If I ask you to point Manipur out to me on a blank map, would you be able to do it? I ask, because yesterday I had the opportunity to witness someone comment on the north east “not behaving like they’re Indian” and then hesitating and stammering when asked where the Brahmaputra flowed through. The point simply being, that the rest of India doesn’t really treat the NE as a part of India either. I think it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg situation. A vicious cycle. One can keep blaming the other or both sides can make an attempt to bridge the gap in understanding.
I was privileged enough to attend the launch of Deepti Priya Mehrotra’s book on Irom Sharmila: Burning Bright a couple of days ago. It was the same day as a friend’s dinner party and I had to beg off because I badly wanted to attend this. To my horror, no one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned that I was excusing myself to attend a book about Irom Sharmila’s struggle.
Some might say the only reason I am aware of her is that I am a journalist. I beg to differ but I don’t think anyone cares. It wasn’t that I spoke to a bunch of idiots about it. I spoke to well read, well traveled people who have an opinion on all things political. But were unaware of her existence.
This ignorance hammers home a point. A woman has been on a hunger strike for NINE years. NINE YEARS. NINE f**king years – and the rest of the country lives on, blissfully ignorant. Yes, 2nd November will be the ninth anniversary of her hunger strike. And yet we all know when Medha Patkar goes on a 20 day strike for the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Yes, the government is force feeding her to keep her alive, but do you know what it takes to stay on nasal feed? For 1.5 days after the birth of each of my kids, I was on an IV. So while I wasn’t hungry at all, I craved food. I wanted the sensation of chewing, I wanted to feel the textures in my mouth. I wanted the crunch of papad, the sweet slide of custard down my throat, the pungency of pickle… It’s not easy to have a pipe shoved into your nose and to be forcefully kept alive.
Why on earth is she on a hunger strike anyway, they ask.
Good question. More ignorance. She’s protesting against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 or the AFSPA. She’s protesting against the way the government is treating that part of the country. The military has full freedom to do as they please, which goes against the concept of a democracy, doesn’t it? Yes, there is insurgency – but has the rest of the country been dealt with in this way? For years on end? Should the military, like the rest of the country, like us, not be accountable to law?
And let us not put the armed forces on a pedestal please. They’re as human as the rest of us. In 2004 they tortured, raped and killed a 32 year old woman. This lead to a group of Manipuri women protesting. They stripped naked and carried banners saying “Indian Army rape us”. These were ordinary women. Like us. To use a phrase only us Indians will get -they were also ‘ ma aur behen’. Imagine what kind of despair and provocation it would take for your mother or sister to march down the street stark naked. To protest without violence.
Young men are summarily killed. Four hundred men between the ages of 19 and 40 are killed each year. Are you aware of that? While you protest over suicides in Vidarbha, these are young lives being snuffed out with no one questioning as to why it is happening. About 300 of them leave behind widows and children. Every year. Who is feeding them? Who is educating them?
There are 16 insurgent groups working across the NE and I can understand that the government has it’s limitations. But is the answer simply this – to suppress them and trample on them? Can you imagine the growing unrest, resentment and hatred?
A young girl giving a testimonial at the book launch said that she was there recently for her grandmother’s funeral and they couldn’t get on with it. Wanna know why? Because the place is under curfew after 5 pm. Five pm! Most of us are still in office at that hour. And during the day some insurgent group or the other declares a total bandh. So there is practically no time that the people, the aam junta is free to step out. They don’t know what it is to live a normal life. There is an entire generation growing up there that thinks the sound of gun shots and protests is normal. For the last almost FIFTY years.
Can you imagine living in that sort of terror? Not knowing if your husband will be suspected of terrorist activity and shot on his way home? Keeping your kids locked into the house all day? No playgrounds for them to run out to…
What is really sad is that Irom Sharmila is under arrest for the hunger strike- charged for attempt to suicide.They should arrest anyone doing anything that risks life and limb then. Like people who go mountaineering or bungee jumping. Anything could go wrong you know. I say arrest the buggers before they go parasailing too.
Of course its in their best interests to keep her alive because if she dies, Manipur will go ape shit. And I wouldn’t blame them. It’s like a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
What is this post about? Just awareness I guess. After four people looked at me blankly when I spoke of the “Manipur issue”, I wondered how many more there were. That and the unfair Armed Forces (Special Forces) Act of 1958. Down with 377 and down with this too. Everyone needs to be accountable. Would we accept any other state being treated this way for fifty years? Any other person being arrested for hunger strike for ten years?
Even today a young reformed man and pregnant woman got shot in Imphal. With no explanations. Or rather, conflicting evidence.
How can we sleep peacefully at night while a part of our country lies awake at night either mourning their dead or awaiting their turn? I could tell you to sign this petition, but I’m not so hopeful. We need more than petitions. We need less than violence. We need debate. We need a movement. We need to start caring. Will you?
Until then, do read more about the north east, do care more, please.