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Posts Tagged ‘AFSPA

Anniversaries are always special. They hold great significance in one’s life. For scribes like us, it is crucial to remember anniversaries but we remember occurrence of events of a different kind. For example, we revisit the anniversary of IC 814 hijack or Gujarat riots or 26/11 attacks in order to ingeminate  stories of the victims and help them get justice.

Of late, a section of the media has added another date to this list, which is November 4.Twelve years back, on this day, Manipur’s Irom Sharmila Chanu sat on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – the law in force in the north-east and Kashmir that gives sweeping powers to the Army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. In 2010, Sharmila’s silent protest completed a decade. Curious to know what makes the Iron Lady of Manipur, as she is popularly known, this resilient, I had sought an appointment with her. Permission, however, was not easily granted. The request moved from one sarkari office to the other for nearly two months. Finally, I was allowed to meet her on December 20, 2010. Knowing well that even celebrated writer and activist Mahasweta Devi was denied permission, I considered myself lucky.

Before I met her, I had sketched an image of Sharmila in my mind by reading various newspaper reports that featured her struggle, her pain and her plight. They had made her look gloomy and exhausted. But my perception changed the moment I got the first glimpse of her when I lifted the green curtains of the ward for under-trials needing medical attention at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital. She looked frail but cheerful and welcomed me with a wide smile as I walked into the room. Her freshly washed hair smelled of a familiar brand of shampoo. The shiny wet curls of her hair were carelessly playing on her forehead. She looked calm and unencumbered, the fairness of her skin heightened by the pink top that she was wearing.

Strange though but of all things, we started talking about food. “As a child, I loved eating. After finishing my own meal, I used to eat off others’ plates. My mother often scolded me for this. It is an irony that my struggle is related to food – though it’s about not eating,” Sharmila had said. She spoke haltingly in English. Her voice was frail.

Born on March 14, 1972 in Kongpal Kongham Leikei in the east of Imphal, Sharmila loved eating freshly plucked raw vegetables – peas, cabbage and red spinach. Her other love was pastries.

In fact, a night before she started her fast, she bought two packets of pastries and cakes from a local bakery. “ I ate all of them to fill my stomach, and vowed that it is my last day of eating. I totally surrendered myself to God,” she recalled. Her fast was triggered by the Malom massacre of November 2, 2000, in which 10 people were killed by security forces on the outskirts of the capital Imphal. She consciously chose to fast because all other forms of protest such as demonstrations or strike would harm others unlike fasting that could harm only her, and not anyone else.

A day after she began fasting, the cops had charged her with the attempt to suicide under section 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and had put her in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail. Two and a half months later, she was shifted to the hospital, where she has been nose-fed thrice every day – at 10am, 2pm and 9 pm- since then.“I don’t feel hungry. The liquid diet keeps my stomach full,” she had said. The plastic tube through which she is fed was hanging close to her neck, but that has become a part of her body in these many years.

In 2004, Human Rights Alert (HRA), a collective of lawyers moved the Supreme Court (SC) to remove the charges against her as her intentions were not commit suicide. The SC had then asked them to file the case in Gauhati High Court in Manipur, which a year later ordered her release. But then the court was silent on whether such charges should be removed or not. Later, in 2006, Irom Sharmila’s supporters brought her to Delhi to pressurise the Centre to repeal AFSPA but it was all in vain. After being moved from one government hospital to another for six months, she was later forced to go back to Imphal.Every year, she is released for a day in March only to be arrested the next day and sent back to the hospital.

The youngest of nine siblings, Sharmila grew up a lonely child. She raised chicken, sold their eggs and donated the money to a local blind school. Never academically inclined, Sharmila joined a vocational course for shorthand, typing and journalism after school. Before she went on a hunger strike, Sharmila also wrote columns in a local newspaper and worked in a non-governmental organisation. She had often joined demonstrations when protests spilled out on the streets, mostly revolving around army actions against civilians.She was close to her brother, Irom Singhajit, nearest to her in age. With their parents busy running their grocery shop when she was a child, it was Singhajit who took care of her. Their mother’s breast milk had dried up when Sharmila was born, so Singhajit would take his little sister to other mothers in the neighbourhood who breastfed her. In exchange, he did their household work.

Even today, Singhajit is by her side. He left his job as an agricultural officer in an NGO to garner support for his sister’s struggle. “He is like a guardian to me,” she told me. Sharmila, who is now seen as a symbol of resistance in India, stressed that she inherited her willpower from her grandmother, Irom Tonsija Devi. Tonsija Devi, who died in 2007, was a part of the 1939 Nupi Lan movementa war women waged against the export of rice by the king, Maharaja Churachand, and the British government. “My grandmother was illiterate but she had great knowledge of politics and economics,” Sharmila had said,sitting on the bed in her hospital room.

Her room was full of gifts– a wind chime, presented by a filmmaker who directed a short film on her, a red and white Assamese gamcha, a gift from a photographer, and a statue of Meera Bai, given to her by another nurse, were a few among them. She said that most of her time was spent in doing yoga and writing poetry. Two years back, Zubaan had published 12 of her poems in a volume called ‘Fragrance of Peace’. Books were lying heaped on an iron cot in the room. I had spotted a Khushwant Singh, a Kahlil Gibran and a Chetan Bhagat in the pile of books. “Most of these books have been gifted to me by my lover,” she said shyly.

This was the first I had heard of a man in her life as before this, I had never heard or read any reference to her love relationship. Initially I hesitated to ask more but Sharmila was clearly keen to talk about him. “His name is Desmond Coutinho,” she  said. A Britisher based in Kerala, he got to know about Sharmila after he read ‘Burning Bright’,  a 2009 book on the Manipuri struggle written by Deepti Priya Mehrotra. “He wrote me a letter after he read the book. We have been exchanging letters since then,” she  said smilingly.

Pointing her long skinny fingers at the plants – Chinese evergreen and ponytail, surrounding her bed, she had told me,“These are my friends. I water them, and tell them about my feelings for him.”

Minutes later, she had asked me if I could call him. I was a bit confused about what to say at the moment but couldn’t refuse her. I rang up a number that she remembered by heart. As I got to talk to Coutinho, Sharmila, like a teenager in love, had asked me to tell him that she loved him.  Coutinho expressed similar emotions for her and said, “Please tell her that I want to come and see her, but I am yet to get the permission.”

In another few minutes, we hung up. And then I  suddenly noticed Sharmila, her smiling face turning pale. She immediately covered her face with a book. I noticed tears in her eyes. “I miss him. I want them to grant him permission soon,” she told me. Two years later, the permission has not yet been granted.  But Coutinho had met her in the court in March last year while Sharmila was being produced before the judiciary – an annual ritual before she gets released for a day. However, Sharmila’s supporters beat him up because they do not approve of the idea of Sharmila having a romantic relationship with a Briton.

Despite such hurdles, their love for each other hasn’t faded away. “I fully intend to return to Manipur to marry Sharmila and I will live and die for her. I do not see any other end for us,” Desmond told me in a recent conversation. He had gifted her a wooden statue of the two legendary lovers, Krishna and Radha.“He says that he’s Lord Krishna, and I am his Radha,” Sharmila said. As a young woman, she used to ride a bike and had never behaved in a “stereotyped” manner in her younger days, her mother told me. But now, she has started talking of desires that any woman of “marriageable” age would do. “I want to get married. I want to be free,” she told me. “But,” she  stressed, “after my demand is met.”

Looking at the apathy of the Indian government towards people of north-east, it is anyone’s guess that her demand will not be met anytime soon.In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had assured that the central government would consider their demand”sympathetically.” Following which, a five-member committee under the Chairmanship of Justice BP Jeevan Reddy was formed which stated that this draconian Act should be repealed and the same should be replaced by a more humane Act.”

But the strong Army lobby will never let it happen. According to the Army,  replacement of AFSPA or any dilution could hamper its operational capabilities to effectively deal with militancy and insurgency.

But Sharmila’s mother Shakhi Devi has not lost hope yet. Every evening, she religiously holds the radio set closer to her ears only to hear some news on AFSPA and on Sharmila’s release. When I had met Shakhi Devi, she told me that she had heard on radio that the Centre plans to amend the Act but she wanted the government to scrap it. “Only if the law is scrapped, Sharmila will stop fasting. And I will get to see my daughter eating,” the ailing mother had said sitting in the courtyard of her house.

In these 12 years, the mother and daughter have met only once. Shakhi Devi had kept herself away for she feared that she may end up eroding Sharmila’s determination if they meet. Two years ago, when Shakhi Devi was admitted to the same hospital after an asthma attack, Sharmila had visited her at midnight. Shakhi Devi told Sharmila that she would live to see her eat one day – and they hugged each other and cried.

Even as the government cares very little about Sharmila but a section of civil society has recognised her sacrifice by giving her a few awards.But Sharmila said that these awards would merely help people across the world know about her, nothing beyond that. “I accept the respect that I get from people across the world but these awards don’t serve the purpose.How do they help repeal AFSPA?.”

In fact, last month, she refused to accept the “Activist India Nation 2012” award instituted by Kerala-based Kovilan Trust  According to Singhajit, who was invited in Calcutta to receive the award on her behalf, said that Sharmila had said no to any more awards till her demand is met.

A face of strong determination, Sharmila was born on a stormy night. Singhajit says that there will be another storm the day she would be released.“It will be her rebirth that day,” he said.

Till then, we would continue to revisit her and reiterate her demand only to remind the government that the struggle of Irom Sharmila shouldn’t go waste. It is about time that the government should understand that she is representing the people of our own country who live in trauma everyday because of the high-handedness of the armed forces in the name of security.

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Insurgency-related incidents have left many women widowed in Manipur.

When men in her neighbourhood return home every evening after work, four-year-old Alice often asks a question. When will my father come, she wants to know from her mother, Irengbam Nalini. “I have no answer,” Nalini says, before breaking down.Nalini still remembers that Saturday afternoon two years ago as if it was just the other day. Preparations were on in full swing for a cousin’s wedding in her house in Singjamei Chingamakha Chongtham Leikai in east Imphal in Manipur. Her husband, Choingtham Hem Singh, a government officer, had gone to Paona Bazaar, the busy market hub in Imphal, to buy a wedding gift. The gift was never bought. The shop that he entered was blown up, allegedly by an underground group of militants.

“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Nalini.

When you travel in and around Imphal, you come across many women who have been widowed in troubled Manipur. They are called gun widows — for they lost their husbands in either militant attacks or at the hands of security forces. According to data jointly provided by the ministry of home affairs and the South Asia Terrorism Portal, an independent agency, 369 people were killed in insurgency-related incidents last year. The incidents widowed some 300 women.

Farhana Bibi, 46, is a gun widow too. Her husband, Mohammed Islamuddin, a former proctor of Manipur University, was killed by three unidentified gunmen in the university last May. “I have no idea who killed him. Newspaper reports said the militant outfit Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup took responsibility for his killing. According to some other reports, the Muslim underground outfit People’s United Liberation Front accused the Indian Reserve Battalion of killing him. The case is with the Central Bureau of Investigation now, and we have not been informed about any development in the investigation so far,” says Bibi.

Clearly, the victims of violence in Manipur are not just people who are killed. The deaths leave behind women who are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Last year was particularly bloody in Manipur. Nine civilians were killed by unidentified insurgents inside the Keibul Lamjao national park in Khordak Awang Leikai in Bishnupur district on May 11. Exactly a month later, four men were killed when unidentified insurgents opened fire in the Central Agriculture University at Iroisemba in west Imphal. And these were just two of the many violent incidents.

What upsets the widows is the fact that even months after the deaths of their husbands, they have no answers about the killings.

Shobha Rani still doesn’t know why her 39-year-old husband, R.K. Sanajaoba Singh, had to die. He was allegedly killed by the Manipur police at Waheng Leikai, barely 500 metres from their home at Sagolband in west Imphal, six years ago. The case is pending at the Gauhati High Court — the highest judiciary body for the state.

“It is not difficult to investigate the case and punish the killer. But who will do it? The government is not keen to end the violence in the state, and therefore we continue to suffer,” says a tormented Rani. Even her powerful political connections — she is a close relative of former Manipur chief minister R.K. Joychandra — have not helped her.

But she is luckier than many others, for Rani did receive an ex-gratia payment of Rs 1 lakh from the state government. Women such as N. Mori Devi, whose contractor husband was abducted and killed by alleged militants four years ago, are still to get any compensation.

“Every time I visit government officers, they ask for a bribe. I do not have any savings and there is no one to support me financially. Where do I get the money from,” asks Mori Devi, who runs a tea kiosk on the highway at Kakching in Thoubal district, 70 kilometres from Imphal, to support her two children — a 12-year-old boy and a six-year-old daughter.

Corruption is a scourge that many gun widows complain about. Hoikhovok Serto of Phunchoingjang village in Churachandpur district has paid every rupee that she had saved over the last 14 years to government officers as bribes in the hope that she’d be financially compensated for her husband’s death.

“I even sold the two acres of land that I owned,” she says. “I was promised a job for one of my eight children — but we have got nothing so far,” laments Serto whose husband, a village sarpanch, was shot dead, allegedly by members of the Assam Rifles, who mistook him for a militant.

Though the Union ministry of women and child development runs shelter homes for widows across the state, help has not reached them all. Jinhu Hoikhothim, 32, widow of a social worker, has been staying in a rehabilitation home built by a local voluntary group for victims of the Kuki tribe in Chandel district. She has never been to a government shelter.

She collects fuel wood from the forest and sells them to support her three children. But the Rs 300 that she earns every month barely provides them with one square meal a day. She pins all her hopes on a pig that she is raising. “I hope to receive at least Rs 10,000 when I sell it. I will use this money to send my children to school,” says Hoikhothim. Her husband was allegedly killed by members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muviah) group after he refused to pay the Rs 2,000 they had demanded from him.

That the government has no answers about the killings troubles the widows. Salom Lokeshwari, 26, has no idea who gunned down her husband, Ajit, a driver, two years ago. “Some people said he was gunned down by the Assam Rifles while others said he was killed by militants. His death remains a mystery to us,” she says.

Yet, while the reasons differ and the women themselves come from different strata of Manipuri society, they have one thing in common — their never-ending grief and suffering. “Death seems to be the unbiased leveller for these perturbed widows. From educated to illiterate, from rich to poor, from Kuki to Metei — the struggle for survival for these victims is the same,” says Reena Murum, a local activist at the non governmental organisation, Manipuri Women Gun Survivors Network.

Not surprisingly, for many who witnessed the ongoing violence for the past few decades, this is a life they had often anticipated for themselves. “Looking at the crisis in Manipur, my husband and I often discussed how we should save every rupee for our two children as life here is too unpredictable. I knew sooner or later destiny would force me to join the thousands of widows of conflict in the state,” says Lokeshwari, as she cuddles her two-year-old son in the courtyard of her house in Thanga village in Bishnupur district.

Yet, amidst the agony, many women are moving on with their lives. “I have become stronger now. I don’t have any fears. Now, my only dream is a better future for my child,” says Rani.

After all, you can’t kill dreams.

Salom Lokeshwari with her son,

 Hoikhovok Serto who is yet to get compensation despite bribing officials

Jinhu Hoikhothim is depending on her pet pig to help bring up her children;