Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Don't ignore Irom Sharmila

Identify this photo. You will not be able to do so; even if I were to give her name, you will not be able to recognize her. She has also not made it to the front cover of tabloids like the Times of India and would continue to remain this way as an example of our lack of concern for “the fringes”. Mamta Banerjee went on a hunger strike recently but called it off after 25 days after high level intervention while this frail lady has been fasting for the past six years and the only thing that has happened so far is that she has been arrested repeatedly for attempted suicide but no attempts have been made to address the main issue.

Irom Sharmila, 35, has been on a hunger strike since November 2000 protesting against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) in Manipur which gives the Armed Forces draconian powers, worse than even in TADA or POTA . AFSPA is a law that can come into force in any part of India, declared as “disturbed”. The act allows anyone of any rank in the army or a paramilitary force under its operational command to shoot, arrest or search without warrant; and to kill on suspicion alone. Furthermore, there is little scope for judicial remedy. The legislation defines 'disturbed' as an area which requires the aid of the armed forces, without spelling out criteria. This has led to states being declared 'disturbed' for years — Nagaland for 46 years and Manipur (Sharmila’s state) for 24.

Her epic fast started six years back when the Army, in retaliation to an insurgent attack, went berserk and shot dead 10 civilians. From then till now, Sharmila has been observing a fast against the repeal of this act but to no avail. Instead she’s been arrested on charges of attempted suicide and put into custody repeatedly without granting bail. She has also been nose-fed forcibly to prevent her fast. Her frail 35 year old body has grown extremely weak but she continues to stand firm in the true spirit of Gandhigiri.

The Central Government had constituted a high level official panel under Justice BP Jeevan Reddy Committee to review the provisions of AFSPA. The Commission, in its 147 page report, in June 2005,stated that the protection of soldiers from legal proceedings already existed under Section 49 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (ULP Act) and unambiguously recommended repealing the law. However, the Central Government has been sitting on the report since then and the Defence Minister A K Antony recently stated that the law will not be repealed but will be made more “humane”.

This law has been in force for almost 50 years now but this has not led to any insurgency reduction in the North-East. If after all these years, the Government refuses to look at this matter as a social and political problem and tries to flex military power to address the problem, it reflects poorly on the State. This lack of progress should have spurned the Government to abandon it rather than stand by it but it stubbornly refuses to engage with the political leadership of the insurgent groups and continues with its one-dimensional thinking.

We are quite proud of our democratic setup and do not hesitate to emphasise this when we compare ourselves to China but isn't it shocking that we have such archaic laws which infringe upon our human rights. The Government is least bothered and is not willing to invest time and energy on such minor issues because it believes that there are several other pressing issues to be taken care of. The indifference is quite appalling and Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Right Committee have expressed their concern over India on its continuation of denial of democracy.

The Indian Army is too much of a holy cow to be criticized, so any excesses done are painted as “counter insurgency operations” and the people who condemn such incidents are “leftists” or “pseudo-intellectuals” who do not understand ground realities. This allegation may be true in many cases but we need to be self-critical and not always gung-ho about our systems – this is an important activity on our growth as a democracy that cares for people.

But then has the North-East ever been on the radar of either the media or the administration? It stands alienated at some corner of the country, abandoned by the State and the elite and let down by the liberals. The North-East has never meant to us anything more than maybe a Bhupen Hazarika, a Danny or a Baichung Bhutia .There have been thousands of deaths (reported and unreported) but our concern or rather lack of concern for the “fringe people” – that was what we have reduced them to- is rather shameful.

There’s a media blind spot towards issues affecting the North-East and therefore anything to the north of Bengal has become of no concern to the rest of the country. We look at it in the form of a nuisance value being created by a set of rag tag guerillas, supported by an “invisible foreign hand”, merely out to foment trouble in the country. After all, when the country is making giant strides, why would you care for people going over insignificant fasts in alien parts of the country?

Thomas Friedman refers to the world as a flat entity but as Noble Prize winner Joseph Steiglitz says in his interview to The Hindu recently, “...not only is the world not flat but in many ways it's getting less flat”. The difference between the haves and the have-nots increases, so while the Government focuses on greater economic policies, it forgets that social and economic factors must never be looked at in isolation and a lot of social problems crop up due to economic disparities. Let us not look at human rights as a dispensable commodity which can be negotiated when the time arrives; that would be a failure of the idea of a "Welfare State".

We have just welcomed the New Year with a great deal of pomp and joy but as we sit in our AC cubicles and drawing rooms, let us spare a minute for the likes of Irom Shamila and others who are waging their own lone battles against the State. The fight for basic human survival is universal and we must support it wholeheartedly.


  1. I guess we are all guilty of neglecting the north east ..somehow it reallly doesnt come under the radar of the geography called India...lets hope that some sense prevails and the draconian laws are repealed be4 push comes to shove and there is a complete cessation of the territory from India....

  2. a very touching post..i guess the new year will come and go...and again the new year will come ...but then the amount of constructive changes that takes place while so many years are passing by is wat we need to look upon!

  3. @Sudarshan: Yes, we are all guilty of forgetting the North East. Sometimes, when we in the South are ignored by the Hindi belt, it feels hurt but then that's hardly anything to our indifference towards the North East. Hopefully, these areas will not abandon their hope of a larger India.

    @White Forest/Rathna: Thanks...It was a bit of an emotional post; new year is probably an occasion for us to think about events and things we have conveniently forgotten in the midst of all our comforts. It can be distressing at times to see all this suffering while we live so comfortably(relatively speaking).

  4. You are right in pointing this out. Thanks for the pointer.

    Friedman's statement that the world is getting flatter is right. But the impact it is having on those who lack opportunities are getting relatively poorer.

    A typo-It is Stiglitz

  5. @Alex: Thanks for the typo correction.

  6. Pradeep,

    That was a very powerful and moving post. I too am guilty of not knowing enough about north east. Will definitely try harder from now on.