Sunday, September 18, 2011


Diwali is just round the corner. But this year the festive season has been preceded by a rather long fasting season. Anna Hazare is the talk of the town. Everyone under the sun is performing his or her own “Anna”tomy of corruption and what should and should not be done. TV channels and media can’t have enough of the man. Having an opinion about Anna Hazare (and not necessarily about corruption) is the latest fashion trend in IndiaHazare is at the same time a “youth icon” who has revolutionized a whole nation as well as a sanctimonious right-wing tyrant so cloaked in his own virtue that he believes he is above the law. Some people talk about the silent war he has been waging for the last 2 decades against corruption in Maharashtra while others joke about his sudden claim to fame as a household name today. Some people feel empowered and are out on the streets. Others feel threatened and lambast his hooligan ways.

Our politicians may not be good at creating good business models but they are extremely good at copying a successful strategy and rehashing it to death. So they have already pirated Anna’s weapon (which was instead re-invented from Gandhi) and are coming up with their own personal marketing strategies. So post Anna phenomenon, we are witnessing a plethora of wannabe fasts (read “spectacles”) by BJP (spearheaded by none other than Mr.Narendra Modi) and Congress. Now I can understand that Congress went into the fast because Modi did so. But I don’t get why Modi is fasting and that too for 3 days. Well, no cake for his birthday at least!

And media as usual is having field day after field day covering every such event to its most intricate detail comparing and contrasting them with star-studded debate panels. That is all about these popular fests.. sorry fasts. Now I want to direct your attention to a woman who has been fasting for the last 10 years and we have barely noticed her. She is “Irom Sharmila”, the world’s longest hunger striker, who has completed 10 years of fasting against human rights abuses in Manipur and is determined to continue until death.

Irom Sharmila has been on a hunger strike since November 2, 2000 seeking the Government of India to repeal the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which has been the cause for violence and grave injustice in Manipur and other parts of North-East India. The event that triggered this innocent girl to give up food forever (until now) was the “Malom Massacre” where 10 civilians (which included a 62 year old woman and an 18 year old Child bravery award winner) were killed while waiting at a bus stop by the Assam rifles in an encounter with militants.

Manipur is a state of turmoil, where violence has been implanted forever by continuing insurgency and a draconian state. Insurgents largely made of criminal gangs have been demanding autonomy from India while authorities have made the state as militarized as Kashmir. This gave rise to the AFSPA, a legislation to give police a license to kill as well as complete immunity from prosecution. The AFSPA allows the army to use force, shoot or arrest anyone without warrant on the mere suspicion that someone has committed or was about to commit a cognizable offence. The Act also prohibits any legal or judicial proceeding against army personnel without the sanction of the Central Government. Now as every autocratic law has its causalities, this one also has resulted in plenty of extra-judicial executions, rape and torture of innocents.

All this has led to a decade long struggle by a determined woman who has waited patiently and painfully for the nation to hear her voice. Three days after she began her strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with an "attempt to commit suicide" and then kept alive in custody through the use of “nasogastric intubation” or force-feeding. Since then, Irom Sharmila has been regularly released and re-arrested every year and has been force-fed through a nasal drip for a decade by the authorities. She spends her time in solitary confinement in a hospital ward (read “jail”) reading and writing poetry and hoping against hope that her fast unto death would end before her death and not in her death. Her determination is such that she hasn’t met her mother in all these 10 years and her mother says she will meet Sharmila after the demand is met. If this doesn’t move us to tears then God help us!      

She has been fighting death every day for the last 10 years and her fight has largely gone unnoticed while Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption became a “Second Freedom Struggle” for many in this nation. What is the difference between the fights of Anna and Sharmila? In simple terms it can be compared to the public response to India winning the Cricket World Cup as opposed to India winning the Hockey World Cup. It has nothing to do with the people leading the fight. Their motives are compelling, intentions strong and determination is rock solid. But what about the followers? While Anna has the whole nation behind him, few people in this country (and more people abroad) are familiar with Sharmila and her 10 year hunger strike. For the Indian urban middle class, Anna’s movement is a convenient bandwagon to jump on. For the Indian media, the geo-political insignificance of the North-East doesn’t translate to enough TRPs. And one fasting woman is not going to wake the Government up from its eternal slumber!

One of the reasons Irom Sharmila has gone so unnoticed is that the issue she is fighting for does not connect or resonate with the people of India whereas corruption instantly makes every citizen in India see red. We don’t care if a few innocent people were killed in the corner state of Manipur. But we all complain about the 50 rupees we have to pay to the traffic constable and how that is such a heinous crime and should be weeded out of our society. To me, Irom Sharmila’s cause is not as popular but is much more potent. I am not saying we shouldn’t fight corruption. All I am saying that this is an even bigger and nobler cause. It is a matter of life and death! (Literally) And all she needs is a bit of selfless support from us. I am sure it is not too hard to just raise a voice for her!

It is real irony that a man who is accused of being spectator to one of India’s greatest mass homicides is celebrating his birthday with a sham of a fast whereas a poor woman who is fasting for the last 10 years is constantly arrested on charges of attempted suicide. I don’t care about the former but I sincerely hope that the latter comes to an end sometime soon!


  1. Raj, nicely written. However, a very simplistic view of issues involved in north east between Indian state and insurgency. In reality, the issues are much more complex, both in its debt and breadth. Maintaining integrity of India is core principle of our constitution as envisioned by our founding fathers. There cant be any compromise on that principle to assuage manufactured outrage of left-liberal bleeding hearts.

  2. Well, good point Niraj. But I am not suggesting any compromise of our principles. The point is that a person is being allowed a slow death without any action/debate of the issue she is fighting for. The question is not whether to repeal or reinstate the AFSPA. There should be a concerted effort to address its flaws so that innocent civilians can be saved. My point is that the issue is not even taken up for consideration and doesn't have enough political access. And the people of India don't know enough about several grass root issues that haunt our country.

  3. Raj, i have been reading up lot of articles on Iron Sharmila lately esp the ones featured in Femina, The Week & other magazines & her struggle is still fresh in my mind & co-incidentally i came across your post too on her. you are right when you say the least they can do is "consider" the issue.
    i was sad to read her interview. her family has not celebrated any festival since the past decade. Sharmila said that she too is a normal human being & has desires to experience life in all ways. but her first aim is her cause for which she is fighting since so many years. very touching story & well written post. your last para really highlights the irony. its a shame really :(

  4. one request, pls remove the word verification for comments

  5. Hi Sujatha.. First of all my sincere apologies for the word verification thing. I had no clue that there was such a thing for comments. Either ways I am really sorry and I have removed that setting. :)

  6. I believe someone should go into the real depth of insurgency and anti national elements thriving in Manipur. I strongly feel it is connected with drug peddling. It is the hub of the golden triangle for drug smuggling, under such a circumstance it is imperitive to curb drugs. I feel sad that the Iron lady has not realised this sad reality. Army is precisely deployed for curbing the activities.

  7. Hmm...good one.. publicity matters. Awareness among people is important. It has to come from the grass root level. I seriously wish her wish comes true.
    Can I say something here? I know it's your blog and you like it the way it is, but I felt reading on a black screen just made my eyes strain. I love black, I tried it but couldn't take it..So, I pasted the entire script on a white screen and read it.Sorry if I offend you..:)

    1. Ohh.. not at all. You did not offend me at all. I am sorry that the blog design is causing you strain. I am really sorry. Will see if I can do something about the resolution and stuff.

  8. Thank you..good that you did not mind it :)

  9. Point well made.



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