BANGALORE - Activists from India's northeast are up in arms against the
"discriminatory treatment" being meted out to them by the Indian government,
the mainstream media and the "mainland" public.
While a 13-day fast by anti-corruption crusader and social activist Anna Hazare
got the Indian government to begin acting on his demand for setting up of a lokpal
(ombudsman) institution mandated to independently probe corrupt public
officials, an 11-year fast by Irom Sharmila, an activist from the northeastern
state of Manipur, has evoked no response from Delhi.
"The Indian government responded to Hazare's 13-day-fast by discussing his
demands in parliament but not once in the 11 years since Sharmila began her
fast has the Indian parliament her
demand for repeal of the AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958], Irom
Singhajit, Sharmila's elder brother who heads the Just Peace Foundation, told
Asia Times Online.
"This is evidence of India's racial discrimination against the people of the
northeast," he said.
Thirty-nine-year old Sharmila has been on a hunger strike since November 4,
2000, to press for the repeal of the AFSPA. Two days earlier, she had witnessed
the gunning down of 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop near Imphal in Manipur
by personnel of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary counter-insurgency force in
Convinced, like millions of others in the northeast that it is the AFSPA that
enables and empowers the security forces to kill innocent civilians, she began
a fast to draw attention to its draconian content and press for its repeal.
Within days of her embarking on the fast, Sharmila was arrested by police on
charges of attempting suicide, an act that is illegal under section 309 of the
Indian Penal Code. In the 120 months since she began her protest, Sharmila has
not eaten. A nasal drip administered to her by the Indian armed forces in a
prison hospital keeps her alive.
In sharp contrast to the 24/7 coverage that India's television channels
provided of Hazare's fast in Delhi's Ramlila Grounds, Irom's protest has been
rarely covered in India's mainstream media over the past decade.
While tens of thousands of people from across the country participated and
expressed solidarity with Hazare's anti-corruption campaign, few Indians living
outside the country's conflict zones know that Sharmila has been on a hunger
strike since November 2000. Few outside the insurgency-wracked northeast and
Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where AFSPA is in force, are aware of this
legislation or of the cause Sharmila so passionately champions.
First imposed in Nagaland in 1958 - the legislation comes into force once an
area is declared "disturbed" by the federal or state government - AFSPA was
supposed to be in operation for a year only. But 53 years on, the geographic
area over which AFSPA's writ runs has grown exponentially. It was first imposed
in parts of Manipur in 1961 and extended to the entire state in 1980. It is in
effect in "disturbed areas" across all seven northeastern states. It has been
in force in Kashmir since July 1990.
AFSPA confers wide powers to the armed forces to shoot at sight on mere
suspicion or arrest people on flimsy grounds, conduct searches without warrants
and demolish property where suspects are thought to be hiding. It provides the
armed forces with immunity from prosecution. Section 6 says "no prosecution,
suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted ... against any person in
respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers
conferred by this act."
Human rights activists have pointed out that AFSPA is responsible for the
killing and ‘disappearance' of thousands of innocent civilians in the northeast
and J&K. If the aim of AFSPA was to curb insurgency, it has clearly failed.
Not only have the number of insurgent groups multiplied manifold since the
legislation was first introduced but also the geographic spread of armed
conflict has grown. While the armed forces claim they need special powers like
those in AFSPA to combat insurgency, it would not be an exaggeration to say
that AFSPA has fueled insurgency and unrest in the northeast.
The campaign calling for AFSPA's repeal goes back several decades. It is
spearheaded in Manipur by the Apunba Lup, an umbrella grouping of around 32
organizations, the Meira Paibi - a grassroots movement of Manipuri village
women - and rights activists. When a person goes missing, the Meira Paibi,
flaming torches in their hands, gather outside the camp of the security forces
to protest the AFSPA. They have rallied behind Sharmila's fast as have
thousands of others in the region.
But outside the Northeast, the campaign for AFSPA's repeal has little support.
Few outside the northeast know of AFSPA, let alone its negative fallout or even
of Sharmila's heroic protest. This isn't surprising given the Indian media's
disinterest in issues in the distant troubled region.
Moreover, since AFSPA does not apply to "mainland" India, few here empathize
with the northeast's suffering.
Not that the northeast hasn't tried to draw India's attention to the AFSPA. It
has adopted dramatic strategies to shock India into stirring out of its
In July 2004, for instance, when 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi was raped
and then shot dead by personnel of the Assam Rifles, 12 imas (mothers)
of the Meira Paibi movement stripped in front of the Kangla Fort, then
headquarters of the Assam Rifles, to demand the repeal of the AFSPA.
"Indian army come and rape us all," shouted the 12 naked women outside the
Kangla Fort gate. Their dramatic protest was aimed at capturing the attention
of the rest of India, indeed the world, regarding the brazen abuse of AFSPA by
Indian security forces in the northeast.
In the face of mounting protests in Manipur, the Indian government appointed
the Justice B P Jeevan Reddy Committee in 2004 to review the AFSPA. The
committee recommended the AFSPA's repeal. Yet the AFSPA remains in force in
Manipur and other "disturbed areas".
In the wake of Hazare's protest and the mass support Indians extended it,
Manipuris have expressed distress over India's lack of response to their
suffering and demands. "The people of the northeast have always been neglected
and ignored by the rest of India," says Singhajit.
Indeed, the northeast rarely figures in India's history books, its media
discourse or even national imagination.
The sharp contrast between the response of the Indian public and media to
Hazare's fast and the government's ceding of several of his demands has
underscored to the people of the northeast their existence at the periphery of
India's consciousness and the low importance they are accorded by India's
The contrast in India's treatment of Hazare and Sharmila was poignantly
captured by an editorial in The Sangai Express, an English daily from Manipur,
a week into Hazare's fast. Hazare "has managed to grab the attention of the
country, send the political establishment into a huddle whenever he announces
his intention to stop eating and he has been on a fast for the last seven days
or so," it said. In contrast, Sharmila "has been on a fast since November 2000
without creating so much of a flutter in the corridors of power."
Unlike Anna's fast, which took place under the full glare of the media
spotlight, with celebrities and high-profile activists flocking to the venue of
his fast, Sharmila is not allowed to be with her family. "Even her family
members are kept away from her," Singhajit said, pointing out that they need to
get government permission to meet her at the prison hospital.
Indians are familiar with fasts and hunger strikes. Mahatma Gandhi undertook 17
fasts, of which three were major fasts-unto-death. Independent India has seen
scores of hunger strikes by activists and politicians to press for demands.
While some fasts are genuine, several are a farce, as was the post-breakfast,
pre-lunch fast in 2009 by Tamil Nadu's former chief minister Muthuvel
Karunanidhi to demand a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.
Fasting as conceived by Gandhi was an alternative to violence. Gandhi resorted
to fasts to unite people against violence rather than to force concessions out
of the British colonial rulers. In the words of his grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi,
author of Mohandas, Gandhi's fasts "were to stir consciences, not create
This is not the case with most present-day hunger strikers in India. There is
an unmistakable coercive element to their fasts, with the threat of violence
lurking behind their protests should their demands not be conceded. Sadly, it
is to these violent fasts that the Indian government has responded.
Hazare's campaign - contrary to the non-violent Gandhian image it was given in
the media - had a coercive element to it. His demands were framed in terms that
reeked of intolerance, threat and blackmail.
Hazare's campaign drew on several resources. Indian corporate houses are
reported to have bankrolled the latter's country-wide campaign. The country's
increasingly powerful middle-class and the influential mainstream media stood
by Hazare. Besides, his protest reportedly enjoyed the backing of the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fount of the Hindu right-wing Sangh Parivar.
It was the size of the crowds with Hazare, the powerful interests backing him
and the possibility of his death triggering mass violence and unrest that
pushed the government to pay attention to his protest and concede his demands.
India remains unshaken and unmoved by Sharmila's decade-long hunger strike
because the cause she champions is too distant to strike a chord with India's
upwardly mobile middle class. Her attempt to stir India's conscience goes
unheard because the media denies her a voice.
Thus Delhi finds it expedient to violently keep her alive by force-feeding her
through painful nasal drip.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in
Bangalore. She can be reached at email@example.com
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)