Monday, December 14, 2009

Irom Sharmila's 10-year-fast is ignored

DNA, December 14, 2009

“Isn't it ironic and smacks of the Centre's double standards? One person in AP fasts for ten days and Centre relents. Another person fasts in Manipur for nine years and more, supported by the relay fast of thousands of other women for one year now, and what does the Centre do? -- NOTHING. Wah, wah, Indian democracy!! Not proud to be Indian”.

This is a message sent to some of us by a woman journalist friend in Manipur. Indeed, if you are looking at what they call “mainland” India from the distant Northeast, it must seem strange that a 10 day fast can result in talks for a separate state for Telengana but a 10-year-fast to demand the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur results in nothing.

Irom Sharmila, that iconic 36-year-old Manipuri woman, has spent the best part of almost 10 years being force fed against her will. She has undertaken a fast-unto-death demanding the withdrawal of the AFSPA. Each year, the ritual is played out. Her period of detention for attempting suicide is one year. The authorities have to release her, usually in early March. She leaves the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal where she is incarcerated and being force fed through a tube shoved down her nose.

Earlier this year, many of us were witness to the moving moment when this pale young woman emerged from the hospital and was virtually carried by hundreds of older Manipuri woman who have been on a relay hunger strike in support, to the shamiana where they sit all day and all night in solidarity. Sharmila began speaking as she gained a little strength. But she would not give up her fast. So two days later she was rearrested and once again moved to the hospital.

And while this annual arrest and rearrest ritual continues, Manipur – and particularly Imphal – is caught in a permanent spiral of violence. For many months now, since the July 23 “encounter” killing of a young man, Chongkham Sanjit in broad daylight in Imphal’s busy market area (exposed by Tehelka through a series of photographs), the capital of Manipur has not been “normal”. People are demanding that the killers of this young man be prosecuted. But AFSPA gives the security forces impunity. Their powers to act cannot be questioned.

As a result, there has been a civil strike that has immobilised the city. For months children have not attended school or college. There is violence, curfew and an aggravation of the perennial shortages that this land-locked city not far from the border of Myanmar faces even in so-called normal times. The 25 lakh citizens of the state of Manipur have seen little or no development for years while the rest of India, apparently, marches ahead.

So my Manipuri friends have a right to ask why some fasts in the “mainland” yield results while their protests are never heard. Or if they are, then the result is promises that are never kept. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised some hopes in 2004 when he went to Imphal and promised that the withdrawal of AFSPA would be considered. He set up a committee headed by Supreme Court Judge B. P. Jeevan Reddy to look into the issue. The committee strongly recommended that the Act be withdrawn pointing out that the Act, “for whatever reason, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness”. But nothing happened. The promise was forgotten, the recommendation ignored.

The Telangana issue has triggered a series of demands for separate states. The people of Gorkhaland have begun fasts, others are threatening to do so. But in the midst of all this fasting, we would do well to pause and think why only the demands of our “mainland” matter while the “periphery” – places like Manipur – are ignored, forgotten and rendered virtually invisible.

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