South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Rajdeep Sardesai

‘Why don’t you cover Irom Sharmila’s decade-old fast with the same intensity as you did Anna Hazare’s 12-day fast?’ asked Binalakshmi Nepram, the founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network with characteristic passion. On stage in a live programme, there was no escape. “Perhaps, it’s because Ramlila Maidan is closer to television studios than Imphal,” was my feeble response.
The ‘tyranny of distance’ can only be a part-explanation for why a 39-year-old Manipuri woman’s fast that began in November 2000 for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has not resonated across TV channels and the nation in the manner that Anna Hazare’s did.
Yes, it did take a nude street protest by Manipuri women for the national media to wake up momentarily to an unfolding tragedy.
But to see this only from the prism of the traditional ‘neglect’ of the Northeast would be to ignore the contemporary reality of what constitutes ‘democratic’ protest in the eyes of the media and enlightened citizenry.
Forget Irom’s brave struggle for a moment. Look at Medha Patkar instead. In May, Patkar went on a nine-day fast to protest against slum demolitions in Mumbai.
While the fast attracted some attention in the local newspapers, no large crowds or TV cameras could be spotted. Slum demolition is an issue that discomfits the urban middle classes, for whom Patkar is seen as a quintessential troublemaker, be it when seeking rehabilitation for those affected by the Narmada dam or in driving out the Tata Nano plant from Singur.
And yet, the moment the same Medha Patkar waves the Tricolour and shares a platform with Team Anna on the Jan Lokpal Bill, she becomes an embodiment of courage and idealism.
Or take the case of Prashant Bhushan, a ‘core’ member of  Team Anna. Only a few months ago, when the lawyer-activist was fighting cases for alleged Maoists or defending author Arundhati Roy’s right to free speech on Kashmir, he was dubbed ‘anti-national’ in a section of the media.
Today, the same individual is embraced by the very same media as an anti-corruption crusader. When Bhushan and Patkar challenged the status quo they were targeted, even reviled. The moment they chose to swim with the tide, they were transformed into heroes by identical groups.
The fact is that ‘anti-corruption’ is an easy to market brand, which consumes everyone who vouches for it. The success of Anna’s movement lies in its simple, inclusive character.
It’s a movement that could co-opt a Medha Patkar, a Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and an Om Puri on the same platform along with millions of anonymous Indians. Why even a Baba Ramdev would have been a star performer of the Anna brigade till such time as he made the cardinal mistake of allowing Sadhvi Ritambhara to share a platform with him.
Suddenly, the divisiveness of Hindutva politics was seen to undermine the universality of the core anti-corruption message.
Therein also lies the fundamental difference between Anna’s fast on the Jan Lokpal Bill and Irom Sharmila’s battle for revoking AFSPA: one is seen to unite, the other is seen to divide.
In the end, Anna’s fast wasn’t even really about the details of the Bill but more about being a potent symbol of  popular anger against corruption. Many of those who gathered at the Ramlila Maidan and elsewhere couldn’t really care whether the anti-corruption wing of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is brought under a lokpal.
What they really wanted was some outlet to express their outrage against corruption. Anna, aided by a willing media, happily provided it. For the middle class in particular, Anna’s asceticism was in sharp contrast to their own lifestyle of conspicuous consumption: wearing an Anna cap could redress the balance, if only for a while.
It also enabled the economically privileged to suddenly feel politically empowered.
By contrast, Irom Sharmila presents a more complex choice before the average citizen. For Manipuris, she is a homegrown heroine who symbolises the fight against human rights violations by the army.
But for those outside Manipur, she is just as likely to be seen as someone who is questioning the majesty of the Indian State. Manipuris, and many right-thinking Indians, may see AFSPA as a violation of fundamental freedoms, but there are enough others who will see it as a necessity in a militancy-prone region.
To that extent, Irom Sharmila’s fast will be viewed by hyper-nationalists as a challenge to the Indian State much in the manner that any popular movement in Jammu and Kashmir is seen as a threat to national sovereignty.
The irony is that both Anna and Irom Sharmila should have more in common than one might imagine. For both of them, using the fast as a peaceful protest weapon is essentially questioning the abuse of State power.
And at the root of this misuse of power is bad governance. Corruption flourishes where governance fails. The imposition of a draconian law like AFSPA, be it in Manipur or Jammu and Kashmir, reveals a crisis of governance.
Indeed, both Manipur and Kashmir have suffered because of corrupt politics as much as they have from violence.
Which is why anyone who calls for a strong Lokpal Bill as an antidote to corruption should also support the repeal of  AFSPA as a necessary condition for a more humane and honest State.
Which is also why Anna Hazare should seriously consider Irom Sharmila’s request to visit Manipur and express solidarity with her struggle.
It may be a purely symbolic visit, but it will ensure that television cameras are forced to turn their lenses to Manipur’s trauma, if only for a day.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18. The views expressed by the author are personal)