Irom's cause is riskier to support, Anna's is safe

By Rajdeep Sardesai
23 September 2011 12:09 IST

"Why don't you cover Irom Sharmila's decade-old fast with the same intensity as you did Anna Hazare's 13-day fast?" asked Binalakshmi Nepram, the founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network with characteristic passion. On stage in a live programme, there was no escape. "Perhaps, it's because the Ramlila Maidan is closer to television studios than Imphal," was my feeble response.

The 'tyranny of distance' can only be a part-explanation for why a 39-year-old Manipuri woman's fast, that began in November 2000 for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA), has not resonated across television channels and the nation in the manner that Anna Hazare's did. Yes, it did take a nude street protest by Manipuri women for the national media to wake up momentarily to an unfolding tragedy. But to see this only from the prism of the traditional 'neglect' of the north-east would be to ignore the contemporary reality of what constitutes 'democratic' protest in the eyes of the media and enlightened citizenry.

Forget Irom's brave struggle for a moment. Look at Medha Patkar instead. In May this year, Patkar went on a nine-day fast in protest against slum demolitions in Mumbai. While the fast attracted some attention in the local newspapers, no large crowds or TV cameras could be spotted. Slum demolitions are an issue that discomfit the urban middle classes, for whom Patkar is seen as a quintessential trouble-maker, be it when seeking rehabilitation for those affected by the Narmada dam or in driving out the Tata Nano plant from Singur. And yet, the moment, the same Medha Patkar waves the Tricolour and shares a platform with Team Anna on the Jan Lokpal Bill, she becomes an embodiment of courage and idealism.

Or take the case of Prashant Bhushan, a 'core' member of Team Anna. Only a few months ago, when the lawyer-activist was fighting cases for alleged Maoists or defending author Arundhati Roy's right to free speech on Kashmir, he was dubbed 'anti-national' in a section of the media. Today, the same individual is embraced by the very same media as an anti-corruption crusader. When Bhushan and Patkar challenged the status quo they were targeted, even reviled. The moment they chose to swim with the tide, they were transformed into heroes by the identical groups.

The fact is "anti-corruption" is an easy-to-market brand which consumes everyone who vouches for it. The success of Anna's movement has been in its simple, inclusive character. It's a movement that could co-opt a Medha Patkar, a Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and an Om Puri on the same platform along with millions of anonymous Indians. Why, even a Baba Ramdev would have been a star performer of the Anna brigade till such time as he made the cardinal mistake of allowing Sadhvi Ritambhara to share a platform with him. Suddenly, the divisiveness of Hindutva politics was seen to undermine the universality of the core anti-corruption message.

Therein also lies the fundamental difference between Anna's fast on the Jan Lokpal Bill and Irom Sharmila's battle for revoking AFSPA: one is seen to unite, the other is seen to divide. In the end, Anna's fast wasn't even really about the details of the Jan Lokpal Bill but more about being a potent symbol of popular anger against corruption. Many of those who gathered at the Ramlila Maidan and elsewhere couldn't really care whether the anti-corruption wing of the CBI is brought under a Lokpal; what they really wanted was some outlet to express their outrage against corruption. Anna, aided by a willing media, happily provided it. For the middle class in particular, Anna's asceticism was in sharp contrast to their own lifestyle of conspicuous consumption: wearing an Anna cap could redress the balance, if only for a while. It also enabled the economically privileged to suddenly feel politically empowered.

By contrast, Irom Sharmila presents a more complex choice before the average citizen. For Manipuris, she is a homegrown heroine who symbolises the fight against human rights violations by the Army. But for those outside Manipur, she is just as likely to be seen as someone who is questioning the majesty of the Indian state. Manipuris and many right-thinking Indians may see AFSPA as a violation of fundamental freedoms, but there are enough number of others who will see it as a necessity in a militancy-prone region. To that extent, Irom Sharmila's fast will be viewed by hyper-nationalists as a challenge to the Indian state much in the manner that any popular movement in Jammu and Kashmir is seen as a threat to national sovereignty.

The irony is that at their very heart, both Anna and Irom Sharmila should have more in common than one might imagine. For, both of them while using the fast as a peaceful protest weapon are essentially questioning the abuse of state power. And at the very root of this misuse of power is bad governance. Corruption flourishes where governance fails. The imposition of a draconian law like AFSPA, be it in Manipur or Jammu and Kashmir, reveals a crisis of governance. Indeed, both Manipur and Kashmir have suffered because of corrupt politics as much as they have from violence.

Which is why anyone who calls for a strong Lokpal Bill as an antidote to corruption should also support the repeal of AFSPA as a necessary condition for a more humane and honest state. Which is also why Anna Hazare should seriously consider Irom Sharmila's request to visit Manipur and express solidarity with her struggle. It may be a purely symbolic visit, but it will ensure that the television cameras are forced to turn their lens to Manipur's trauma, if only for a day.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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Previous Comments

sir, you very nicely brought out the similarities and the differences Anna and Irom Sharmila Share. But the core problem I feel why Anna ji managed to draw media attention and Irom could not, is not just the cause for which they are fighting for but target group against which they are fighting against.

The Media sees an Anna who is targetting the political system as a great opportunity to gain TRP's while a decade old fast goes unnoticed because the media does not see Irom's struggle for justice as a sellable commodity.

In the wake of this I see your suggestion to Anna to visit and address the cause of Irom ji only a renewed quest for the media to gain more TRP''s but either ways if it benefits the society in a positive way then well and good.

- Rajiv Viegas, Goa | 04 th November 2011 09:08


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