By Anirban Choudhury
IMPHAL, Sept 5: Irom Sharmila Chanu has been fasting for 11 years. Unlike Anna Hazare, who was cajoled by millions to end his fast, she enjoys no public support or media coverage. Her cause is almost unknown outside her state. She is seeking the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from her state, Manipur.
Irom has never had a Kiran Bedi to add melodrama to her agitation, but what she has had is the grit to try and persuade the government to repeal a law that empowers the security forces to arrest without a warrant, and shoot anyone at sight.
Irom took up a cause most Indians have no clue about. Her fight is not against corruption, which has become a popular bugbear, but for a life without fear.
Dubbed the Iron Lady of Manipur, Irom began her fast in 2000 after she witnessed the killing of 10 people by Assam Rifles jawans at a bus stop. Weighing just 37 kg, she has not eaten a single morsel for the last 10 years, as a result of which she is force-fed through her nose.
Irom hopes one day the Indian government will recognise her and her fight against rights violations. She has also urged Anna Hazare to visit Manipur and see what is happening there.
People in Manipur are upset with the media over the poor coverage for Irom`s decade-old fast. Anna`s 11-day fast had the media buzzing with 24/7 coverage, whereas Irom`s marathon protest has largely been ignored.
Although she has won international awards, Irom`s cause has never managed to strike a chord with the vocal middle class. Very few know or care about what is happening in Manipur, and how people in the state are being constantly bullied by the armed forces.
Those living in other parts of India have got used to a free life, and just don`t understand the pain of living under constant surveillance. Once in a while, the middle class conscience wakes us up and we rush to rallies or candlelight vigils to show that we stand with the just and the right. It has become fashionable to be seen at rallies wearing a Anna topi.
Irom is not happy with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh`s leadership as he has not kept his promise to work towards amending the AFSPA. She wants him to look at her like he did Anna Hazare, as “people of this whole nation, just like in God`s eyes, are equal.”
It`s a shame that she pleads to be treated like Anna Hazare. Why should she be treated like Anna Hazare? She is fighting a more serious cause. A government bullying or intimidating people is a far more severe crime than corruption. Imagine living in a state where you cannot differentiate between the saviour and the tormentor.
Being bullied is something that is not new to the people of North-East. This has been going on for decades. The government has done little to soothe the wounds of those living there. The government`s apathy toward these states is unlikely to change in the near future as they offer very little in terms of GDP.
Thousands flock to Anna`s fast to support a cause that is not the solution to corruption, but not even a small number of his supporters know about Irom and her fight. We are free to choose our own battles and causes, but it is not fair that one cause gets all the attention and another gets nothing but indifference.
Irom`s heroic protest and her voice for a better homeland are being ignored now. The next time you attend a candlelight vigil, say a silent prayer and light a candle for this extraordinarily brave woman.