Far in the east, where blue hills, green valleys, and a soothing atmosphere of mystery distinguish its factual exquisiteness from rest of the country, there’s a ‘Lady’ born to endure sacrifices for the people of her homeland. Making jail as her abode for more than a decade, she has refused to eat until her appeal is fulfilled. Here, I am referring to Irom Sharmila Chanu, who is also known as the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ or ‘Menghoubi’ (the fair one).
Recognised as the ‘world’s longest running hunger striker’, Sharmila began her fast in November 2000 after Assam Rifles personnel allegedly killed ten innocent civilians at Malom area, near Imphal airport, in an alleged encounter with the militants. She has been forced fed since then to keep her organs functioning as she has declined to eat till her demand for peace is met.
Despite having not eaten for 11 years, her demand for harmony and removal of draconian Armed Forces Special Power Act in Manipur has not won the Indian government’s heart yet.
However, Anna Hazare’s movement for a strong anti-corruption bill, which had also drawn the backing of thousands from across the country, was seen in a different angle. The government had given an acceptance in principle for the Jan Lokpal Bill in Parliament after the Gandhian went on a 12-day fast in August. Thus, the lopsided act or the Centre’s swift submission to Hazare while ignoring Sharmila’s has drawn flak from the people of this north-eastern state.
In view of the apparent bias, I am indeed compelled to draw a comparison between Anna’s populist movement and Sharmila’s plea for peace, even though I strongly support Hazare’s anti-corruption drive. Rather, I am not against of the government’s royal treatment given to Anna, but I just wish that Sharmila too gets her legitimate due for which she has been struggling for more than a decade now.
The government may not want to remove the AFSPA from the conflict-torn state, but it can at least come out with a solution so that the people of this land too attain their rights to live like other citizens of our country. One wonders as to how long the people of this forgotten-land would have to wait for an answer.
However, in what could prove to be a major turning point for Sharmila, several organisations from across the country for the first time in 11 years came together in support of her by launching a nation-wide campaign “Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign’’. The campaign which was flagged off by on October 16 from Srinagar was led by 21 members of the National Alliance for People's Movement (NAPM).
The 4,500 km tour covered cities like Jammu, Ludhiana, New Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Ranchi, Patna, Kolkata and Guwahati, with the final destination being Imphal. The campaign has also caught attention of several social activists like Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy, Binayak Sen, writer Arundhati Roy and a host of intellectuals, litterateurs and artistes. It is said that volunteers of the solidarity campaign will also fast at New Delhi`s Rajghat on December 10, which is celebrated as International Human Rights Day.
Sharmila was awarded the 2007 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, which is given for "an outstanding person or group, active in the promotion and advocacy of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights". In addition the largest monetary prize, the first Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize, was given to her in 2010 by IIPM, New Delhi. She was also nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize by a Guwahati-based woman's organization, the North East Network in 2005.
Besides the AFSPA matter, most of the north-eastern states are affected by the insurgency activities, communal conflicts, unemployment issues etc. Perhaps, I hope the “Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign’’ would act as a wake up call for the government, to deliver justice to the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ for which she has been waiting desperately for over a decade now.