arrests her again when she refuses to break her fast. Every year, around this time, this little drama is enacted. The local press takes note; the national press generally ignores it. And Sharmila continues to protest.
Now, in addition to the court in Imphal, Sharmila has to face the court in Delhi. When she appeared earlier this month, she told the judge: “I love and respect life. I want the right to live as a human being. Mine is a non-violent protest to get the government to meet my demands.” This does not sound like a woman who wants to kill herself. Yet, the law says she does, because she will not eat. And so this case will also continue. And once again, on May 22, she will be brought to Delhi. And we will have another chance to remember who she is, what she stands for, and what she is asking.
Sharmila’s story is extraordinary and bears retelling. Several books have already been written about her, the latest by journalist Minnie Vaid titled, Iron Irom, Two Journeys. It is a slim book that recounts Sharmila’s journey and Vaid’s own journey into Manipur, a place “where the abnormal is normal”, as she aptly puts it. But even as Sharmila’s trials, determination and amazing courage are remembered, and lauded, one should not lose sight of the central issue over which she is so agitated.
In India, we elevate individuals and forget the cause. We need heroes and heroines, more so at a time of visual media. But in fixing on individuals, the issue, the cause, the reason for protest sometimes gets forgotten, or under-played.
In the case of Sharmila’s fast, the issue is crucial. AFSPA has been in force since 1958. The army insists it is essential; for the civilian population it means the denial of basic rights and nurtures a culture of impunity in everyone with power.
If you go to Manipur, you will understand why Sharmila will not relent. They do not have the freedom we take for granted. Nor the basic infrastructure. Daily life is incredibly difficult. There are shortages of every kind — water, electricity, fuel, food, medicines. Not for a week, or a month, but for years. Those of us living in so-called “undisturbed” areas do not have a clue what life is like for the ordinary Manipuri, someone who wants to lead a normal life, a peaceful one, without bomb blasts or armed men patrolling the streets or curfews or extra-judicial killings in broad daylight.
Manipuris escape this hardship by running away to our big cities. Thousands of them have joined the service sector. Does anyone ask them about Manipur? Do people even know they are from Manipur? People like them, living on the periphery, are constantly lectured about “integrating” with India. It is India and Indians who need to “integrate” with the northeast and Manipur and not the other way round.
Eight years ago, in 2005, the Justice Jeevan Reddy committee, set up to review AFSPA in Manipur by an earlier version of the government at the Centre, submitted its report. It recommended that AFSPA be withdrawn. The government paid no heed.
More recently, the Justice Verma Committee, set up after the Delhi gang rape, strongly recommended that the provision in AFSPA that grants armed forces personnel immunity from facing rape charges in a civilian court, be removed. Once again, this escaped a hearing-impaired government.
What will it take for the deafness of the government, and its obduracy, to give way to a listening ear and an open mind on the issue? How many Sharmilas will it take? Should all of us who care, who feel outraged at this state of affairs, decide to become Sharmilas?