(Reflections on a fractured land)
A year ago, this month, I was in Ahmedabad where I had a chance meeting with Sudeep Chakravarti, whose book “Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country” I had read some years back. “Red Sun” narrates the author’s personal journey through the heart of the ‘Maoist zones” in the country. A disturbing and detailed examination of how India has treated its marginalized communities that include the adivasis, Sudeep’s narrative is unambiguously frank and honest. The blurb on the back cover of the book: “The Maoists are patriots, by their own admission…. India’s Maoists do not want a separate country. They already have one. It’s just not the way they would like it – yet.” succinctly sums up the conclusions he drew at the end of his journey.
During the meeting I learnt that he had published another travelogue “Highway 39 – Journey’s Through a Fractured Land” in 2012. Picking up from where he had left his earlier narrative, Sudeep this time journeyed back and forth on a highway spanning a distance of 436 kilometers starting from Numaligarh in Assam, through Nagaland, and terminating at the Indo-Burmese border town of Moreh in Manipur. A thrilling and enthralling account, “Highway 39” presents a vivid picture of the easternmost end of India, a part of our country that has remained alienated from the mainland, due to the ineptitude and the “deliberate political misunderstandings” of the ruling elite in New Delhi.
Both these books are complementary as they revolve around the theme of political neglect that leads to exploitation, alienation, and anarchy resulting inevitably in violence. The majority of the alienated and marginalized population comes from the tribal communities (adivasis) who somehow have been left out of the development matrix evolved by the bureaucrats and their political masters.
It is worth recalling that one of these Adivasis was Jaipal Singh, a Munda from Chotanagpur (today’s Jharkhand). Chosen by the missionaries, he was sent to England to study, hoping that on his return he would preach the Gospel, and increase the fold of His Lord. Jaipal Singh was also a brilliant hockey player. He captained the Indian team that won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1928. In 1938 he founded the Adibasi Mahasabha and made the first demand for a separate state of Jharkhand. Made a member of the Constituent Assembly he was the most articulate representative of the tribals of India. Speaking on the Objective Resolution on 19th December 1946, Jaipal Singh said:
“I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the newcomers – most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned – it is the newcomers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness…. The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellion and disorder.”
He further went on to say, “And yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.”
Jaipal Singh was a unique individual, at once deeply proud of his aboriginal roots, while completely committed to the Indian union. His spirited affirmation of faith in the members of the Constituent Assembly did result in some partial amends being made by the inclusion of some 400 tribal communities in a “Scheduled Tribes” list, which would give its members reserved seats in the legislatures and government jobs.
However, like Nehru’s Independence Day speech, this pledge also remains unredeemed in “full measure”. The unwillingness of successive governments at the Centre and in the states to institute substantive land reforms, in order to protect their primary backers – the landed and the capitalist elite in the case of the Congress, the BJP and some regional parties; and the creamy layer of the scheduled and middle castes who support the Samajwadi and the Bahujan Samaj parties – is at the center of this failure. In the skewed development model that the country has adopted from 1985, there is no room for the “naked, hungry mass”. It is as if this vast number has dropped from the radars of the planners’ screens; and as if they have been eliminated from view with the pushing of a button.
“Highway 39” weaves in its narrative different stories of individuals, who have been caught in the crossfire of a heavy-handed but distant political regime on the one hand, and the closer-to-hand aspirations and dreams of some fiercely independent people who cherish and respect their old ways of life. It is a struggle between ethnic diversity resisting the attempt at enforced uniformity. As Sudeep calls it, “The story of the ‘Northeast’ is still the story of our times, the unfinished story of India’s integrity.”
Among the many stories it tells is the story of Luingamla, a fourteen-year old Naga girl whom an Indian soldier shot dead because she resisted his attempt to rape her. Zamthingla Ruivah, a teenaged neighbour, was apparently close when the incident happened, but she was terrified into helplessness. In time, she became a master weaver. But Luingamla’s struggle continued to haunt her, eventually inspiring her to capture her spirit through her craft. “Luingamla Kashan” is a shawl having broad borders of black running along the lengths, hemming in two combs of white along the widths. Other intricate patterns in different colors are woven in the body of the shawl. Each pattern has a deep symbolic meaning; representing chastity, struggle for justice, and unity of purpose. The predominant color is a deep red “signifying Luingamla’s innocent blood which she shed for the cause of women’s dignity and honour. It also signifies the valour and unflinching courage of women.”
When Luingamla was shot dead in 1986, another fourteen-year old girl, in the neighboring state of Manipur, was growing up in an extended family of 19 members in the Porompat colony, in Imphal. Unable to pass her Class XII examinations, she had to forget her dream of becoming a doctor. Instead, she did some short courses in journalism and stenography. Still searching for a purpose in life, she started attending seminars and workshops on women’s rights, and this brought her closer to the conflict in Manipur. Working as an intern with Human Rights Alert in Imphal, she was asked to meet a young tribal woman who had been raped by security forces in front of her father-in-law. When this girl narrated her tragic story, it brought about a great internal change in the intern. And when the incident at Malom happened in November 2000, Irom Sharmila became Iron Sharmila, the “protest icon.”
2nd November 2000 was a Thursday, and the 28-year-old Sharmila would undertake a traditional fast that was common among Manipuri Hindu women. Then came the news of the massacre of 10 civilians by soldiers of the Assam Rifles at the Malom bus stop. The provocation apparently was a bomb thrown on an Assam Rifles convoy by some insurgents. The reprisal was swift and brutal. Indiscriminate firing on people waiting at the bus stop and in the subsequent combing operations took 10 lives and injured scores more. In an interview with Esha Roy, published in the Indian Express on 23rd November, 2014, Sharmila said: “I thought what is the point of working for peace unless we do something drastic. I was so upset that I didn’t eat. At first, I thought, ‘Let me keep lying in bed’. I didn’t even tell my mother that I was still fasting. There was a curfew in Imphal and on the fourth day, I made myself attend a meeting. People sensed something was wrong. They told me I needed to take my fast into the public sphere. So I went to get my mother’s blessing and then I left home.’’
Sharmila’s non-violent form of protest took everyone by surprise. There were many skeptics who thought her method was too naive. Fasting had gone out of fashion with Mahatma Gandhi. Armed rebels did not believe that their objectives could be met through peaceful hunger strikes, and the Indian state responded to her protest in the most stupid and predictable way that bureaucracy operates. She was arrested for ‘attempted suicide’ under Section 309 of the IPC. But she was not trying to commit suicide. Hers was a protest, an appeal, to recall the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, AFSPA, in short. The AFSPA gave absolute power to the security forces and gave them the license to rape and kill wantonly, if it pleased them. Sharmila’s protest was against this license. She was not committing suicide. “If I wanted to kill myself, who would obstruct me?” she asks. “There is a fan, there is a lot of cloth. I could have hanged myself any time. I am saying that I want to commit suicide.”
Section 309 enables the law to punish attempted suicide by simple imprisonment for up to one year, or a fine, or both. Unable to break her will, and unwilling to listen to her, the law simply releases her at the end of one year of imprisonment and again takes her into custody for “attempted suicide.” This ridiculously farcical charade has now been going on for 14 years. It would be laughable if it were not so tragic.
Sharmila has refused both food and water. Through a nasal Ryles tube she is fed “Cerelac, juices like Appy, Horlicks and protein shakes—1,600 calories a day.” Since she refuses to drink water, tablets or vitamins, are crushed and then administered with her food. A team of six doctors checks on Sharmila daily. She is periodically weighed. Dr Biren, her attending physician, is amazed at her staying powers. “It’s extraordinary what she is doing. Medically, you can be fed through the Ryles tube for months even, as we do with patients with strokes. But for 14 years, that’s unimaginable,” he says.
In December 2014, the Modi government announced that it had decided to delete Section 309 from the IPC. Apparently 18 states and 4 Union territories have backed the recommendation of the Law Commission of India in this regard. A Cabinet note on the Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill has already been circulated by the Union home ministry among other ministries such as law and health.
Perhaps anticipating the repeal of Section 309, the Judicial Magistrate of Imphal East ordered the release of Irom Sharmila from custody on Thursday, the 22nd of January 2015. The court dismissed all charges against her saying that the prosecution had been unable to establish that Sharmila was trying to commit suicide. However, her protest continued and she was rearrested two days later. The magistrate this time has again remanded her to police custody under Section 309 of the IPC.
Speaking to Esha Roy on 2nd November 2014, which is also the first day of the 15th year of her fast, Irom Sharmila said that she firmly believed Prime Minister Narendra Modi would repeal the controversial AFSPA from Manipur. “When I watched what happened in Godhra, I thought Modi is a very dangerous man. But in 2009, I dreamt that he was standing in front of me and smiling. And now, he has become PM. Since then, I have a firm conviction that this man will repeal AFSPA from Manipur; he is capable of doing it. That is my gut instinct, that is my conviction,” she said from a room in the special ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences that has been her home for over a decade. Almost three months later there seems to be no indication from the Modi government that it is even thinking about the Northeast.
By now it should have been clear to both the police and the government that Sharmila has no intentions of giving up until the despicable AFSPA is not repealed. The deleting of Section 309 will remove the fig leaf of legitimacy under which the government is keeping her alive. But once it is dropped, the law will not be able to stifle her protest. There is no alternative but to take her seriously and work out a satisfactory solution to the problems of the Northeast. A time-bound scaling down of military operations could be a starting point. Justice rendered to the victims and suitable punishment to the known trigger-happy security personnel would go a long way in restoring faith in the Indian state. What more guarantees could the state wish from her? When she writes:
“Let the gate of the prison be flung wide
I will not go on another path
Please remove the shackles of thorn
Let me be not accused
For being incarnated in the life of a bird.”
Is she not asserting her desire for a peaceful resolution to the alienation of the Northeast? And, in perhaps her finest poem reproduced below, she reiterates similar sentiments with utmost poignancy:
“Touchily from this frail body
I am bidding farewell
Yet longing for life.
When life comes to its end
You, please transport
My lifeless body
Place it on the soil of Father Koubru.
To reduce my dead body
To cinders amidst the flames
Chopping it with axe and spade
Fills my mind with revulsion.
The outer cover is sure to dry out
Let it rot under the ground
Let it be of some use to future generations
Let it transform into ore in the mine.
I’ll spread the fragrance of peace
From Kanglei, my birthplace
In the ages to come
It will spread all over the world.”
The Congress that has been in power for almost 60 of the 68 years of independent India, inherited and perfected the colonial system of divide and rule. The BJP, until the advent of Modi in 2014, was essentially a clone of the Congress, and continued the same policies of drift and deliberate neglect. Narendra Modi stormed the Centre with his promise of no-nonsense governance and the people of India have given him an unprecedented mandate after thirty years. It is up to him now to heal this “fractured land” by shedding the ghosts of the past and setting his sights firmly on the future of an emotionally integrated India.
For a start he could bring Irom Sharmila’s agony to an honourable end by setting a timetable for the withdrawal of the AFSPA from Manipur and elsewhere.