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A forgotten fast

Dec 8, 2012

SILENT PROTEST

Irom Sharmila’s fast entered the twelfth year this November. Her protest needs to be viewed against the background of Manipuri women’s powerful voices of assertion of their rights over the years, says Bhumika Rajan

The seven sisters, or the seven North-Eastern States that we see on the map of India (Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya) are generally placed in the margins and perceived as the ‘other’ by the dominant consciousness. This distinction between the group which calls itself mainstream India and the people of the North-East becomes visible whenever cases of racial discrimination are reported by the media. In all the seven North-Eastern States, violence has been a constant presence in the lives of people.  Caught between the State machinery on the one hand and underground forces on the other, they live in the fear of death.  Their difference in terms of culture, food and appearance makes them lesser citizens in the eyes of the dominant group.  But, voices of resistance have been marking their presence against atrocities committed on them by the State.

A unique struggle by a Manipuri woman demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA) entered its 12th year in November this year. Irom  Sharmila Chanu, a young, gritty woman has been on a fast since November 5, 2000, protesting against the armed forces brutality on the people of Manipur. But the State has been force feeding her through a nasal tube ever since then.  She has been arrested by the State which has deemed her act of fasting as a crime and termed it as an attempt to suicide. Deepti Priya Mehrotra in Restoring Order in Manipur writes, “On March 8, 2008, Irom Sharmila was released from Imphal jail. The  State dubbed her a ‘habitual offender’, and has kept her in judicial detention most of the time, since her original arrest in November 2000.”

The catalyst

AFSPA was imposed in Manipur on September 8, 1980 since it falls under the category of disturbed areas as defined by the State. This Act permits the military and police personnel to interrogate, arrest, shoot anybody they think is harbouring intentions that are anti-national or are supporting insurgent groups. Violence has become a pre-dominant presence in the lives of Manipuris and people dwelling in the other North-Eastern States.

Imagine a situation where you are standing in a bus shelter and police/military personnel arrest you or even worse, shoot you down and later justify their act by saying it was necessary to do so in the interest of national security. It was one such incident which worked as a trigger and led to Sharmila’s fast. On November 2, 2000, in Malom, near Imphal, many people were shot to death by the Assam Rifles. A statement was later given claiming that those who had been killed were insurgents. But in reality, they were young students, men and women who were standing in the bus stop or walking towards their home.

In yet another incident, Thangjam Manorama Devi, a young woman was arrested on the grounds of indulging in insurgent activities. Manorama Devi was later found dead and her body bore signs of brutal physical violence. It was quite clear that she was raped and later shot dead. In the wake of this incident which occurred on July 11, 2004, a few women from the Meirapaibi group, decided to stage a protest sans clothes in front of the Kangla fort which houses the army on July 14, 2004. A large white banner that had the words ‘Indian Army Rape Us’ was held by these women. They did not fear nor did they feel ashamed of their nakedness. Their act suggested the impossibility of defeat and threw a challenge to male power.

Sharmila’s protest needs to be viewed against the background of Manipuri women’s powerful voices of assertion of their rights over the years. A group of Manipuri women who are popularly known as the Meirapaibi’s (Torch bearers) have been fighting for women’s rights and have also been raising their voice against the imposition of the draconian AFSPA in their state.  When Sharmila decided on beginning her fast, a Meirapaibi activist stood by her and even accompanied her to Malom, where she initially began her fast.

However, her protest somehow has not managed to grab the kind of attention of the general public, unlike the recent popular anti-corruption protest and fast which created quite an uproar amongst the people of this nation. One cannot help ask, if it is because Sharmila’s is a voice which is coming from a forgotten part of India that the State and people choose not hear it, or if it is because the voice is that of a woman’s.  It is only silence that we receive as answer.

 Sharmila is also a poet who has penned many poems in the Manipuri language. Her poems reflect her anguish and hold a mirror to the turmoil her people are undergoing. To cite a few lines from one of her poem, “When the vehicle slowed down its speed/ one of the constables sitting in front/ the one on the left rose and stuck out a cane/ and struck the rickshaw puller on his back/ swiftly, once, twice and thrice/ oh, they were all grinning/ all those in the truck!”.

A group of Manipuri women who are popularly known as the Meirapaibi’s (Torch bearers) have been fighting for women’s rights and have also been raising their voice against the imposition of the draconian AFSPA in their State. When Sharmila decided on beginning her fast, a Meirapaibi activist stood by her and even accompanied her to Malom, where she initially began her fast.

However her protest somehow has not managed to grab the kind of attention unlike a popular anti-corruption protest and fast which created quite an uproar amongst the people of this nation. One cannot help wondering if it is because Sharmila’s is a voice which is coming from the frontier that the State and people choose not hear it or is it because it is a woman who is staging such a protest.  It is only silence that we receive as answer. It was enough to bring tears when in an interview Sharmila’s mother said that she does not know who would die first, herself or her daughter.

 Sharmila is also a poet who has penned many poems in the Manipuri language. Her poems reflect her anguish and hold a mirror to the turmoil her people are undergoing. To cite a few lines from one of her poem, “When the vehicle slowed down its speed/ one of the constables sitting in front/ the one on the left rose and stuck out a cane/ and struck the rickshaw puller on his back/ swiftly, once, twice and thrice/ oh, they were all grinning/ all those in the truck!”


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