Thursday, March 12, 2009

Steel magnolias in Manipur

Irom Sharmila joins the Meira Paibi in Imphal, Manipur on March 7, 2009

Curfew is a hated six-letter word not just in Srinagar. It has been a reality in many parts of Manipur, including its capital Imphal, in the northeastern corner of India for many decades, a reality that we who live in metropolitan India would find difficult to comprehend.

A few days in Imphal and you realise why people curse the curfew. At the moment, curfew has been “relaxed”. It begins at 7 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. But since February 19, Imphal was under curfew from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.

This means, that in a city with a population of over three lakhs, the streets are jammed from 4.30 p.m. onwards as people desperately try to get home. Every form of public transport is under siege. Shopkeepers hurriedly pull down shutters before the police and the army come along to enforce the curfew.

At the famous Ima market in Imphal run entirely by women, hundreds of them can be seen hurriedly tying up their goods and rushing out to make their way home. In so-called “normal” times, their main business was in the evening hours.

And after five? You can do nothing. In any case, there is also a perpetual power-cut. “We get power for barely four hours a day”, says a local journalist, “when we desperately try and charge our phones, our laptops and hope that the battery will last for the rest of the day.”

There is also little water. Everywhere, in the non-curfew hours, people can be seen collecting water from any source they can find.

Absence of power and water are a reality elsewhere too. But not the presence of over 50,000 members of the armed forces. Or the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 that gives members of these forces complete impunity.

On March 7, on the eve of International Women’s Day, a 36-year-old Manipuri woman, Irom Sharmila, who has become an iconic figure, ended the eighth year of her indefinite fast demanding repeal of the AFSPA. Sharmila has been repeatedly arrested and released for attempting to commit suicide, a charge under which she can be detained for a maximum of one year. For most of this period she has been force fed through a tube inserted in her nose.

Sitting patiently on the steps leading to the security ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital is 78-year-old Ima K. Taruni, one of the “mothers” of Manipur, the Meira Paibi who have been on a solidarity relay fast for 88 days. “Let’s save Sharmila by removing AFSPA”, she says. “If the Act is not removed, we will not vote. We have had enough.” The quiet manner in which this is said is typical of the determined non-violent struggle against the oppressive AFSPA by women like her.

After hours of waiting patiently, even as the evening sky begins to darken, Irom Sharmila steps out of the security ward. She is dressed in Manipuri dress, a pink diaphanous shawl around her shoulder. She winces at the light of the flash bulbs that pop as she steps out into media scrum. Taruni and the other Meira Paibi form a protective ring around her and while supporting her on all sides slowly walk out with her. People clap, some weep on seeing this pale woman who is barely able to speak or smile.

But each step seems to give her strength. Instead of going into a vehicle, Sharmila walks with the group of women a distance of at least 500 metres to the tent where they have been fasting. She tells the women later that she was ready to walk through the entire city of Imphal.

Once they reach the tent, the women help her sit down on the mattresses, cover her with blankets, lovingly massage her feet and put socks on them, rub her back and coddle her.

Sharmila then turns to the waiting media and speaks. Her voice is surprisingly strong for a woman who has been on a protest fast for eight years. “While the whole world will be celebrating International Women’s Day, no one will know that in a land called Kangleipak, where the land is very fertile and there are so many resources and the people are very friendly, and the wind blows very sweetly, the women of the land are facing so much oppression,” she says. She talks slowly and clearly for over half an hour, never flagging. And as darkness descends, she gets ready to spend the night in the tent with the Meira Paibi.

The release and re-arrest of Irom Sharmila has become an annual ritual. Even as this was being written, she was arrested yet again. Yet, it is an important ritual, one that the rest of India has not fully understood.

Manipur is tucked away in a distant corner. A beautiful land that is being destroyed by strife that is far more complex than the one in Kashmir. A state where the daily hardships of life are compounded by what people feel is an oppressive system. A state where you cannot but be impressed by the determination not to lose hope in its women, its Meira Paibi like K. Taruni. And where the sight of a pale 36-year-old holding on to her demand despite years of arrest and force-feeding has to touch even the most cynical heart.

Manipuris tell you that they have noted how the Indian media gives blanket coverage to any terror attack, be it in Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur or Ahmedabad. Yet although they in Manipur face terror every day, from the armed forces, from the scores of militant groups, hardly any of it is reported, except by their own media.

The current clampdown is the consequence of the murder of a bright young dedicated officer of the Manipur Civil Service, Thingnam Kishen, who was abducted and brutally killed in Ukhrul district on February 13 along with his driver and guard. Kishen, like many young Manipuris, was educated in Delhi and returned to the state in the hope of making a difference.

Despite strong laws like AFSPA, the government has failed to keep people safe in Manipur. Almost every day four or more people are killed in violent incidents involving the rebel groups or the security forces. The most recent was the shooting of a 13-year-old boy in Imphal. The demand for the removal of AFSPA is not likely to disappear. Nor will Irom Sharmila or her determined women supporters stop their protest.

(Also published in Mumbai edition of The Indian Express, Op-ed page, March 12, 2009)

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