Friday, September 16, 2011

India's forgotten fast for years!

By M H Ahssan

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 Newsindia.

"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 the northeast.

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 slumber.

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 political class.

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 convulsions".

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.

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