“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
– Thomas Jefferson
In the world today protesting on streets, chanting slogans and candle marches is the only course we think of to reciprocate to an injustice. We take to the streets with a hope to be heard and seen and with the optimism to get justice. This is how we eventually retort to any mishap and then wait for the next to do the same. A long and continuous fight is difficult to sustain and that’s how we construe the idea of an activist. It is not someone who bribes a policeman on his way to Jantar Mantar to protest against a gang rape.It’s not that uncomplicated. The life and journey of an activist is no lap of luxury. Working for the welfare of this society might not make you a personality. It’s not about pocketing any monetary gains but earning a lot of speculations about your intentions. You might become a hero for one half of this world and an extremist for the other half and consequently end up making a lot of foes. Social Activism is about aspiring to fix all the fallacious means of this world and the courage to change everything that’s going astray. Most importantly it is about identifying with the people who are oppressed.
Someone who made this easy for me to delineate and understand the essence of activism is Irom Chanu Sharmila. Also known as ‘The Iron Lady of Manipur’, Sharmila is on a hunger strike since 2nd November 2000. She has been demanding the Indian Government to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA). She asserts that the draconian law is responsible for perpetuating violence in Manipur and other North- Eastern states and the state of Kashmir. The Section 5, Rule 4 of the AFSPA states that “Any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non commissioned officer, or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may, in a disturbed area-
- if he is of the opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order, after such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order…”
It is this very aspect of the Act which provides unfettered power to the armed forces in a ‘disturbed area’ and has resulted in torture, forced disappearances, sexual violence and extrajudicial executions.
Having denied food and water for more than 14 years now, Sharmila’s hunger strike is called the ‘world’s longest hunger strike’. She is currently facing charges under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code for an attempt to commit suicide. Though attempting to commit suicide is a bailable offence in India but Irom has faithfully denied bail as she believes she has done no offence to seek bail. Irom says if she wished to commit suicide, she could have done it long back. “Attempting to commit suicide is really a mockery” she proclaims.
What actually compelled this lady to take up this grinding task? What made her deny eating even a single morsel of food for 14 long years? It is the Malom massacre of 10 innocent civilians by the Indian Army on 2nd November 2000 (though the army clearly denied all accusations). The deceased also included a 62 years old woman and an 18 years old winner of the National Child Bravery Award; all were allegedly shot dead by the personnel of the 8th Assam Rifles (a paramilitary unit of the Indian Army). Sharmila used to fast every week on Thursdays.It was Thursday again on 2nd November 2000 and she just decided to continue her fast as a protest against the grave injustice. As her health rapidly crumbled, the police forcefully used nasogastric intubation in order to keep her alive, while she was still in custody. As she continues her fast, every year she is released only to be rearrested again.
Charged with an attempt to commit suicide and blamed for carrying out an unlawful means of protest, Sharmila is been campaigning a lonely battle against AFSPA.She describes herself as a helpless prisoner and someone whose right to expression is being curtailed. She says “We live in a land where the condition of life is indescribable”. The political support which came from the Communist Party of India and the All India Trinamool Congress actually took 11 years. The great indifference that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has shown to Irom Sharmila is condemnable, as it took NHRC 12 years to pay its first visit to her.
She describes that her biggest strength is the support which she gets from students all over India. She does not wish people to join her in the hunger strike but instead wants them to support her through their solidarity and action. The Justice Verma report which came after the December 16 gang rape also recommends the government to withdraw AFSPA and Sharmila wants the government to respect that.
As a student of Human Rights, Sharmila’s activism inspires me but the point of contemplation for me is Why does Irom Sharmila continue to remain an unsung heeroine? Why we do not have media reporting about her whereabouts, her achievements and her activism? Is it because her combat is against something which does not have an impact on the entire country? Or is it only because she is fighting for that limb of the country whose people, culture, history and politics are still alien for the rest of the country?Is it something unachievable she’s been appealing for all these years? Even a layman reading of the provisions of the draconian and archaic AFSPA can tell that the law can never be used; it can only be misused, be it in North-East or Kashmir.
Whatever the rationale may be a lady who has been on the world’s longest hunger strike deserves more than the country is offering her. For her gallantry, perseverance and sheer selflessness, Sharmila’s crusade should have got more national and international support. Awards are for the shelves, Sharmila needs a movement and a public awakening. We cannot afford to lose our icon of public resistance especially when she has come this far. In Sharmila’s language -”We need a movement which has a more collective ethos to persuade the government”.
The state of Tripura has shown a way to the rest of the states gnawed with AFSPA that it is quite possible to do away with this undemocratic act. The state government after reviewing reports of the security forces concerning the situation in Tripura, has recommended the Centre to repeal the Act.Amnesty International has also urged the Indian government to amend its determination of the use of AFSPA in North East.
The Government of India, with the backing of a number of States and Union territories decided to decriminalize “attempt to suicide” by deleting Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code from the statute; the news of which left people anticipating for Sharmila’s freedom. The process of decriminalization is yet to commence but we hope once the amendment in law is on the deck, the prisoner of conscience shall be released from the police custody. But until then let us join Sharmila in solidarity as citizens of the world’s largest democracy and above all as human beings.
“I fast until the AFSPA goes. I have not wasted 12 years of my life to back off. Either my people live with respect or I don’t eat.” – Irom Sharmila