Let’s Kill Sharmila

“… Let us also consider the political conditions of this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is an almost unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians.

“So Sharmila is an AFSPA protest machine? Not an AFSPA protest voice who also has a wide-ranging views on related subjects.”

In Sikkim, there was political ferment some time ago. It is quite possible that discontent is smouldering there. Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibet would be a handicap. Nepal has a weak oligarchic regime based almost entirely on force: it is in conflict with a turbulent element of the population as well as with enlightened ideas of the modern age. In these circumstances, to make people alive to the new danger or to make them defensively strong is a very difficult task indeed and that difficulty can be got over only by enlightened firmness, strength and a clear line of policy. I am sure the Chinese and their source of inspiration, Soviet Union, would not miss any opportunity of exploiting these weak spots, partly in support of their ideology and partly in support of their ambitions.

In my judgment the situation is one where we cannot afford either to be complacent or to be vacillating. We must have a clear idea of what we wish to achieve and also of the methods by which we should achieve it. Any faltering or lack of decisiveness in formulating our objectives or in pursuing our policies to attain those objectives is bound to weaken us and increase the threats which are so evident.”

Letter written by India’s first deputy Prime Minister (with the additional portfolio of home ministry), Sardar Vallabhai Patel, to Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru on Nov 7, 1950.

A little history is needed for us to undertake this journey of killing. This journey of assassination. Especially, the history concerning Manipur-both as a princely state and as a state in the Union of India. The watershed year was 1819, when the Awas attacked areas of Ahom and Manipur kingdoms, the long term ramification of which was a series of events that culminated in the First Anglo Burma War, a traumatic trail of devastation leading to the Seven Years of Devastation, (Chahi Taret Khuntakpa) and subsequently the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. And the Kabaw valley in between was the fallow space in which all kinds of sovereignty games played itself out.

The trickle down memories of history are still evident on the annual August 13, Patriots’ Day commemoration. It was this day in 1891, when Prince Koireng (also known as Bir Tikendrajit), Thangal General, Subedar Niranjan, Kajao and Cherai unfurled resistance against British aggressors. Most of them were hung and some of them were banished to Kalapani (Andaman and Nicobar islands).

The principal fault line in the shared history of resistance against the British happened to be Hindutva. Early 19th century, conversion to Hinduism, advent of caste system, the linguistic alienation by adopting the Bengali script, manufacturing the identity of hill people as “others,” the banning of the animistic way of life as envisaged by the followers of Sanamahi through Puya (which recorded prophecies, lifestyle norms, tantric rites, ritual practices) and in 1726, setting the ancient recorded copies of the text to fire… most of these activities that led to a complete paradigm shift in the political Richter scale took place under the reign of Pamheiba (who began his reign in 1714).

History, in more ways than one, repeated itself when the newly created state of Manipur began its journey in the choppy seas of democracy with Mohammed Alimuddin (Pangal). Manipur People’s Party formed the first government in 1972. This rag tag but visionary coalition fell apart while on the verge of completing a year in office. Governor’s Rule was imposed and the political horse trading broke out like rashes on the wounded body of Manipuri polity.

The next election took place in 1974 when MPP and Hill People’s Union (HPU) coalition won 32 seats. If one were to look at the figures a little more closely, MPP won 19 seats in the valley and supported two winning causes of the independents and HPU swept 11 out of the 20 hill seats. Congress came out a cropper with 11 seats. Mohammed Alimuddin came back as Chief Minister only to fall apart after four months. Another round of shameless political horse-trading took place and a Tangkhul Naga leader Yangmasho Shaiza engineered a defection and formed a government with Congress support. In December 1974, Congress toppled the Shaiza government with R.K Dorendro Singh and this time true to the traditions of theatre of the absurd, the support base was the original MPP group that was peeved with the Shaiza faction.

In this backdrop, one has to understand that Manipur has faced the worst brunt of colonialism, both of the military and the political kind and as a result, a strong culture of institutional distrust has fermented itself into an almost second nature. Add to this, the general non-presence of Manipuri narratives in the popular legends of Indian cultural mainstream and the introduction of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958) have successfully created a cauldron. The cauldron of distrust. And this cauldron is now fermenting with newer strategies of eliminating individual dissent.

Still why and still what?

On January 5, 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer’s body was lowered into a grave of freshly dug earth. It isn’t a travesty that the body had to be carried by a helicopter fearing a backlash from the fanatics (read Barelvi clerics who declared that those who would walk with the funeral procession also risked death). Meanwhile, rose petals where showered on Mumtaz Qadri- a 26-year old policeman as he was being produced for justice. What was Taseer’s crime? Asking for a change in blasphemy law? For visiting Aasia Bibi-a Christian woman who was sentenced to death on November 8, 2010 under blasphemy laws?

The question here is not the complicity of toothless Pakistani authorities but the larger so-called silence by the majority moderates who apparently go to Sufi concerts but forget the worldview of the Sufis.

On December 24, 2010, a Raipur Sessions Court judge, sentenced Dr Binayak Sen to life imprisonment for ‘sedition’. This order confronts us with the reality as to what kind of dissent the state should endure but predictably does not tolerate. It seems that there is a calculated crackdown across nation states to de-stabilise struggles of people against increasing state violence in affected regions and of course the persistent and increasing militarisation of democratic spaces.

Not many days before: Jafar Panahi  along with colleague Mohmmad Rasoul, was sentenced to a six-year prison term and a two-decade ban on directing and producing films in the backdrop of the aftermath of the controversial 2009 presidential elections. Panahi was making a film on the Green movement, and that was probably his “crime”.

Now, here and hereafter…

We cannot however help wondering if Sharmila is not under psychological stress more than ever in the past few months. It is learnt that meeting her even by her own family members is no longer as easy as it used to be, permission now having to be acquired from the Chief Secretary of the state himself. All of us who have visited the iron lady in the past know her confinement was not so strictly guarded. For whatever the reason, her privation was being deepened and surely her loneliness too in equal measures, after all she is human too. Imagine 11 years in a prison cell all alone, not even in contact with other prisoners as she is in a special jail ward in the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, Porompat so as to enable medical care and nose feeding…..Pradip Phanjoubam on November 24, 2011

……He awoke at 2 A.M. on August 15, having slept through Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech at midnight. When he left Hydari House for his morning walk, crowds followed him, keen for just a glimpse of the Mahatma. Soon after he returned, West Bengal’s new cabinet arrived, seeking his blessings. “Wear the crown of thorns,” Gandhi told them. “Strive ceaselessly to cultivate truth and non-violence. Be humble. Be forbearing … beware of power; power corrupts. Do not let yourselves be entrapped by its pomp and pageantry. Remember, you are in office to serve the poor in India’s villages.”

How obvious it seemed to him now, that simple prescription for using power most wisely, and yet how long it had taken him to learn. And how difficult it was to avoid life’s lures and traps, the pomp and the wrong passions…

Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi By Stanley Wolpert

This brings us to the case of Irom Chanu Sharmila. Forty-year old, Imphal-based poet, is now in her almost 13th year of an indefinite hunger strike demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Since November 4, 2000 when she began her fast, she has been threatened, detained, released, re-arrested and given half-hearted assurance innumerable times by the government.

She has been force-fed through nasal tubes, intimidated, but has stood by her demand, steadfastly refusing to eat until the draconian Act, The Armed Forces (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura) Special Powers Act, 1958 (as amended in 1972), and The Jammu and Kashmir Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1990, are totally repealed.

The AFSPA is a single page legislation that empowers the central government to deploy armed forces in Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, as well as Jammu & Kashmir, and empowers security officers to:-

·         Shoot-to-kill anyone on mere suspicion
·         Arrest anyone without warrant and detain for unaccountable periods of time
·         Search and seize on anyone’s premises without warrant, and
·         Grants immunity to Armed Personnel from Enquiry or Trial

It is obvious that the prolonged imposition of this Act in different parts of the country since 1958 has severely impacted the basic rights of the people and both in letter and spirit contradicting the Constitutional guarantees of Right to Life, Liberty, Freedom and Dignity. As a result, the obvious fallouts have been a culture of disappearances, extra-judicial execution, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence against women, arbitrary arrest and detention, and creating a firmly entrenched culture of impunity among the security forces.

Let’s just rewind the rickety manual clock. November 2, 2000. A bomb exploded on the 8th Assam Rifles convoy along Tiddim Road. After that, the troops went on a killing spree and 10 people were killed including a 62-year-old woman. More than 45 people were injured in Malom, Makha, Leikai, Boroi and Makhong. Born in 1972 at Porompat, Imphal East District, Irom Sharmila cherished an ideal all her life – the notion of freedom. A notion that would become a sense of passion and a shared solidarity with a man who is there, yet not there-Mahatma Gandhi.  As a direct fallout of Malom, exactly two years later on November 2, 2002, Sharmila went on a fast-unto-death protesting against the killing of civilians and demanding the withdrawal of the “Disturbed Areas” status imposed on Manipur under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958. The government promptly arrested her for attempted suicide. Since that day, apart from a few sporadic releases, she has been in the security ward of a government hospital, force-fed through her nose. A weak Sharmila refused to break her fast.

The events kept spiralling out of control and the implosion turned into a vociferous explosion on July 12, 2004, when the phanek-clad 30-year old Thangjam Manorama Devi was found at Irilbung Yaripok Road with multiple torture marks on her private parts. Shaming the collective conscience of the silent nation, a dozen imas stripped naked on July 15, 2004 in front of the historic Kangla Fort. They unfurled a banner: Indian Army rape us.

What images do we see around us? What images haunt us? Are we inert? Are we comfortable being pigeonholed as insensitive? Do we write about the cliches and stereotypes we subject others to?

Images float… they float inside a newly built museum called Museum of Million Hamlets… Image of that October, 2006 when Sharmila arrived from Manipur to Delhi to continue her epic fast on the streets of Delhi. For days and nights, she camped and slept at Jantar Mantar. Thereafter, in a characteristic midnight swoop, a force of over 100 police personnel picked up Sharmila and detained her at AIIMS on the night of October 6. Her crime: attempted suicide.

On October 9, 2006 Irom Sharmila refused all medical attention as has been her stated stance. Sitting in her hospital room in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), she resolutely withdrew the force-feed tube from her nose against all medical advice.

Almost thirteen years now without proper food, without a drop of water touching her lips. Almost thirteen years without meeting her mother, and rarely being allowed access to her larger family of well-wishers. Almost thirteen years of being held under arrest repeatedly on charges of “attempted suicide” by the government.

What images are we looking at? Are we celebrating her struggle? Are we indifferent to the loneliness of an activist? Are we excited about an impending revolution that would never happen? Or are we so TRP obsessed that this is yet another opportunity for some popcorn entertainment with some temporary tears thrown in.

The point is that we have moved on. Moved on without a tinge of remorse.


Everyone. Remember AFSPA has not just created a situation. It has created a mentality. Warisha Farsat writes in the edit page (May 10, 2012) of Kashmir Times, Supreme Court’s opinion on Pathribal case concerning the legal immunity under Section 7 of the Act. The opinion amongst other things state: …the protection and the immunity granted to an official particularly in the provision of the Act 1990 or like Acts have to be widely construed in order to assess the act complained of. This would also include assessment of cases under mistaken identities or an act performed on the basis of a genuine suspicion. We are therefore of the view that such immunity clauses have to be interpreted with wide discretionary powers of sanctioning authority in order to uphold the official discharge of duties in good faith.

The idea of genuine suspicion and fairness of legal intervention are nebulous and distant fragments in a conflict zone and court’s interpretation (the lines quoted above) comes in the way of dispensing a valid sense of justice that would assuage and not provoke. What could have been a historic precedent by the court in Pathribal case turned into a simple paradox of question of granting or not granting sanction to court martial the allegedly guilty. What about punishing the guilty?

Manipur was never a part of our daily intake of joys and sorrows as a concerned Indian. That is why our attitude towards the Sharmila phenomenon is that of initial blackout and then a few profiles and finally an orgy of admiration stories and hagiographies, without any sense of engagement. Because, engagement that sifts through layers of conflict is a dangerously unsafe space. There is a never-ending, going nowhere loop that is being peddled by the Sharmila-core team. And the principal one is that of a curious mix of solidarity and sympathy. Increase the dosage depending on the political drift. What is in circulation is the age-old practice of manufacture-the-martyr, organise the celebration and conveniently forget the people-centric discourse that shaped the martyr (alive or dead).

The discourse of constant questioning is hardly discussed: of asking about her and her fresh views on State machinations; her views on different struggles versus the State; her views on she versus herself; her real views on the lucky ones (who have handpicked themselves and with a little blessing here and there, get exclusive access to her); her views on contemporary politics and most importantly, her perception of the goings on all over world (of course on issues, she would like to speak on).

So Sharmila is an AFSPA protest machine? Not an AFSPA protest voice who also has a wide-ranging views on related subjects.

She can’t be and should not be wished away. She is relevant. Because, she has more courage in her stance than any of us. Yet in that relevance, she cannot be (and should not be) completely remote-controlled (many would like to control her and the battle is still on). Yet, at the risk of being politically incorrect, we can’t lash out at those who supposedly “own” her (though the time has come to do that). Own her silence. Own her politics. Own her time (who she would meet and who “they” think she should not). And they are — despite her continued and continuing resistance — dangerously close to owning her universe. Why can’t we lash out? Because we feel, at least they are in the ground to fight the battle on her behalf, whereas many of us are away in the safe confines of discussing the terrain in some air-conditioned auditoriums (not that they are not doing that… at least fly back to the ground realities and engage with the fault lines).

But, the reality however, harsh it may sound is that they are mentally clogging her arteries as much as the drip does it for her physically. They have co-opted our silence because we are driven by the urban guilt of not being the field fire fighters. And then there is also another facet of the urban guilt that at least they are doing something that we are not. But this being a tight-lipped phenomenon has altered the course of the movement, which oscillates between Remove AFSPA and Save Sharmila and sometimes both.

The movement around Sharmila should be a political movement for a political right and not a collection of individuals fighting an individual’s cause (doesn’t that defeat the entire reason why she began her epic journey?). I am not mixing the concept of political movement with that of a movement shaped by party politics. One does not need to and need not echo each other.

Yet, the Sharmila movement, apart from its periodic AFSPA-as-seen-by-Sharmila stance, has been remarkably silent on a number of issues. For example, if the movement has to extend itself and take the support of the world (which it should and it must and it does), then it cannot remain silent on a number of issues including the fact that non-local (read non Manipuri) labourers who are being routinely killed (and there is a complete absence of any protest mechanism to even attempt something as clichéd as candle-light march).

If you look at the last decade there are more than 80 cases (officially reported) , the most recent being Abhishek Kumar’s corpse discovered at a paddy field (after being abducted on February 14, 2012) at  Keirao Bitra near Imphal.

What message are we giving out?  That the desperately poor labourer is a class enemy. I am sure that Irabot did not teach and will not teach (his is a living legacy… more relevant as time passes by) that kind of Marxism. Nor will Sharmila approve of such cold-bloodedness. But would they allow her to talk?

And to add all this and all that, the problem with most people writing on/about Sharmila movement is that they won’t have the gumption to write/right this (lest they anger the well-wisher mafia…).

The question of representation of the stifled voices remains the key (whether it is a grieving mother from Oinam, Sopore or a refugee at Bhour camp in Jammu). Basic rights are not negotiable. Neither for the oppressed not even for the spokesperson of the oppressed.

Which brings us to the final question? Who benefits if Sharmila dies? Everybody. Every single person who has some stake in her case. Why? Simply, because we do not believe in passing the baton. We believe in manufacturing the martyr. We do not believe in negotiating with the collective by becoming a collective and tactically making Sharmila-a political alternative. We do not believe in travelling with Sharmila across the remote corners of the country to explore a mass linkage.

So are we manufacturing a martyr? Are we tactically so impoverished in the Gandhi-land that we cannot look beyond the next stage of hunger strike? If by any chance she passes away: between the secessionist elements that would make her their cause, between the government that would create a memorial, between the Sharmila advisory brigade who would attain a permanent holistic sarkariapproved dissent status and between the media who can whip up a temporary frenzy and then occasional inane follow-ups, the gain is in the final dissolution of the pain.

Sharmila, beware of Sharmila mongers. Those who disapprove your relationship and muzzle you enough so that you make the politically correct noise,

Sharmila, shall we eliminate you from our mind? At least me? You are too forthright to be a part of this well-laid out marketing plan. Between centre-state blow hot and blow cold, between Anna-Ramdev bonhomie, between cause hoppers and foot soldiers, you could have been hope.

Why are they making you a state-of-despair?

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