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Will Irom Sharmila Meet Her Mother?

By K.P. Sasi

01 December, 2010

What makes a human being himself or herself is very much determined by the context of the social, genetic and environmental factors apart from the subjective will to make the necessary choices. When I look back, I am sure that I would not have become me, if Emergency was not declared in India . I learnt the fundamentals of political freedom because of Emergency. Those days gave my first lessons on human rights and dignity which an institution like State can crush. During the post emergency era, I saw myself floating among a large number of freedom lovers from Delhi to Kerala. There is an old Chinese saying that `every crisis is an opportunity'. The declaration of emergency actually created political, creative and intellectual opportunities for many, though it was a highly unnecessary evil. However, there was an emergence of a highly active critical intelligentsia, artists, theatre people, writers and even film makers all over the country who emerged from this suppression of rights. At this moment, I am seeing a parallel of my own experiences in Delhi more than three decades ago, on the present situations in the north east.

Recently, I was invited by the human rights activists in Manipur to participate in the celebration of the festival of `Hope, Justice and Peace' commemorating the completion of the 10 th year of hunger fast by Irom Sharmila with the demand for repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. Harsh Mander, Vrinda Grover, Henri Tiphagne from People's Watch, Babu Mathew, Dr. Uma Chakravarty and many other activists from all over the country came to support the cause. The five day event organized by Just Peace Foundation exposed me to a large number of intelligentsia, artists, activists, writers and film makers who were ignited with much more passion for justice, than those during Emergency in India .

During Emergency, we could not have had any public meeting like the one I participated in Imphal. The press, films, TV, radio, theatre, cartoons and all other forms of possible critical communication were censored by the State. The famous observation of those days was that when Smt. Indira Gandhi asked political leaders to kneel, they crawled. However, Mrs. Gandhi was using the police machinery to control the civil society. But the Indian State is using the army today to control millions of people in the north east and Kashmir . Hence, the violations of human rights in these areas are much more than the violations of rights during emergency.  During emergency, there was an engineering college student called Rajan who was tortured and killed in Kerala. The activists could raise the issue to such an extent that the entire government of Kerala fell. Thousands of such Rajans could be found in every part of north east or Kashmir , completely unobserved by those who bravely resisted emergency or those who spoke against authoritarianism just after emergency. In Manipur alone around 500 people are killed every year in the name insurgency. Around 300 women become widows every year. It has been established that most of the civilians killed have nothing to do with insurgency.

Irom Sharmila Chanu is a product of the context of Manipur. She has been on a hunger fast for more than 10 years, a sustained protest that no individual human being on this planet has ever undertaken. Her demand is simple and humane: Withdrawal of the draconian law, Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA). Her strategy for the struggle was drawn from Mahatma Gandhi. But Gandhi, whose longest hunger fast remained only for a period of a few weeks, himself would have expressed a shock at the determination, will power and commitment of this 38 year old poet from the North East.

Manipur is an absurd creation of Indian State . I had the luxury of staying in the only hotel in the entire Manipur state which provided 24 hours of electricity. This hotel had a generator. The civil society in the entire state gets only 3 to 4 hours of electricity. However, the Indian Army and the VIPs get regular special supply. I listened to a young Manipuri telling his friend in the cow belt of India that he had problems of regular communication with him due to the problem of diesel in Manipur. I did not understand the connection first. Soon I understood that if you want to charge your mobile, you need to have access to diesel and generator. There are very few petrol stations in Imphal. And they are not meant for the civil society. They are only meant for the Indian Army and the VIPs. The Manipuris have the luxury of buying oil in black for their vehicles. No other state in the mainland India would have tolerated such discrimination.

When I reached Manipur, I was convinced that if there is one human being from this sub-continent called India , who has captured the hearts and minds of people from all over the world, it is the poet Irom Sharmila. No other artist, politician, film maker or writer has reached such a moral height from this landscape. But what is so special about this woman?

Like Mother Like Daughter

Sharmila's context is something more than the brutalities of the Army in Manipur . Many were killed, raped and tortured. Many have witnessed such violence. But it is Sharmila who is undertaking the most heroic, sustained and dedicated fearless struggle, standing much above the powers of language of the guns. Why Sharmila? To answer this question, you may have to look at one major pillar of her strength. Her mother!

Sharmila was the youngest among the nine children of her mother Sakhi Devi. When she was born, her mother was unable to breast feed her and therefore, her brothers took her to other local women with newborn babies, who would act as wet nurses. The understanding was that the brother would undertake the other household responsibilities of the woman in the meantime. No wonder, there are many mothers in Manipur who recognize her as their own daughter today. But the most emotional and powerful support for Irom Sharmila came from Sakhi Devi.

In her youth, Sharmila spent her energy and time in journalism, poetry and reading Bible, Koran and Hindu texts. `She liked to be alone listening to the radio, writing poems and spending time on yoga and nature cure,' says her brother Sighajit. In October 2000, when Justice Suresh from Mumbai led a commission to enquire about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Sharmila joined the team as an activist. Her interests in human rights of people of Manipur widened with her involvement with Human Rights Alert led by Babloo Loitongbam who is a lawyer in Imphal.

On November 2, 2000 , ten people were killed when a paramilitary force opened fire at a bus stop near Malom in Manipur. Most of the victims were women and students. Immediately after the firing, a brutal combing operation and curfew also followed. Shocked at this incident, Irom Sharmila decided to initiate a fast unto death demanding the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Before starting the fast, she went to meet her mother for blessings.

The conviction and courage of the 78 year old, illiterate, frail Sakhi Devi, the mother of Sharmila has always been the source of inspiration and strength for Sharmila `It was on a chilly and windy winter evening ten years ago, that my daughter came up to me and asked for my blessing for a human cause she was about to undertake,' said an emotional Sakhi Devi with drops of tears trickling on her old withered face to a reporter. `I was at the kitchen garden when she came to ask for the blessing and for a while I could not take a definite decision. However, knowing her determination and will power and on seeing the zeal in her eyes, I consented, gave her my blessings and asked her to return home after achieving what she has set out to do.'

Sakhi Devi never visited Sharmila after the fast. There was a deep fear that her emotions after seeing the daughter would break Sharmila's determination. As per the words of Sakhi Devi `I am weak hearted. If I see her, I will cry. I do not want to erode her determination, so I have resolved not to meet Sharmila till she reaches her goal'. A long period of ten years have passed. The question before us today is: `Will Sakhi Devi meet her daughter?'

The Government had arrested Irom Sharmila on the grounds of attempted suicide. Gandhi was fortunate to die earlier. Otherwise, the Father of the Nation would have been languishing in Indian jails for the same reason, since he was active with the same strategy of non-violent hunger fast a number of times. Commenting on the charge of attempted suicide, Sharmila responded: `If it's true that I made an attempt to commit suicide, or if I really wanted to die, there is an electric bulb available. I would have used that. I have plenty of clothes I would have hung myself. It is not a matter of death'. For Irom Sharmila, fasting was a means and not an end in itself.

When the Killings Become Legal

As per the Indian constitution, if you kill a person you are accountable and the law can take its course. But not in Manipur or other parts of north east. The only license you need is that you should be part of the Indian army or the paramilitary.  The Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA) equips the security forces with unrestricted powers including the power to arrest and enter property without warrant as well as the power to shoot, arrest and kill at the hint of suspicion, even without any threat to the lives of the security forces. This draconian law also provides immunity to security forces against legal action. It means that the power of the Army to kill anybody in Manipur can not be questioned. Hence, `disappearances', torture, rape, loot and killings by the security forces became a regular affair.

Armed Forces Special Powers Act ( AFSPA) has a colonial legacy. In the year 1942, (Special Powers) Ordinance was introduced in India by the British to protect their interests against the vibrant freedom struggle. Manipur was a princely state during 1942 and therefore, was not covered by the ordinance.  What the British did to India was repeated by the Indian rulers on Manipur in a much more brutal manner through an act called Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958. The reason for the State to introduce this draconian law was that Manipur was `disturbed'. The question is who disturbed whom? The north east had an independent history from that of the rest of India . The truth is that it became part of India in recent history entirely due to the power of the guns a tradition which the Indian rulers followed from the British. And outside the power of the guns, the Indian state has no moral backing of the civil society in the north east.

Pressure on India

AFSPA was initially introduced in Manipur with an intention of its effect for only 6 months. However, the Act continues to violate the human rights of people in Manipur. Even the international community has demanded the repeal of AFSPA. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the Indian Government to repeal AFSPA and replace it with a more humane Act within one year. That was in 2007. The Government of India pretended not to hear it. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women also asked the Indian Government to do the same. In 2009, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navanethem Pillay said that the Act breached `contemporary international human rights standards'. Later, on June 14, 2010 , the European Parliament raised the demand for the repeal of AFSPA. Many human rights bodies like Amnesty International have demanded the repeal of the Act. National Bodies like the Prime Minister's Working Group on Confidence-Building Measures in Jammu and Kashmir recommended the same. Repeal of AFSPA was also recommended by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission. `The Act, for whatever reasons, has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high handedness,' stated Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission appointed by the Prime Minister to look review AFSPA. Jeevan Reddy Committee also recommended the removal of AFSPA. However, all these never reached the dead ears of the Indian Government so far.

AFSPA was introduced with a pretension to control `insurgency'. When the Act was introduced, there was only one insurgent group in Manipur. Today, there are more than forty. It is therefore, clear that this law has never controlled insurgency, but instead it has strengthened insurgency. Former police chief of Tripura, Dr. Subramaniam, who attended the 5 day festival in Imphal expressed a more radical opinion than many. He was not just a critic of AFSPA, but the existence of the entire army in Manipur. `The Indian Army is meant to defend the borders', he says, `I don't think there is any need for the deployment of the Army in the North East Region'.

When the guns of the Indian Army can become superior to the Indian Constitution, and when the murders and rapes by the Indian army on the civil society in the north east are justified by law, there are very limited options for the people. Human beings can survive even with restrictions on the availability of water, food, diesel and electricity  but not without freedom and dignity.  It is this essential truth the struggle of Irom Sharmila symbolizes.   

Murder of Manorama

A movement, spearheaded by 32 social organizations under the banner of `Apunba Lup', developed into a `civil disobedience' movement, which became quite emotional after a student leader Pebam Chittaranjan immolated himself on the Independence Day. The adviser of the Bishenpur unit of the Manipuri Students' Federation, Pebam Chittaranjan left a suicide note, which said `It is better to self immolate than die at the hands of security forces under this Act. With this conviction, I am marching ahead of the people as a human torch'. Pebam Chittaranjan had run for about 100 meters with his body in flames before falling to the ground in Bishenpur Bazar.

The human rights issues in Manipur or Nagaland or other parts of the North East were never reported by the national press for several decades even after the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was implemented. For the Indian mind, the north east never existed, except as some ethnic dances of the indigenous people when the Prime Minister or the President of India visited the region. In most of the parts of the midland India , the people from the north east are treated as Chinese. The China phobia also helped the Indian mind to look at the North East as something `separate'. Therefore, in practice, the separatism is actually in the mainstream Indian mind!

While press in India treated the North East as `the other', so many human rights violations that took place for several decades got completely ignored, and the news from the north east never got reported in the national press. As per the mainstream attitude, the North East never represented India in the minds of Indian journalists. All the heroes of the Indian press who fought emergency were silent for a long time on the human atrocities in the north east. The change took place after the rape and murder of Manorama. On July 11, 2004 , Thangjam Manorama was picked up by the Indian Army and was shot dead after multiple rape and brutal torture. The protest against the AFSPA took a major leap soon after when the mothers of Manipur stripped and laid siege to the Assam Rifles Head Quarters at Kangla. Newspapers all over the country splashed photographs of the naked mothers of Manipur with the message written in bold red `Indian Army Rape Us'. There was a deep selfish reason of the media to cover such an incident, because the photographs of the protest had a `sensational' visual potential for them. The question therefore is: If the Indian Press had played a minimum role to defend the democratic traditions from the time AFSPA was introduced, would the mothers in Manipur be forced to go to that level of protest? Would Pebam Chittaranjan be forced to immolate himself as a `human torch'? Would Sharmila be forced to continue a hunger fast for ten years? The mothers of Manipur are still protesting for a long time even now against AFSPA. How come the Indian press has conveniently ignored this present long protest? What are they waiting for? Was it really necessary for the mothers of Manipur to undertake a naked protest, so that the press can write about the human rights in Manipur? The shame is almost on every journalist in this country and not just the Indian Army.

Recognition for Sharmila

Irom Sharmila is today recognized internationally for her work on the issues related to empowerment of women, peace and human rights as well as for her long dedicated non-violent means of protest in a region where guns make the rules. Sharmila was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights and the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize. However, despite her international recognition, the Indian government has chosen to keep her under judical custody, forcibly feeding her through the nose. There are heavy restrictions for her to meet visitors.

Sharmila has not taken food or water for ten years. She is hungry for justice. Nobody can feed her, unless the insensitive people all over wake up and intensify solidarity actions and protests. When documentary film maker Kavita Joshi asked Sharmila what she missed most, she replied: `The People. As I am a prisoner here (in hospital), everyone is restricted from meeting me without permission. So I miss people a lot'.

We did not get permission to meet Sharmila. That did not surprise me. Even one of the most recognized Indian writer, Maheshwata Devi was denied permission to meet her much earlier. However, after we left Imphal, some of those who were present including Ojas, a Pune based theatre activist who has performed a one woman play on Irom Sharmila in many places, went and stood in front of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital where Sharmila is kept as a prisoner. Sharmila saw them from the window and became very emotional. Some of the doctors were deeply concerned and moved. The activists also negotiated with a security guard to allow them to meet her for a short while. The human instincts of the security guard and the doctors facilitated the meeting. The security guard was transferred after three days.

With all the might of the large and unproductive army staff, guns, weapons, nuclear bombs and all other defense facilities maintained by misusing the tax payers' money by the Indian State, it is clear that during these 10 years of Sharmila's hunger fast, the power of the gun is collapsing in front of the power of the heart. My sincere advise to the leaders of this nation is: `Please do not make yourself look like fools, for the determination of Irom Sharmila is far higher than the determination and moral strength of your great Indian army and it has already been established by now, since the national and international support for Sharmila is only increasing. Please do not make yourselves appear as such weaklings even after a long tradition of memorable political freedom fighters and leaders of this country who still remain in the hearts and minds of people, even after several decades of their departure from this world. Please do not let the spirits of the dead colonial British people wipe out their guilt with a relief that the free India after Mahatma Gandhi is controlled by much more brutal army than what they could ever imagine'!

It is time for the parliamentary representatives of the north east to lift their heads, for they have buried them so far under their own feet with guilt and shame to face their own people. It is time for all the democratic groups who understand the alphabets of human rights in India to come forward and take up the cause of Irom Sharmila, for if the struggle of Sharmila fails, it would be the biggest failure of the democratic traditions of this country. And in such a situation, let us be clear that we will be the next victims of the brutalities of the Indian State power. Apart from this, let us own up the responsibility of the corrupt power hungry political leaders of this country controlling the Indian State and trying to crush the very dignity of millions of people in the north east and Kashmir . Because the justification given for these savage actions and brutal exercise of power are in the name of our own `Indian identity'. Safe within these identities, let the activists in India also realize that they can do much more than the Manipuri activists for the elimination of AFSPA, because there are fundamental limitations of physical threats for a Manipuri activist, academician or an artist in the North East to speak out against this draconian law. However, we do not have to fear much, since we are not from the `disturbed' area. If we still do not take up the responsibility for the creation of harmony, peace and justice in this sub-continent, our own future will be at stake. And finally, let us work to make that day possible for the mother of Sharmila to meet her own daughter, in full contentment about her achievement. Not for them, but for us! Not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of our own dignity and freedom!

The seeds of resistance have grown among the minds of a large section in the world during the last ten years of hunger fast of Irom Sharmila. Since she has planted these seeds on fertile, morally superior humane ground, no weapon of destruction can destroy their growth. Only people's action can facilitate the meeting of Sakhi Devi and Sharmila. And if they do not meet, it will only be because of you and me!

K.P Sasi is an award winning feature film and documentary director and an editorial adviser to Countercurrents.org. He can be reached at [email protected]