While almost the whole of India was caught in ‘the Anna fever’ last month, a North Eastern state, Manipur, remained aloof from the Anna movement. Like any other Indian state Manipur too suffers from corruption. It is one of the major concerns of the state, along with the long-running insurgency. The spokesperson of the main opposition BJP, Prakas Javadekar, recently said that corruption in this highly insurgency-ridden state deserves a place in the Guinness book of world record. Then, why did Manipuris hold back their support to the anti corruption ‘crusader’ Hazare?
The reason was a lesser-known crusader Irom Sharmila. The name might not ring bells in the minds of many. Let alone people from abroad, many Indians themselves are unaware of what many dubbed the ‘iron lady of Manipur’.
A native of Manipur, Irom Sharmila, is credited for holding the world’s longest ever fast. She began her fast from the 2nd of November, 2000 at the age of 27 after security forces gunned down 10 innocent villagers in a village in the state. The shooting took place under a hugely controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allows security forces to shoot at sight and arrest anybody without a warrant in areas that are declared ‘disturbed’. This activist started the fast-unto-death for the repeal of the same AFSPA act which is in force, mostly in the North Eastern states like Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh,. She was, however, arrested three days after the fast on charges of ‘attempted suicide’. Being force-fed through nasal tube since then, Sharmila has been released and re-arrested a number of times.
A stark distinction is clearly visible in the response received by the two activists, both of whom had adopted Gandhian method of non-violent protest. On one hand is Hazare, who was relatively unknown before his first fast in Delhi in April but has now become a cult figure. On the other hand, there is Sharmila, who despite 11 years of fast, is yet to garner a mass following and attract the national attention. One of the main culprits to blame for this difference is the media. While Hazare was the face of every news channels and his Jan Lokpal Bill, the talk of every talk show, Sharmila’s fast from the beginning hasn’t received the coverage as it richly deserved. Hazare’s campaign received a massive boost from the Indian news media, the coverage ranging from the activist’s health updates to the activities at the Ram Lila ground. In contrast, news of the iron lady of Manipur does rarely find a slot in news channels, they go completely unnoticed. As Anil Dharker rightly remarked in the Outlook, “In covering Anna, TV seems to have shed its critical faculties’.
The question now is : When the media can even shed its ethics by becoming highly un-balanced and un-objective (views that challenged Hazare’s were hardly given air time and space), why can’t it focus on the simple issue of Sharmila, who has been protesting with such immense will-power for the last eleven years?
Another possible reason for the Manipuri activist’s issue receiving a lukewarm response is the isolation of the North East and its issues from the rest of India. A constant complaint against the central government is that it has always been indifferent to the problems of North East. This is also cited as a reason for the rise of armed struggle in the region. It is quite understandable when Irom Singhajit, brother of Irom Sharmila, says that it is time people spared time for seemingly isolated silent agitation like Sharmila’s and made it a mainstream movement. Since the AFSPA has been in force only in the north eastern states and Kashmir, the rest of states and the people there are not bothered by it. But explaining his sister’s fight, Singhajit says, “my sister is fighting for every Indian who might some day face a gun for disagreeing with the Government’. With the aim of reaching out to more people, Sharmila even did a Hazare (a Maharastrian) in 2006. But when she reached Jantar Mantar in Delhi to protest she was arrested. Unfortunately, even that could not gather the much needed support from the other parts of India. Let alone the mainstream national media.
The issue is not the comparison between the crusades of the two activists. While Hazare’s agitation against corruption was very vital and came at the right time, Sharmila’s fight is no less important. But the iron lady needs much more than sympathy and occasional coverage.