While the farcical drama around Anna Hazare's protest and arrest has hogged the limelight, Irom Sharmila's indefinite fast since 2000 to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) repealed continues to be ignored by the nation and the media…
A day after Indians ‘celebrated' Independence Day by following the annual ritual of hoisting the flag, singing the national anthem and patriotic songs and listening to politicians, including the Prime Minister, talk about the strengths of Indian democracy, the police cracked down on a much-celebrated campaigner against corruption, Anna Hazare and his team.
The drama that followed his arrest and that of others in his team, the growing protests, the late night release and then Anna's refusal to be released was not just farcical; it was a pitiful display of a government with no respect for people's right to protest and no strategy to deal with those who demand that right. In one day, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government managed to unite the opposition. Even those who do not subscribe to every aspect of Hazare's campaign, such as his demand that only his team's formulation of the Lok Pal Bill be accepted, strongly condemned the government's actions. On August 16, Anna Hazare successfully “arrested” the UPA government.
Yet even as Hazare's anti-corruption crusade gained momentum with hundreds courting voluntary arrest, in another part of India, a protestor who has used a similar tactic, of going on an indefinite fast, continues to be ignored by the rest of the country and by the political leadership.
Given the issue — rooting out corruption — and the mobilisation of groups in big cities across India, as well as the concerted media attention, some might consider it irrelevant to talk about a corner of the country where a lone woman continues her fight against the truly undemocratic Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) imposed on Manipur that has made life a living hell for the ordinary people of that State.
Indeed, when the rest of India — barring, of course, the Kashmir Valley — celebrated Independence Day, the scene in Manipur was strikingly different. Pradip Phanjoubam, Editor of the Imphal Free Press, wrote this moving opening paragraph in his editorial on August 15 titled, “State of Independence”:
“On the eve of the India's Independence Day, Imphal is acquiring the look of a war front. The scenario is not too different in other townships in Manipur as indeed in much of the Northeast. It has almost become a ritual every year. Various militant organisations would call for a boycott of the celebration of what is arguably the biggest and most important day in the country's history and in response the provincial governments would virtually stage flag marches to demonstrate the power of the establishment and push its way without being deterred by any threat whatsoever. Uniformed gun totting security personnel are on every corner of the streets frisking people, stopping motorists, checking their vehicles, questioning them etc. As expected, even a week before the big day approached, Imphal already began wearing a deserted look, especially after sunset. People return home early so as not to be accosted by security men and go through the humiliation of being made to stand on the side of the roads to be frisked and questioned like potential trouble makers. The ordinary people are supposed to be mere bystanders in this war game, but every time tensions escalate in moments like this, they have no choice than to be prepared to be the undeserved casualties, and sometimes become statistics of ‘ collateral damage', the well known sugar-coating aimed at making civilian killing and harassment seem like necessary and pardonable fallout of a conflict.”
Yes, Imphal is a long way from our relatively comfortable lives in cities in the rest of India, even if our lives are disrupted by the occasional power outage, by water shortage, by pot-holes on our roads, by inflation, and by the government deciding to deny those so inclined the right to protest. But Manipur is also India. Yet, here people live without electricity for most of the day, even in the capital city. Here, the areas with a sufficient water supply would probably be only those where the government and the army reside. Here, people are afraid to go out after dark and markets close as soon as the sun sets. Here, men with arms, the security forces and the various groups of militants, run the show. Here, ‘democracy' seems a theoretical construct, certainly not a lived reality.
Beacon of hope
And here, since November 2000, a 38-year-old woman, Irom Sharmila, has been on an indefinite fast demanding withdrawal of AFSPA. She is under arrest and is being force-fed by the government in a public hospital in Imphal. Every year she is released, and then re-arrested. Yet, this woman of unimaginable courage will simply not give up. And by holding on to her resolve, she holds up a small candle of hope for the people of her state. A hope that people will notice, that her determination will be recognised, that the current government, which in its earlier term had promised to look again at AFSPA, will not break one more promise.
We have forgotten that a year after the UPA government first took office in 2004, it set up a five-member committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge B. P. Jeevan Reddy. The committee recommended, amongst other things, a withdrawal of AFSPA. So Sharmila's demand is not unreasonable; a government-appointed committee has endorsed it. But the recommendation was given more than six years ago. Yet today, the security forces continue to enjoy the right to act with impunity, while the citizens of Manipur, who are also citizens of India, live without many fundamental rights guaranteed to them under our Constitution.
Anna Hazare's campaign, in the national capital and in full media glare, is premised on scepticism about the government's intent on the matter of dealing with corruption. But Sharmila has even a greater reason for scepticism given the absence of any movement on a recommendation that has been before the government for so many years.
If we are concerned about freedom, about democratic rights, about the right to protest, let us also remember other protests, other parts of India where democratic rights are being denied. Let us remember Sharmila.
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