By Chitra Ahanthem
It was 1997, the year India was marking her 50th year of Independence. There would have been many celebrations of this momentous occasion but only one unique observation of this historical timeline stays on with me: a NGO based in Mumbai was taking about 250 young people from India and across the world to places of India’s history and future in a train specially reserved for the purpose! The announcement was made on a popular cultural TV program (which we don’t see the likes of now) called Surabhi beamed on Doordarshan and various other newspapers. It was a happy moment when I got confirmation that I was to be one of the said young people on the train that would ultimately travel for 11 days across the country facilitating interactions with people who were inspiring: Mark Tully, Abdul Kalam (then with ISRO and who talked us then of the possibility of an Indian moon mission which did become a reality!), Bunker Roy of Tillonia (married to Aruna Roy and behind hugely successful rural enterprises, water harvesting, adult literacy among others in Tillonia in Rajashthan), Kiran Bedi (much before her controversial stint in Mizoram) and Anna Hazare who was known at that point of time mostly for his pioneering work in Ralegan Siddhi, a village in Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra.
The said rail yatra was mainly organized to instill in young people the essence of leadership, innovation and social development. The routine was that we would be traveling in the train non-stop till we reached the places we were meant to be and then getting back to the train for the night. So, there was an air of curiosity when we were told that we would have an overnight stay at Ralegan Siddhi to meet a Gandhian who had taken up rural conservation and community work. The villagers took us around the place and we were told how small canals had been dug up to generate water flow. But it was two things that impressed me greatly: a school for juvenile children and the practice of Shramdaan or volunteer work as a form of social charity. The school had classrooms but if the children so wanted, classes would be held under the shade of trees in the open. There were yoga classes for “anger management” while most constructions in the village: the small dams, solar panels, wells, places of worship were all built through Shramdaan.
In the evening, we sat in a community hall and then, in walked Anna who spoke of his “second life” (he was the lone survivor during an enemy attack during an India-Pakistan war). We talked then mostly of philosophy and working for social upliftment. Like many of my fellow yatris, we thought nothing much about questioning his rigid stand against alcoholics (they were beaten up, period) and I even piped in my two bit and told him how Nishabandi women in Manipur were also doing the same! It would take me some years to understand the concept of public health and harm reduction and see that the greater crime of punitive measures on substance abusers only marginalizes them and do nothing about addressing the dependency. Anna Hazare’s activism against corruption started later and one cannot say much of what happened in between. But personally, the posturing Anna that one sees on TV (wagging fingers and dictating terms) is a very different person from the Anna I met all those years ago. The Anna then actually asked us young people on what we thought he should incorporate more into his work in his village in terms of forest and water conservation etc. The Anna one gets to see now refuses any kind of disagreement with his thoughts and beliefs.
November 2000 and a young woman called Irom Sharmila decided to fast to protest after 10 civillians were gunned down at Malom. My first reaction then (and I am/ not ashamed to own up to this now) was that it would be some token fast. Some days later, there was the “fast against AFSPA till the act is taken off” context and I thought that hers was an illogical/irrational and totally crazy stand to take. I also shrugged it off as “some group must be behind her” motive. I totally bought the “AFSPA is necessary till there are insurgents” theory for quite a long time till my own readings on militarism and armed conflicts around the world and conflict resolution/reconciliation processes made me sit up and engage in some serious questioning.
The first meeting happened in March 2009 during her customary yearly release. It was total chaos: there was a meeting of over 50 odd woman journalists from all over the country happening in Imphal and they all wanted to meet her. And then, there was the usual local media attention too. The first meeting was more of a brief sighting especially since I did not believe I needed to add my own questions to the many that were being addressed to her.
The second meeting happened in a unique setting: something that I have only shared with a few friends but one that can be let out in the public domain now. January 2010 saw me with very high fever after a trip to Bangkok and my Uncle, a doctor asked me to get a swine flu test done. Since he was with Jawarlal Nehru hospital then, I went there. Those who follow news would be aware that I was tested positive for swine flu but much before that news broke, I was raising hell over the state of the isolation ward at the hospital. What I did not want to call attention to the media then was that while I was standing outside the isolation ward with the face mask on, waiting for hospital staff to find the keys to the room (they took about an hour and a half!) I saw a familiar figure some 10 metres away from me. It was Sharmila Irom! My heart plummeted inside me: here was this one person I wanted to talk with and I was supposedly at risk of an infection that I could pass on to her. I have a small face and the mask covered most of it and I saw Iche Sharmila looking quizzically at me. I rolled my eyes at her and hoped that she would not come near (I did not want to be responsible for her health!). When eventually, my test results came in positive, I wasn’t too worried about my own health (I did not take Tamiflu medication) or my family (they did not have any fever) but I obsessively kept an ear open for any news on Sharmila’s health!
In May 2010, I got third time lucky and I had a long meeting with Iche Sharmila. I was going along as a sort of translator for a journalist and writer. We talked mostly of non-political issues: of her books and poetry we talked at great length. And then she took both my hands and said solemnly, “remember when you were at this hospital with your mask on?” And then she laughed and told me, “you don’t know the amount of activity and consternation that happened here after you left!” There was no air of moral superiority following the status of icon-hood that has settled on her: I was face to face with a unique person yes but also a normal human being, a young woman kept in isolation but very aware of the world around her.
Many people have pitched Anna Hazare’s crusade against corruption and Sharmila Irom’s stand against AFSPA. But their stands are different and the battlefield totally apart from each other. My own interaction with both of them happened at different times and stages of their journey. But what stays on following my interactions with Iche Sharmila are the little ways in which she is so much a person than an icon. It is something that one does not get to see in other people who take on the mantle of greatness.