By Tanima Banerjee:
Everyone knows Anna Hazare, and is fully aware of his anti-corruption campaign against the Lokpal Bill. In fact, I am sure most of us must have personally participated in his fast-unto death protests in Ramlila Maidaan which didn’t stretch beyond a few days. The government acceded to his demands because of the excess media attention and nationwide support his hunger strike acquired. But it is a shame for our nation which has barely heard of Irom Sharmila’s eleven years of hunger strike against the ‘draconian’ Armed Forces (Special Power) Act, 1958 from Manipur and districts of other North-eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura.
The whole country was enraged when a few civilians were killed in the Mumbai attacks, and even when Hazare questioned the government on its ‘unsatisfactory’ provisions in the Lokpal. But where were all these protesting people when 11 innocent people, including a 62 year old woman and an 18 year old girl, were just shot in Malom on November 1, 2000, by the armed forces as an act of retaliation against certain insurgent activities? There was only one woman at this time, who swore to be on hunger strike until death until the Act is repealed. Her hunger strike continues inconsiderate of getting ‘national support’. But it is sad that we Indians, who emerge as one when India wins a cricket match, or protest rallies are organized, couldn’t even provide her that. The ‘Iron lady of Manipur’ never really got the attention or support in her campaign against the AFSPA which gives the army the authority to arrest or kill anyone on grounds of suspicion in the ‘disturbed regions’.
The grounds on which such unprecedented power and protection has been endowed to the military agents in these regions were to stop insurgency and violence. But the Act hasn’t reduced insurgency at any level. Rather insurgency has increased, and more violence is perpetrated by the army against the innocent civilians, who are paying the price. The immunity that the Act allows has led the army to massively abuse their power by committing cold-blooded killings of ordinary people, arresting and detaining innocent people without warrants, torturing people, abducting people, gruesome murders, and rapes. The terror of the army preceded terror by insurgent groups in these regions. Anyone at any time could be a victim of the army. The infamous Malom Massacre ignited the fire in the Manipuri poet, Irom Sharmila who decided to protest against the AFSPA which on the name of bringing peace, had propagated more violence than ever, and had taken away every inch of freedom of these people.
Since the day she started protesting, she was arrested and detained in the jail ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, where she was force fed by nasogastric tubation. Since she was arrested on grounds of ‘attempt to suicide’ under Section 309 of the Indian Penal code, her sentence does not exceed for more than a year. Hence, ever year, she is released for 2-3 days and then she is rearrested on charges of her demand to ‘wipe out the AFSPA’ from the state of Manipur and staging ‘protest at the road side’ by ‘fasting unto death’. Recently, on the 12th March, 2012, she was released from her detention, and as has been the ritual since 12 years, it’s only a matter of time when she would be re-arrested again. Despite not getting media attention or national support, and no considerable changes in the AFSPA brought by the central government, the longest political prisoner of the world is far from giving up. She still believes in her cause, and has been silently fighting against an Act on solely humanitarian grounds. Her protest is not for a political agenda, nor is she fighting the system. She only wants a certain Act to be removed, because it has turned out to be a curse and completely anti-democratic for the people of Manipur.
Some might say that her fasting for 11 years has gone wasted as nothing has changed in Manipur. The state government has been relentless in its efforts to retain the Disturbed Areas Act, which must be notified for the AFSPA to be operational. The Central Government has indicated its intentions of wanting the Act to be diluted and made more humane, but the Indian Army’s vehement opposition has not allowed it to happen. But this hasn’t weakened Irom. When she was produced before the court before her release, she reiterated that her struggle shall continue. The fact that the state still feels the need to keep her detained proves that her silence threatens the government. There is fear that if she is not detained, she has the potential to cause an even greater national stir than Hazare, since no one can deny the justness of her protest.
Sharmila’s firm belief in her cause has strengthened her resolution. She continues her struggle. But she poses a larger question on us, citizens of democratic India. There has been no one to stand beside this woman all these years, this woman who has taken onto herself the charge of saving her people from the inhumanities and atrocities committed by the army in Manipur who misuse their power under the safeguard of the AFSPA. Most of the people of our country are not even aware of the dreaded situations in Manipal, wherein people are being ruthlessly killed and women raped at an unprecedented level.
What is the reason behind the lack of awareness or nationalist sentiment to crisis in Manipur and the protests against it? Is it our own prejudice against the North-East, which is not considered part of the Indian mainland? Is it because of a deadened humanism in the nihilistic generation of today? Is it because we ‘don’t care’ about the Manipuri women getting raped and killed by the army because a certain government Act gives them that unprecedented power? Does a woman’s 11 years long political fast mean nothing to us? How long do we plan to be indifferent? How long do we allow such cruelty and inhumanity by our ‘protectors’ to continue? These are some questions which Irom Sharmila’s present situation is forcing us to ask ourselves. Even today, if we join hands with her, we would be saving 6 states, whose civilians are living in terror and dread from our own Army. We, the people of India can create miracles by raising our voices against what is wrong. Yet without our support, her struggle, the cause for which she has been fighting would be fading slowly. Should we allow Irom’s struggle to get over?