The recent standoff between a 74-year-old social activist Anna Hazare and the mighty Indian government and bureaucratic system is akin to a modern-day David vs. Goliath story. Hazare’s 12-day fast provided an impetus like no other, causing citizens from all over the country to rise up against widespread corruption. Hailed as India’s own ‘people’s revolution,' this came from a citizenry often chided for their complacent attitude and tolerance towards corruption. With ample assistance from the mainstream media, Hazare brought corruption to the forefront of debates – both in parliament and in people’s living rooms. He broke his fast only upon securing the parliament’s approval of key elements of his anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill (People’s Ombudsman Bill).
However, almost 1500 miles away from New Delhi in the northeastern state of Manipur, another fast has entered its 11th year but is still struggling to gain widespread support or attention. Irom Chanu Sharmila, now 39 years old, has been fasting in Imphal, Manipur, since November 4, 2000 to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958) (AFSPA) repealed. The AFSPA was enacted to quell insurgency by several separatist movements in the northeastern part of India. However, it has done little on that front and has instead alienated and antagonized the people. The AFSPA has given security forces in ‘disturbed areas’ unrestricted powers without holding them accountable for incidents of arbitrary detention, torture, rape, looting, disappearances, and custodial deaths. Ironically, four years into her fast, a brutal rape and murder of a political activist by army personnel caused widespread protests, which led to the formation of a government-appointed committee. The committee’s recommendations of repealing AFSPA have not yet been implemented.
Unlike Hazare, Sharmila has been arrested and re-arrested, charged with the crime of attempted suicide, and is now force-fed through a plastic tube in a public hospital in Manipur. What could be the reasons for the apathy of the state and the billion strong citizens towards someone who is carrying on a non-violent struggle against a draconian law, without food or water for the past 11 years?
Some say Irom Sharmila is on the wrong side of India’s digital divide. Twitter, Facebook, and the internet have played a significant role in Hazare’s anti-corruption drive. However, India lags behind on digital inclusion, or bringing the benefits of the internet and related technology to all segments of the population, across economic strata. The urban focus of the Hazare protests is testimony to this. The anti-corruption protests have primarily been an urban middle-class movement rather than a national movement. As Sharmila represents the poor in a marginalized part of the country, her voice has not been broadcasted effectively to the masses.
The majority of Indians feel that an obscure law such as the AFSPA does not have as much impact on their lives as day-to-day corruption, leading to a pervasive indifference to Sharmila’s struggle. Most people do not have to engage with armed forces on a daily basis, but they do have to pay a bribe to get something as basic as a telephone connection. However, if you look at the core essence of both the fights, they are essentially struggling for the same thing: accountability and transparency in governance.
In addition, the parochial attitude of ignorance, prejudice, and apathy towards citizens from the northeast of India has served to muffle Sharmila’s voice. Rampant prejudice exists, as evidenced by reports of racial violence faced by students from the Northeast settled in other parts of the country. News reports, if any, from the region, are heavily biased and focus on violence, bereft of any coverage of the underlying social or cultural issues. A lack of information on customs, language, and other social aspects of life in the region exacerbates the marginalization. To hear Sharmila’s voice, it is necessary to filter out the noise created by these preconceived biases.
‘The Anna Effect’ has etched itself in the nation’s psyche, ensuring that the Jan Lokpal Bill will remain in the forefront of debates in the months to come. However, it remains to be seen whether this ‘people’s revolution’ will embrace Irom Sharmila’s fight.
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