Far away from New Delhi, beyond the heart of mainstream India, forgotten in the eastern corner of the country, close to the Burmese border, lies a troubled Himalayan province with a population of around 2.2 million people, less than even Delhi. No, we are not talking about Kashmir. This is a tragedy in the remote Indian state of Manipur.
The Short Story of Manipur
Manipur, formerly ruled by a Raja, has been a problem state since the time it was annexed to India in 1949. Insurgents have often resorted to violence (terrorism for rest of the Indians) to demand secession from the world's biggest democracy.
In 1958, Indian government introduced a special law — The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) — that granted special powers to the Indian armed forces to arrest, detain, interrogate or even kill any person on mere suspicion. This act, operational in the volatile hotspot Jammu and Kashmir, has also been in force in Manipur for 26 years now.
While the Indian government maintains the law is necessary to restore normality in a border-state racked by a militant secessionist movement, civil society groups allege gross human rights violations by the army.
On November 2, 2000, a tragedy took place when the Indian army killed ten innocent civilians at Malon, near Imphal – Manipur's capital. The incident jolted a 28-year-old budding Manipuri poet, Ms. Irom Sharmila Chanu, who resolved to sit for a hunger strike until the controversial law was completely scrapped. However, she was imprisoned on charges of 'attempted suicide' and was kept in a secured ward at Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal for more than half a decade where she survived by forced nasal feeding.
On October 3, 2006, the local court at Imphal ordered her release, following which she flew to Delhi.
Ms. Sharmila is presently holding a fast-unto-death at Jantar Mantar – a Delhi landmark, lying close to the nation's parliament, where people from different parts of the country come to stage demonstrations. The term 'Jantar Mantar' is the Hindi language equivalent of the magical charm abracadabra; it is to Delhi what Tiananmen Square is to Beijing.
Here are some of the images taken in the late evening of October 5, 2006. Do not be dazzled by the bright lights. The effect was due to the excellent flashlight of this reporter's camera. The place was actually unlit and felt gloomy in darkness.
A Lonely Crusade
Ms.Sharmila, enclosed within a mosquito net, was lying hidden under the blue blanket. She was being cared for by a volunteer, a young student, whose duties would later be taken over by other volunteers during the course of the night. Interestingly, the first thing Ms. Sharmila did on arriving in Delhi was to visit the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, the man who had introduced the concept of keeping fasts as a means of peaceful protest.
Ms. Sharmila says, "My fast is on behalf of the people of Manipur. This is not a personal battle – this is symbolic. It is a symbol of truth, love and peace."
A Manipuri Student Questions His Fellow Indians
Mr. Sanaban Gunajit, 27, is a student from Manipur and had come to Jantar Mantar since he identifies with the cause. He described himself as an Indian but wondered why India does not consider him an Indian. He asked why his own country's armed forces exercise unrestrained power and inflict brutalities on his people in Manipur. Mr. Gunajit pointed out that most of the victims of the army's atrocities happen to be those who have nothing to do with the insurgent groups.
Will She Die?
Ms. Sharmila will complete six years of fasting without food or water later this year. In custody, she was fed a cocktail of vitamins, minerals, laxatives, protein supplements and lentil soup through the nose with a rubber pipe. The Indian government does not want her to die for fear of creating a heroic martyr. Meanwhile, according to doctors, Ms. Sharmila's fasting is now having a direct impact on her body's normal functioning. Her bones have become brittle while the body has developed various other complications.
Not Alone After All
A lady dressed in an ethnic Manipuri costume anxiously glances at Ms. Sharmila. Most of the visitors who were present during the duration of this reporter's visit hailed from her home state. Ms. Sharmila is fondly referred to as Nura Tensingnabi – Iron Lady in Manipuri – by her admirers.
Sacrifices for a Cause
In the state of Manipur, women have always been at the forefront of political and social movements. Ms. Sharmila must be seen as a result of that trend. In an interview to BBC, her brother Mr. Singhajit Singh had noted that she has sacrificed "what could have been the best years of her young life".
Repeal the Act
These posters displaying Ms. Sharmila's picture, taken when she was under arrest, also carry a list of some of the victims of arbitrary killing carried out by the Indian Army. One of the dead included the six-month-old Rajenlung who was killed in 2005.
A Concluding Note
It is understandable that many Indians, too sensitive about the sacredness of their venerable national institutions, will be outraged by such serious allegations being leveled against the Indian Army. However, it is a duty for all those Indians, who deeply care about their nation, to patiently and carefully listen to what people like Ms. Sharmila have to say and follow it up by making amends if the allegations are found to be true.
Also, readers must appreciate the greatness of this country when it so freely allows its angry citizens to register their protest right in the heart of the national capital.