India and Indians are obsessed about events in Kashmir. And they are equally oblivious about events in the North-East. Which is one reason why this newspaper has chosen to comment on the 10th anniversary of a hunger strike launched by Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila (Chanu).
Provoked by the killing of around 10 civilians by soldiers of the Assam Rifles in 2000, Sharmila launched her strike on 2 November 2000, calling for a repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA. Since then, she has spent most of her time in jail, being force-fed by a pipe inserted through her nose.
The legislation she is protesting against has been criticized by other activists and human rights organizations—it effectively gives soldiers sweeping powers and also immunity against any crimes they may commit while using (or abusing) those powers. Earlier this year, there were rumours that the government could consider repealing this Act, at least in Kashmir, as a goodwill gesture to people in that state. That wasn’t to be.
In some ways, Manipur’s problems are similar to Kashmir’s, and can be traced back to an insurgency that began in the early 1960s, but didn’t gather momentum till the late 1970s (again, doesn’t that sound familiar?). Today, the state has multiple insurgent outfits with various demands, and no one really seems to know what the real issues are or, indeed, how to resolve them.
The good news for the Indian government is that mainstream media usually chooses to ignore events in the state (it’s not Kashmir, see?). Thus, a crippling blockage earlier this year went unreported for a long time by the national media. This is what makes Sharmila’s steadfastness and fortitude unique. With no end in sight, she has continued her fight, choosing a form of protest that India should ideally be well placed to understand: non-violence.
Will Irom Sharmila’s protest against AFSPA have an effect on the government? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org