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Irom Sharmila


I have before me a national English Daily which is much given to spreading the word about the beauties of “reform” and modern “development” in India.  Never a day passes when it does not remind us and the world how India is just about to breast the tape to superpowerdom.  As in the case of other English Dailies (bar one), if and when it reports on farmer’s suicides, atrocities on dalits, the wretched state of superstition in India’s vast hinterland, or other such unpleasant details of national life, it does so with a quality of impatience very reminiscent of that dismissive gesture of Mr.Podsnaps’ forearm in Dickens’  Little Dorrit (a novel that Bernard Shaw recommended over Marx for an understanding of the workings of finance capital) which says ‘do not bring such things to spoil my appetite.’

Be that as it may, the November 17 issue of this avant garde Daily announces that the government of the day is all set now to inaugurate a “Look East” policy.
We are informed that a two-day North-Eastern Council Meet has determined to plough the ‘seven sisters’ (Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura) for purposes of exploiting their potential for “export”.

Be it noted that some six decades after India’s independence from colonial rule, these states remain largely bereft of roads, electricity, educational institutions, hospitals, not to speak of industry or other sources of steady employment, regional variations notwithstanding.  Now, however, “access corridors” from these regions to neighbouring countries are proposed to be opened, as well as “air connectivity” within the region.  Such are the charms of “reform.” If you have no bread, eat cake.  The question as to what percentage of North-Easterners might be equipped to participate in the bounties of “access corridors” and “air connectivity” hardly needs to be asked.  The observation seems warranted that while our post-Washington Consensus ruling elites remain mortally opposed to pampering the “creamy layer” among the downtrodden social groups of India, everywhere else it is the creamy layer for which now the Indian state opens its purse strings and, one might add, its system of justice.

Reading this “Look East” news report, it just struck me that after all we do see only what we wish to see.  Looking East,  not one worthy in that two-day conference seemed to see Irom Sharmila of Manipur who continues to be on her soul-wrenching satyagraha since October, 2000, refusing food and water, against the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act,1958.

Through this six-year long odyssey, unparalleled since the days of Gandhi—and in some respects more heroic than any of the many fasts he undertook—this “iron lady” has either been in one jail after another, or one hospital after another where she continues to be force-fed through nasal drips.  It is doubtful that the British colonialists would have waited through a six-year long saga of self-mortification to address a public issue.  Indeed, even a Cindy Sheehan seems to have pulled greater punch with the American media and public than our own Irom Sharmila Chanu.  Such is our self-absorption in project superpowerdom.  Soon this hero of substance might actually die, and Manipur go up in flames.  What will that matter?  After all we do have the AFSPA  in place, an Act that allows all manner of control.

Now this Act empowers not just any commissioned officer but any warrant or non-commissioned  officer operating in a “disturbed area” to:

 â€œfire even to the extent of causing death” if in “the opinion” of such
 â€œit is necessary for the maintenance of public order”;

 â€œto destroy any shelter from which armed attacks are. . . likely to be
 Made”;

 to “arrest without warrant any person. . . likely to commit a cognizable
 offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists”;

 â€œto enter and search without warrant any premises to make an arrest. . . .”

Thus wherever AFSPA is in force, the right to protest, and the right to legal redress remain rescinded.  Many activists who have simply wanted to document excesses committed by the army have been “picked up, tortured and killed”(1).

Since all appeals to that package of assurances we call the Constitution of India seem to have fallen on the deaf ear of a state that has vowed to keep such noises out of hearing range,  Irom Sharmila’s heroism  may find resonance from a throwback to   an unforgettably decisive chapter of India’s struggle for freedom. There is of course only the hope that such recall might melt the wax in the ruling metropolitan ear drum, but no guarantee whatsoever, since Podsnappery now seems the endorsed religion of the state.  Ergo, let the wretched of the land   be made invisible, and the protesting voice be quelled so that Washington is saved embarrassment, and our burgeoning breed of CEOs allowed to carry on without guilt or hindrance.  After all, if Singapore is our ideal, why need the absence of civil liberties be factored into our enterprises.

As the infamous Defence of India Act lapsed with the end of the first world war, the British, wishing to carry on  keeping tabs on civil liberties in place, notified the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act (more popularly the Rowlatt Act) in early March of 1919.

This “black act” provided

 for the trial of seditious crimes by benches of three judges without
 the right of preliminary commitment or of appeal;

 for relaxation of the rules of evidence;

 for detention without charges;

 for searches without warrants;

and it stipulated that “punishment or acquittal should be speedy.”

Now the parallels with our own AFSPA must seem uncanny—with one exception: as far as I have been able to determine, the Rowlatt Act fell rather short of our current day AFSPA in failing to authorize any rummy sergeant major to “fire even to the extent of causing death.”  That the niceties of the law did not inhibit an   O’Dywer from causing the massacre at Jallianwala is ofcourse another matter.  After all he was not murdering his own people!

Yet this “black act” seemed to Gandhi the last straw that broke the obliging back:  “the idea of leading a campaign against the Rowlatt Act. . .possessed me” he wrote in his autobiography (p.201). The call to an all-India hartal followed, inaugurating the moment from whence the struggle for complete independence was never really to be turned back, notwithstanding prevarications and internal dissentions.  In April, the non-cooperation movement—the first truly massive all-India mass uprising—was unleashed, involving the boycott of offices, courts, educational institutions, and the burning of foreign cloth.

As Gandhi was arrested, this is how he spoke of the Rowlatt Act in his Trial: “a law designated to rob the people of all freedom.  I felt called upon to lead an intensive agitation against it.”
Thus, Irom Sharmila’s six-year long satyagraha which, recalling Jallianwala, began precisely on the day the Malom massacre took place wherein, on 2nd October,2000 the Assam Rifles shot dead ten unarmed Manipuris at a bus stop in Imphal on suspicion of being insurgents, invites us not only to revisit the history of March/April,1919 (which we proudly teach our school children as preciously unique heritage), but to ponder the thickness of skin and soul that our rulers seem to have acquired since independence, especially since the beginning of the Washington Consensus and the era of “Reform.”

Indeed in recent years who is to say that the brutalities of our own state-apparatus vented on protesting adivasis, workers, dalits, displaced oustees have in any measure fallen short of those that the Colonisers reserved for us.  It has been made clear time and again that the chief function that our policing mechanisms now reserve for themselves is to secure from any form of public discontent the operations of our ruling economic bosses and, additionally, to facilitate the exertions of majoritarian goons who, now in Ayodhyay, now in Gujarat,   congregate in menacing intention on behalf of “cultural nationalism” and “national security.”

The fact remains that having obtained freedom from colonial rule in 1947, and subsequently promising to all Indian citizens the equitable fruits of a democratic social order, our indigenous rulers set about ensuring that those fruits were confined to a “creamy”  metropolitan minority which is increasingly unwilling to “look” beyond what fattens it further, insatiably.  No wonder then that when they “look East” they do not see Irom Sharmila or the AFSPA, but only an opportunity to now plough its resources for “export” promotion.

Every government that serves a class-based state must necessarily, from time to time, resort to tactics that helps to keep in place its democratic legitimation.  Thus, in the aftermath of the protests in Manipur (which included the shockingly desperate and bold stripping by women in front of the army personnel, inviting the latter to rape them), the Prime Minister set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee to report on the AFSPA. 

This Committee submitted its report in June,2005.  To this day the report has neither been made public nor placed in Parliament.  Reason?  Among other things, the Committee opines that the AFSPA has “become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate, and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.”  Irom Sharmila never put it that strongly

There is another rather deeply ironic aspect to the situation to which attention ought to be drawn.

When Gandhi proposed the hartal against the Rowlatt Act in March,1919, most moderates were askance; (as luck would have it, Tilak was in London at the time).  Gandhi, sensing the moment to capture leadership of the Congress, wrote as follows to Dinshaw Wacha (letter dtd., 25th, Feb.,1919; see Sumit Sarkar, Modern  India, p.188):
 â€œSatyagraha is the only way, it seems to me, to stop terrorism.”

Gandhi had in mind what he saw as a dangerously undesirable development taking place among sections of the intelligentsia, namely, the willingness to engage in armed resistance to colonial rule (something that had begun to happen since the partition of Bengal in 1905).  Given that such impulses were largely inspired by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Gandhi and the bulk of the Congress, given their class character, were understandably alarmed.  Satyagraha was then in no small measure conceived as an alternate praxis. 

Keeping in mind the continuing armed insurgencies in the North East, one would then have thought that the course adopted by Irom Sharmila should have received more than a cold shoulder by the government of the day.  The treatment received by her, however, raises doubts that the state seriously wishes to see the end of insurgency.  Just as the British saw in the Gandhian methods of mobilization a menace more intractable than the then armed challenge it was receiving, it does seem that Irom Sharmila spells a threat which the state wishes to quell, preferring to deal militarily with the insurgents rather than face a people’s democratic revolt. And as a statement put out by the Human Rights Features Organisation succinctly states, “it is precisely this contemptuous attitude in the face of suffering which demeans the world’s largest democracy”(2).

Nor is it a surprise that India’s prime media channels which have lately been hotly pleading the cases of some notable victims in instances of murder should have evinced rather negligible interest in the six-year long satyagraha of Irom Sharmila.  Is it not perhaps time that these influential channels gave to the North East the same quality of sustained attention that they have laudably given to Kashmir in recent years?  Why is it that we either never seem to “look” towards the East, or if and when we do, we “look”  but do not “see.”

I may be pardoned for recalling what I had written in an article titled “Sangma Treads Dangerous Ground”(Mainstream, April 14, 2001).  The article was occasioned by Mr.Sangma’s campaign to dub Sonia Gandhi a “foreigner” who had to be prevented from becoming Prime Minister even if the Constitution recognized her rights as a “citizen of India.”  I had pointed out to Mr.Sangma that if the right to ascribe citizenship was left to the subjective whims of all and sundry, people of his countenance would have a hard battle on hand, since, knowing from experience as a teacher in Delhi University, I knew that students who came from the North East were hardly ever treated as Indians by “mainstreamers.”  Is it possible that Irom Sharmila suffers such disgusting neglect on account of subliminal impulses from which not even the government of the day is free?  A truly disturbing thought that.
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1. Subash Gatade, “Irom Sharmila: Iron Lady of Manipur” Countercurrents.org, 17/10/2006.
2. Human Rights Features (Voice of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network, B6/6 Safdarjung Enclave Extension, New Delhi 110 029);
Home Page: http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/    15/11/2006

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