The problem with life in the world’s largest democracy is precisely the same thing as its greatest strength: everyone has a voice. But when you have over a billion voices all talking at once, it’s distressingly inevitable that some voices are not heard—especially when those voices haven’t eaten for almost ten years.
Irom Sharmila, a journalist, poet, and civil rights activist, has been on a hunger strike for nearly a decade. The only reason she is alive today is because of feeding tubes that have been forcibly inserted into her nasal passages by her jailers: the Indian Police.
Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, is fasting for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law enforced in troubled areas of the country (Manipur in Northeast India, Jammu and Kashmir) which allows officers of the armed forces to:
- "Fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law" against "assembly of five or more persons" or possession of deadly weapons.
- To arrest without a warrant and with the use of "necessary" force anyone who has committed certain offenses or is suspected of having done so
- To enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests.
According to Thongam Bipin, a Manipuri native and Ph.D scholar, the laws were put in place during times of severe unrest—unrest caused by the perceived forcible appropriation, structural neglect, and diversion of resources by the Indian government.
Sharmila, in accordance with the Ghandian traditions of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (holding on to the truth), has been in a David/Goliath standoff with the Indian government as a result of this Act. In November 2000, 10 civilians were killed under the auspices of this act. Accounts vary widely, but a huge number of Manipuri citizens, including Irom Sharmila, view this and numerous other killings as examples of official abuse of power gone unconscionably wrong. Sharmila started a hunger strike a few days later, and was almost immediately arrested for attempted suicide, a crime under the Indian Penal code.
She is released once a year, as per the letter of the law, and then immediately re-imprisoned due to her refusal to end her hunger strike. Many Manipuris believe the only reason the government bothers to keep her alive is because they don’t want a martyr on their hands.
This has been going on for Ten. Years. 10.
And, for the most part, it has gone largely unnoticed by the world outside. Indeed, even the world inside. Many Northeastern Indians are accused of being anti-Indian or seditious or worse when they raise objections to the AFPCA or other examples of how the Northeast region has been alternately marginalized or exploited since they became part of India.
When Ghandi-ji went on fasts, the world listened. But with all due respect to Ghandi-ji, he was an upper-caste, classically educated male. Just because he didn’t necessarily subscribe to that superiority complex doesn’t mean it didn’t work to his advantage. Irom Sharmila, a woman from a state most people outside of India haven’t even heard of, does not have that same luxury.
And so, like the Roma in Europe, the Maya in Mexico, and the Native Americans in the US, Northeastern Indians are only heard when they add color or diversity to nationalistic self-promotion. But when they try to get their voices heard regarding the more unsavory aspects of nationhood, they get thrown in jail, a tube shoved down their noses…and are drowned out by a billion voices.