Recently, an article published in the Times of Assam noted how the developing story of Irom Sharmila has increasingly drawn worldwide attention to the AFSPA, and to the North-Eastern region as a whole. The author, writing from America, spoke of Sharmila’s coming court appearance in Delhi in August, and mentioned how potentially valuable would be the strong supportive presence there of her fellow-citizens – not for her sake alone, but as convincing the Indian government, and all parties involved, of the need to find good, workable alternatives to the demonstrably disastrous AFSPA.
Such an outcome is self-evidently very much to be desired, not just for the North-East, but for the good of India as a whole, since AFSPA also erodes the unity of the country as well as the safety of its citizens and its armed forces – as shown, unhappily, by the recent ambush in which eighteen Army men died. Sharmila herself condemned that attack as “lunatic”, asking “Is there no other way than using their killer instincts to bring revolutions?”. But she also noted that it was inextricably linked to the operations of AFSPA, saying: “The Government should change their policies and programs because violence creates only violence.”
In this context, the suggestion by the writer of that article that attendance at the trial could inspire a rethinking of the whole AFSPA policy is of critical interest. Indeed, it may be no exaggeration to say that the future of the country could hinge on those few days in August. Those who attend there, whether as character witnesses for Sharmila, as supporters of her stand or as simply silent witnesses of the whole process, could become nation-builders in a very profound and vital way.
But who will be there, in Delhi, to stand alongside Irom Sharmila? Like the writer of that article, I am a distant observer of this complex situation – though Australian, not American – but thanks to the internet even a distant observer can speculate with a fair degree of confidence about some attenders!
Manipur’s most prominent human rights defenders will be there, almost certainly – one thinks immediately of Mr Babloo Loitongbam, for example, of Human Rights Alert, who travelled to Geneva in March this year to put the case against the AFSPA – or of Binalakshmi Nepram: energetic, incisive and committed to achieving conflict resolution. Those who have been most deeply involved within Manipur in the work to build a real and just peace will want to be present in Delhi to restate the life-affirming character of Sharmila’s fast – far from being suicidal, her fast springs from the infinite value she places on what should be simple peaceful life, life without fear, without AFSPA.
But in yearning for such a life she is far from alone, and other Manipuris, not only human rights campaigners, may well be alongside her in Delhi to make that plain… but who? Here, a distant observer must turn to more local sources for the answers. Will it be Mary Kom, or Laishram Sarita Devi, perhaps? Two wonderful, loyal and proud North-Easterners, who know what it means to employ their bodies to achieve great things. Will they come to stand beside Sharmila who has used her body to speak for peace in the land they love? Or will it be artists, actors, members of the film community? Or politicians and writers? As a non-local, I cannot possibly know – but the question is surely being asked in Manipur now, in the lead-up to the trial.
The question must be being discussed in Delhi, too. Internet sources suggest there are nearly a quarter of a million North-Easterners who have moved to Delhi for work or study; certainly many must retain a passionate interest in and love of their home states – will these elect to be present at the trial? Students, of course, are traditionally seen as having the time and the passion to express themselves in such cases – and as future leaders of the country they have both the right and the responsibility to be involved.
But this is not just a matter for North-Easterners; the reputation of the whole country suffers from the continuance of AFSPA – and does not the whole body suffer, when any one part of it suffers? Non-Manipuri defenders of human rights, therefore, must also be planning to be present. Renowned lawyer Vrinda Grover, for example, who has already shown publicly her support for Sharmila, and opposition to AFSPA. Will she be speaking out on this occasion? Or perhaps Medha Patkar? or Aruna Roy? The influence that these women, and others like them, have for good is immense. The coming trial will present them, and others, with the chance to use that influence to support one whose tenacity and courage makes her in every way their sister and colleague in their life’s work.
Writers and intellectuals also have great influence in shaping a society. One would not be surprised to see Arundhati Roy present at the trial, for example, as one who has long supported human rights – or Minnie Vaid, whose book, Iron Irom: Two Journeys, was revelatory to many in telling of Sharmila and her unflinching commitment to making a better, safer and more peaceful India.
And even in Australia, one hears of those stars and leaders of India’s movie industry who have been eager and generous in using their undoubted influence for good. Aamir Khan, for example, has given much of his time and attention to serious humanitarian concerns, including for safety in regional India; Priyanka Chopra has worked both behind the scenes and publicly for many good causes, including work for gender equality and women’s safety; Kareena Khapoor Khan, too, has spoken out strongly to condemn violence against women. One wonders if one or all of these will be in Delhi this August to add their voices to the call for repeal of an act which allows such violence to be committed with impunity?
This trial is certainly an historic one – one that people worldwide will be following very intently indeed. And this observer, at least, will be looking eagerly through the paper and media of both the North-East and mainland India – through the Time of Assam, of course! but watching others as well – the Times of India, perhaps? or the Sunday Guardian? or IndiaTV? – to see what answers these figures give to the question with which we began: who will be there in Delhi, to stand alongside Irom Sharmila?