Sunday, March 22, 2009

Disturbed in Manipur

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 22, 2008

THE OTHER HALF


The votes from Manipur in distant northeastern India might not determine which party comes to power in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. But one thing is certain. The women of Imphal, its capital, are clear what must happen if any party wants thei r vote. “We have had enough. If the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is not removed, we will not vote”, said an impassioned 78-year-old Ima K. Taruni.

Taruni and dozens of other elderly women, the Meira Paibi or Torch Bearers, were waiting quietly and patiently outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal on March 7, expecting Irom Sharmila, the iconic human rights campaigner who has been on an indefinite hunger strike for eight years, to be released from the security ward of the hospital. Sharmila and the Meira Paibi, who were also on a relay hunger strike, have one demand — remove the AFSPA. They hold this draconian law responsible for the insecure lives they lead in their own State as over 55,000 members of the Indian armed forces are granted total immunity for any of their actions.

Still in place
Despite Sharmila’s eight years of fasting — and being force-fed through a tube inserted in her nose — the AFSPA remains in place. But Sharmila will not give up. On March 7 she was released, and received by her “mothers” who tended her as they would an exceedingly brave daughter. But two days later, she was re-arrested, on charges of attempting to commit suicide, and sent again to the security ward to be force-fed.

The Meira Paibi will also not give up. Amongst those who waited for Sharmila’s release was a smiling 58-year-old woman who looked older than her years. Ima L. Nganbi, a mother of four children, felt no sense of embarrassment in telling me that she was one of the 12 women who held the dramatic,naked protest in July 2004 in front of Kangla Fort, an area occupied by the security forces in the heart of Imphal. The photograph of these women holding a banner that said, “Indian Army, rape me” sent ripples around the world. It drew attention to a State that has lived under the sword of terror — from the security forces and from multiple militant groups — for decades. And a State where people, and especially the women, are not willing to take it anymore.

Ima Nganbi is the Vice President of Apunba Manipur Kanba Ima Lup or Mothers’ Association to Save Manipur. The naked protest was sparked by the arrest and subsequent murder by security forces of Manorama, an activist. “We wanted to say this openly — come take our prestige, rape us, take our flesh”, says Ima Nganbi. They could not sit back and be silent any more after the Manorama incident. They felt there was no purpose to life if they had to live “without prestige” or respect. “We can’t live like this. All of us women in Manipur are mothers of women who have been raped by security forces. We want to fight to protect our prestige and the removal of black laws like the AFSPA”, she says.

But Ima Nganbi and her colleagues are glad that their protest had some impact. It led to the opening up of the Kangla Fort to civilians. This vast area, surrounded by a moat, was once the palace of the Manipuri king. In 1891, after the Anglo-Manipuri war, the British Army occupied it and after Independence it was taken over by the Assam Rifles. On November 20, 2004, after 113 years, it was handed over to civilian authority and opened up to the public.

That year, the Manmohan Singh government in Delhi promised it would remove the AFSPA and as a first step the municipal limits of Imphal were placed outside it. Yet, it continues to prevail in the rest of the State till today. The central government also appointed a five-member committee headed by Supreme Court Judge B.P. Jeevan Reddy to examine whether AFSPA was required. The Committee, whose report was never made public, was unequivocal in its recommendation that AFSPA should be withdrawn and pointed 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”. The government has neither accepted nor rejected the report. It has been silent.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

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)

Monday, March 09, 2009

This must stop

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 8, 2008

The Other Half


On International Women’s Day, Indian women have every right to call for a halt — to violence, to intimidation, to threats, to insults that are so quickly becoming the norm. I had hoped that I would be able to write something celebratory t his year. But there is just too much bad news that overshadows even the positive developments taking place in many corners of India.

The media reported these incidents in brief. They did not merit the attention that the Mangalore pub attack of January 24 elicited. The goons who hit out at these individual women did not take along television crews. But on just one day, February 17, in three different locations in the so-called “international” city of Bangalore, women who were minding their own business and just going about doing what any citizen is entitled to do — go to work, walk on the street, take public transport — were suddenly pounced upon by men who spat on them, hit them, chased them, hurled insults at them and even tried to pull off their clothes.

Two men on a motorcycle followed one of these women in her car in the afternoon in a crowded part of the city. They spat on her and forced her to stop. She ran into a building to escape them. They followed her and stopped only when she shouted back at them in their own language, Kannada. But as they left, they threatened her saying they had noted her car’s licence plate number.

Four men accosted another woman as she walked on the road at 10 in the morning. They attacked her, accusing her of being part of the Pink Chaddi Campaign by women who challenged the Sri Ram Sene and their Right-wing agenda. She was saved because an army van stopped and two soldiers intervened.

On the same day, a third woman, a young woman filmmaker was attacked. The men chased her to an auto-rickshaw and tried to drag her out. She managed to escape and registered a complaint with the police. And on February 28, a woman journalist on her way home from an assignment was punched on her face as she was getting into an auto-rickshaw. It just happened that on that particular day, these women had worn “western” clothing.

Distressing indifference

What is even more distressing about these incidents is that even though people saw what was happening, no one, except the two soldiers, intervened. They just watched.

What is happening to our society? Why are we breeding a combination of indifference and cowardly violence? How do we bring a halt to this?

Bangalore women are incensed and have launched the Fearless Karnataka campaign to fight against this onslaught from men who are so cowardly that they pick on individual women who are in no position to fight back. But this is a campaign that should be mirrored all over this country. Today it is women in Karnataka who are being targeted. Tomorrow it will be women in any other city or town in this country. While the safety of women in the public space has been a concern in many cities, this new aspect of being deliberately targeted by men who want to inject fear and keep women at home is a new and disturbing development.

The other face of violence is what women face even within the ostensible safety of their homes. Two recent studies have reiterated the extent to which Indian women face domestic violence, a fact already established by two consecutive National Family Health Surveys.

The study by the Indian Institute of Population Studies and the Population Council assembles more evidence that establishes the extent of violence women face in their marital homes. Based on interviews with 8,052 married men and 13,912 married women in the age group of 15 to 29 years in six States — Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu — the study notes levels of violence ranging from as high as 30 per cent in Bihar to 18 per cent in Rajasthan.

The study defines physical violence in specific terms, consisting of any of the following: twisting arm, pulling hair, pushing, shaking or throwing something at the woman, punching with fist or something else, kicking, dragging or beating up, attempting to choke or burn on purpose, threatening attack with knife, gun or any other weapon. And sexual violence as forced sex anytime during the course of marriage including the first night.

Continuing evidence
Women registered a lifetime experience ranging from 18 to 30 per cent of physical violence and between a third and half of them spoke of forced sex including on the wedding night. Women usually bear all this in silence. They do not revolt until it is too late — when they are grievously injured or even die.

Deaths amongst young women due to fire-related injuries could be six times higher than official estimates. Prachi Sanghavi, Kavi Bhalla and Veena Das, in their study released in the respected international medical journal, The Lancet, have used national hospital registry data for urban areas and a representative survey of causes of death for rural areas to arrive at this conclusion. Looking at fire-related deaths in specific age groups, the researchers estimate that there were 68,000 urban deaths and 95,000 rural deaths caused by fire in 2001, a total of 1.63 lakhs. Of these, 1.06 lakhs, or 65 per cent, were women. And more than half of these were women between 15 and 34 years of age. There could be other explanations for these deaths but the probability that many of these women were injured or died due to dowry harassment or domestic violence is not a far-fetched conclusion.

Studies and data simply confirm what we already know: that despite so-called “progress” on many fronts, women in India continue to be subjected to unconscionable levels of violence – on the street and at home. This has to stop.

(To read the original, click on the link above)