I have before me a national English Daily which is much given to spreading the word about the beauties of â€œreformâ€ and modern â€œdevelopmentâ€ in India. Never a day passes when it does not remind us and the world how India is just about to breast the tape to superpowerdom. As in the case of other English Dailies (bar one), if and when it reports on farmerâ€™s suicides, atrocities on dalits, the wretched state of superstition in Indiaâ€™s vast hinterland, or other such unpleasant details of national life, it does so with a quality of impatience very reminiscent of that dismissive gesture of Mr.Podsnapsâ€™ forearm in Dickensâ€™ Little Dorrit (a novel that Bernard Shaw recommended over Marx for an understanding of the workings of finance capital) which says â€˜do not bring such things to spoil my appetite.â€™
Be that as it may, the November 17 issue of this avant garde Daily announces that the government of the day is all set now to inaugurate a â€œLook Eastâ€ policy.
We are informed that a two-day North-Eastern Council Meet has determined to plough the â€˜seven sistersâ€™ (Arunachal, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura) for purposes of exploiting their potential for â€œexportâ€.
Be it noted that some six decades after Indiaâ€™s independence from colonial rule, these states remain largely bereft of roads, electricity, educational institutions, hospitals, not to speak of industry or other sources of steady employment, regional variations notwithstanding. Now, however, â€œaccess corridorsâ€ from these regions to neighbouring countries are proposed to be opened, as well as â€œair connectivityâ€ within the region. Such are the charms of â€œreform.â€ If you have no bread, eat cake. The question as to what percentage of North-Easterners might be equipped to participate in the bounties of â€œaccess corridorsâ€ and â€œair connectivityâ€ hardly needs to be asked. The observation seems warranted that while our post-Washington Consensus ruling elites remain mortally opposed to pampering the â€œcreamy layerâ€ among the downtrodden social groups of India, everywhere else it is the creamy layer for which now the Indian state opens its purse strings and, one might add, its system of justice.
Reading this â€œLook Eastâ€ news report, it just struck me that after all we do see only what we wish to see. Looking East, not one worthy in that two-day conference seemed to see Irom Sharmila of Manipur who continues to be on her soul-wrenching satyagraha since October, 2000, refusing food and water, against the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act,1958.
Through this six-year long odyssey, unparalleled since the days of Gandhiâ€”and in some respects more heroic than any of the many fasts he undertookâ€”this â€œiron ladyâ€ has either been in one jail after another, or one hospital after another where she continues to be force-fed through nasal drips. It is doubtful that the British colonialists would have waited through a six-year long saga of self-mortification to address a public issue. Indeed, even a Cindy Sheehan seems to have pulled greater punch with the American media and public than our own Irom Sharmila Chanu. Such is our self-absorption in project superpowerdom. Soon this hero of substance might actually die, and Manipur go up in flames. What will that matter? After all we do have the AFSPA in place, an Act that allows all manner of control.
Now this Act empowers not just any commissioned officer but any warrant or non-commissioned officer operating in a â€œdisturbed areaâ€ to:
â€œfire even to the extent of causing deathâ€ if in â€œthe opinionâ€ of such
â€œit is necessary for the maintenance of public orderâ€;
â€œto destroy any shelter from which armed attacks are. . . likely to be
to â€œarrest without warrant any person. . . likely to commit a cognizable
offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion existsâ€;
â€œto enter and search without warrant any premises to make an arrest. . . .â€
Thus wherever AFSPA is in force, the right to protest, and the right to legal redress remain rescinded. Many activists who have simply wanted to document excesses committed by the army have been â€œpicked up, tortured and killedâ€(1).
Since all appeals to that package of assurances we call the Constitution of India seem to have fallen on the deaf ear of a state that has vowed to keep such noises out of hearing range, Irom Sharmilaâ€™s heroism may find resonance from a throwback to an unforgettably decisive chapter of Indiaâ€™s struggle for freedom. There is of course only the hope that such recall might melt the wax in the ruling metropolitan ear drum, but no guarantee whatsoever, since Podsnappery now seems the endorsed religion of the state. Ergo, let the wretched of the land be made invisible, and the protesting voice be quelled so that Washington is saved embarrassment, and our burgeoning breed of CEOs allowed to carry on without guilt or hindrance. After all, if Singapore is our ideal, why need the absence of civil liberties be factored into our enterprises.
As the infamous Defence of India Act lapsed with the end of the first world war, the British, wishing to carry on keeping tabs on civil liberties in place, notified the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act (more popularly the Rowlatt Act) in early March of 1919.
This â€œblack actâ€ provided
for the trial of seditious crimes by benches of three judges without
the right of preliminary commitment or of appeal;
for relaxation of the rules of evidence;
for detention without charges;
for searches without warrants;
and it stipulated that â€œpunishment or acquittal should be speedy.â€
Now the parallels with our own AFSPA must seem uncannyâ€”with one exception: as far as I have been able to determine, the Rowlatt Act fell rather short of our current day AFSPA in failing to authorize any rummy sergeant major to â€œfire even to the extent of causing death.â€ That the niceties of the law did not inhibit an Oâ€™Dywer from causing the massacre at Jallianwala is ofcourse another matter. After all he was not murdering his own people!
Yet this â€œblack actâ€ seemed to Gandhi the last straw that broke the obliging back: â€œthe idea of leading a campaign against the Rowlatt Act. . .possessed meâ€ he wrote in his autobiography (p.201). The call to an all-India hartal followed, inaugurating the moment from whence the struggle for complete independence was never really to be turned back, notwithstanding prevarications and internal dissentions. In April, the non-cooperation movementâ€”the first truly massive all-India mass uprisingâ€”was unleashed, involving the boycott of offices, courts, educational institutions, and the burning of foreign cloth.
As Gandhi was arrested, this is how he spoke of the Rowlatt Act in his Trial: â€œa law designated to rob the people of all freedom. I felt called upon to lead an intensive agitation against it.â€
Thus, Irom Sharmilaâ€™s six-year long satyagraha which, recalling Jallianwala, began precisely on the day the Malom massacre took place wherein, on 2nd October,2000 the Assam Rifles shot dead ten unarmed Manipuris at a bus stop in Imphal on suspicion of being insurgents, invites us not only to revisit the history of March/April,1919 (which we proudly teach our school children as preciously unique heritage), but to ponder the thickness of skin and soul that our rulers seem to have acquired since independence, especially since the beginning of the Washington Consensus and the era of â€œReform.â€
Indeed in recent years who is to say that the brutalities of our own state-apparatus vented on protesting adivasis, workers, dalits, displaced oustees have in any measure fallen short of those that the Colonisers reserved for us. It has been made clear time and again that the chief function that our policing mechanisms now reserve for themselves is to secure from any form of public discontent the operations of our ruling economic bosses and, additionally, to facilitate the exertions of majoritarian goons who, now in Ayodhyay, now in Gujarat, congregate in menacing intention on behalf of â€œcultural nationalismâ€ and â€œnational security.â€
The fact remains that having obtained freedom from colonial rule in 1947, and subsequently promising to all Indian citizens the equitable fruits of a democratic social order, our indigenous rulers set about ensuring that those fruits were confined to a â€œcreamyâ€ metropolitan minority which is increasingly unwilling to â€œlookâ€ beyond what fattens it further, insatiably. No wonder then that when they â€œlook Eastâ€ they do not see Irom Sharmila or the AFSPA, but only an opportunity to now plough its resources for â€œexportâ€ promotion.
Every government that serves a class-based state must necessarily, from time to time, resort to tactics that helps to keep in place its democratic legitimation. Thus, in the aftermath of the protests in Manipur (which included the shockingly desperate and bold stripping by women in front of the army personnel, inviting the latter to rape them), the Prime Minister set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee to report on the AFSPA.
This Committee submitted its report in June,2005. To this day the report has neither been made public nor placed in Parliament. Reason? Among other things, the Committee opines that the AFSPA has â€œbecome a symbol of oppression, an object of hate, and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.â€ Irom Sharmila never put it that strongly
There is another rather deeply ironic aspect to the situation to which attention ought to be drawn.
When Gandhi proposed the hartal against the Rowlatt Act in March,1919, most moderates were askance; (as luck would have it, Tilak was in London at the time). Gandhi, sensing the moment to capture leadership of the Congress, wrote as follows to Dinshaw Wacha (letter dtd., 25th, Feb.,1919; see Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, p.188):
â€œSatyagraha is the only way, it seems to me, to stop terrorism.â€
Gandhi had in mind what he saw as a dangerously undesirable development taking place among sections of the intelligentsia, namely, the willingness to engage in armed resistance to colonial rule (something that had begun to happen since the partition of Bengal in 1905). Given that such impulses were largely inspired by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Gandhi and the bulk of the Congress, given their class character, were understandably alarmed. Satyagraha was then in no small measure conceived as an alternate praxis.
Keeping in mind the continuing armed insurgencies in the North East, one would then have thought that the course adopted by Irom Sharmila should have received more than a cold shoulder by the government of the day. The treatment received by her, however, raises doubts that the state seriously wishes to see the end of insurgency. Just as the British saw in the Gandhian methods of mobilization a menace more intractable than the then armed challenge it was receiving, it does seem that Irom Sharmila spells a threat which the state wishes to quell, preferring to deal militarily with the insurgents rather than face a peopleâ€™s democratic revolt. And as a statement put out by the Human Rights Features Organisation succinctly states, â€œit is precisely this contemptuous attitude in the face of suffering which demeans the worldâ€™s largest democracyâ€(2).
Nor is it a surprise that Indiaâ€™s prime media channels which have lately been hotly pleading the cases of some notable victims in instances of murder should have evinced rather negligible interest in the six-year long satyagraha of Irom Sharmila. Is it not perhaps time that these influential channels gave to the North East the same quality of sustained attention that they have laudably given to Kashmir in recent years? Why is it that we either never seem to â€œlookâ€ towards the East, or if and when we do, we â€œlookâ€ but do not â€œsee.â€
I may be pardoned for recalling what I had written in an article titled â€œSangma Treads Dangerous Groundâ€(Mainstream, April 14, 2001). The article was occasioned by Mr.Sangmaâ€™s campaign to dub Sonia Gandhi a â€œforeignerâ€ who had to be prevented from becoming Prime Minister even if the Constitution recognized her rights as a â€œcitizen of India.â€ I had pointed out to Mr.Sangma that if the right to ascribe citizenship was left to the subjective whims of all and sundry, people of his countenance would have a hard battle on hand, since, knowing from experience as a teacher in Delhi University, I knew that students who came from the North East were hardly ever treated as Indians by â€œmainstreamers.â€ Is it possible that Irom Sharmila suffers such disgusting neglect on account of subliminal impulses from which not even the government of the day is free? A truly disturbing thought that.
1. Subash Gatade, â€œIrom Sharmila: Iron Lady of Manipurâ€ Countercurrents.org, 17/10/2006.
2. Human Rights Features (Voice of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network, B6/6 Safdarjung Enclave Extension, New Delhi 110 029);
Home Page: http://www.hrdc.net/sahrdc/ 15/11/2006