A Satyagrahi forgotten…

irom-sharmila.jpg September 11, 2006, was celebrated as the centenary of Gandhi’s satyagraha. All through the last quarter of the previous year, we spent in discussing Gandhi, his concept of satyagraha and its relevance today. Many a debates were held, the term sprouted all over the place, meanings were discussed, its importance argued and Gandhi hailed. We discussed all of this, but we forgot to talk about a true satyagrahi living amongst us, in this day and age.

Irom Sharmila has been on a fast unto death for the past six and a half years.
Ever heard of her? I don’t blame you. The ‘fourth estate’ has given miniscule coverage to her cause. Of course one can’t blame the media either, after all, how can they ignore Prince’s pothole catastrophe and similar oh-so-important news items.

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has been implemented in the North-Eastern states since 1980, basically to deal with the growing insurgency problem in the region and so as to stop their plea for secession from the Indian Union. The South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre calls this act “one of the more draconian legislations that the Indian Parliament has passed in its 45 years of Parliamentary history. Under this Act, all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to “maintain the public order”. The AFSPA gives the armed forces wide powers to shoot, arrest and search, all in the name of “aiding civil power.” It was first applied to the North Eastern states of Assam and Manipur and was amended in 1972 to extend to all the seven states in the north- eastern region of India. They are Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, also known as the “seven sisters”. The enforcement of the AFSPA has resulted in innumerable incidents of arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and looting by security personnel.”[i]

The act out rightly violates Article 21, which is the fundamental right to life and Article 22[ii] of the constitution. The crimes committed by the Army under the garb of this act include a rape case, which was recently brought to light. Manorama Devi was arrested on grounds of suspicion and the following day her body was found bruised and knived with several gunshots, one piercing her vagina. It took some members of Meira Paibis[iii] who stripped in front of the Kangla Fort, then headquarter of the Assam Rifles on 15 July 2006 with a banner which said, ‘Indian Army Rape Us.’ While they bawled, “we are the mothers and sisters of Manorama, rape us!”, to get a front page coverage by the media.

This severe violation of Human Rights is what Irom is fighting against, but much in vain. As this 28 year old began her fast in 2000, the Manipuri Government arrested her on grounds of ‘attempted suicide’ under Section 309 of the Indian Constitution. She was then under house arrest and forcefully nose fed- a painful procedure. The clause can be invoked only for a term of one year at a stretch so in October 2006, Sharmila and her siblings fled to New Delhi in the hope that the Central Government would hear her plea and repeal the AFSPA.

Irom’s first stop was Rajghat she paid her respects to the Mahatma. Three days after her arrival, she was admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences when her condition was declared critical. Media coverage was now at its peak. Soon she was shifted to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, first to a private ward and later to a tiny room in one corner of the hospital. Were these deliberate attempts to clam media attention?

The Iron lady still stands strong, although her friends and siblings are pessimistic. “If I were to give her my blessing it would be that she may die, so that she does not have to suffer”, says Thoiba, friend and member of Apunba Lup, the apex body of 32 organisations demanding the immediate withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, based in Manipur.

So, every time we think about Gandhi and how great he was, lend a thought to Irom Sharmila, the draconian law-AFSPA and the ‘seven-sisters’ that are given ‘step-sisterly’ treatment by the Indian Government. Think about a reason why they shouldn’t want to secede from the Indian Union and ask yourselves this, what are these democratic principles the Indian Constitution parades and the fundamental rights we take so much for granted? Let there be something that awakens us from within and let us prepare ourselves to be a part of a revolution, similar to the one fought by our ancestors some six decades ago, for the same ideal. Freedom.

Natasha Puri

[i] http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/resources/armed_forces.htm

[ii] Article 22 of the Indian Constitution states that “(1) No person who is arrested shall be detained in custody without being informed, as soon as may be, of the grounds for such arrest nor shall he be denied the right to consult, and to be defended by, a legal practitioner of his choice. (2) Every person who is arrested and detained in custody shall be produced before the nearest magistrate within a period of twenty-four hours of such arrest excluding the time necessary for the journey from the place of arrest to the court of the magistrate and no such person shall be detained in custody beyond the said period without the authority of a magistrate.”

[iii] “Torch bearers”