It’s an odd time of the year for the national media to remember the Iron Lady of Manipur. Irom Chanu Sharmila usually figures in the news around March every year when she is ceremoniously released from judicial custody and then rearrested after 24 hours on charges of attempted suicide. She is rearrested because she refuses to budge and break her fast demanding repeal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958. She has been on fast since November 2000.
Well, she was invited by Team Anna to join in his over week-long fast against corruption and Sharmila’s decade-long fast managed to grab national headlines yet again. “Anna and all of us appeal to you to lend us your support in letter and spirit and invite you to share in our experience,” key member of Team Anna, Arvind Kejriwal’s letter stated. Expressing her solidarity with Anna’s campaign, Sharmila responded, “My humble suggestion is if you feel seriously, please try to reach the concerned legislators to let me go free, like you, to join your crusade to root out corruption, which is the root of all evils. Or you can come to Manipur, the most corruption-affected region in the world,” Sharmila said in a letter to Team Anna.
This interaction was picked up by the national media. Hindustan Times headlines ran, “Irom Sharmila regrets not being able to join Anna” and Economic Times stated, “Irom Sharmila supports Anna’s campaign”. The Times of India stated, “Many Anna Hazare critics have been invoking Sharmila's case to argue that the government was indifferent to the latter's cause but capitulating to the "blackmailing tactics" of the former. Some critics of the anti-corruption movement have also questioned the conscience of Anna's middle class supporters for being apathetic to Sharmila's indefinite fast.”
However, the local media, specially in Manipur smirked at this invitation. In fact, the media reports here rued that Sharmila has not been able to garner the same magnitude of attention from the national media as compared to the excessive media frenzy over Anna. The news reports reinforced the stereotypes of alienation and marginalization by the national media. In a strongly-worded and poignant editorial, The Sangai Express stated, “One is a former driver in the Indian Army, an anointed Gandhian, a man who has managed to grab the attention of the country, send the political establishment into a huddle whenever he announces his intention to stop eating and he has been on a fast for the last seven days or so. The other is a poet, anointed Iron Lady by her fellow people and someone who has largely existed on the periphery of the country's consciousness and she has been on a fast since November 2000 without creating so much of a flutter in the corridors of power. Anna Hazare is News, Sharmila is a Non-Entity.”
The history of the land, the persona of Hazare and Sharmila, the course through which the anti-corruption campaign and the anti-AFSPA protest has traversed, are unique in their own ways and mixing them up would only make a cocktail for the so called mainstream media to gloss over. Sharmila's aura has been generated not by any media coverage nor by support or solidarity to her cause but by her sheer will and determination. There is no reason why she should reach out for any crutch at this moment of her campaign. This is her strength. Diluting it would be criminal."
The Kangla Online, another portal from Manipur quoted an activist from Just Peace Foundation who support Sharmila’s cause. The activist stated, “To me both have similar causes. Anna fights for a corruption free society while Sharmila struggles for the right to life”. Another Imphal newspaper, Hueiyen Lanpao, said: “It (the invite) can be interpreted as mischievous, callous and patronizing, which smacks of insincerity and total lack of knowledge of the ground reality of Sharmila’s struggle in Manipur.”
Anna Hazare's invitation to Sharmila is not only an insult to the intelligence and resolve of the indomitable lady, but also to the intelligence of the knowing public of this state. Hueiyen Lanpao further criticised the invitation stating, "It is a cheap publicity stunt to garner support from any and all quarters. Therefore Anna Hazare should stop bothering Irom Sharmila, their causes are different. Least of all he should realize that Irom Sharmila has been nose fed forcibly for nearly eleven years. She is hardly in a condition to join his political circus."
The Editor of Imphal Free Press, Pradip Phanjoubam in a poignant write-up states, “Every television network went gaga over Hazare but have spared barely a thought for Sharmila. This contrast highlights a number of grave issues. Above all, it demonstrates the deep disparity that exists between the concerns of the North-eastern states and the rest of the country. Who can now say, with any justice, that the vexing nationalistic problems in the North-east have no deeper basis than lack of development? This apart, the emerging scenario of the nation’s concern over Hazare’s hunger strike should have made it clear that at the root of the North-east problem is also an exclusion of the region from the national psyche.”
Civil rights activists have expressed their cynicism to this invitation to Sharmila. Singhajit Singh, a civil rights campaigner and elder brother of Sharmila was seen voicing his comments on a local satellite channel. He said, “This is nothing but racial discrimination. See how Anna's fast has hogged media headlines and see our very own Irom fasting for nearly 11 years. If Anna was born in Manipur and Sharmila born in New Delhi, things would have been just the reverse. For the mainstream media, northeast or things happening in the northeast hardly excites them”.
A few local channels were seen having a panel discussion on whether the national media gives the region its due and whether Anna’s fast has been blown out of proportion as compared to Sharmila. The Telegraph’s headline ran “All ears for Hazare, deaf to Sharmila’s crusade” They quoted Babloo Loitongbam, director of Human Rights Alert, Manipur who said, “When Anna Hazare went on hunger strike for a couple of days the whole country came out in support and even Parliament was rocked. Sharmila is fasting for more than 10 years seeking the right to life and still Parliament remains silent and the mainland keeps mum. This is because Sharmila belongs to the Northeast.”
NETV's Manipur bureau put up a touching story on Irom Sharmila's cause. They stated that for the people of Manipur, where right to life is an every day struggle, corruption becomes a secondary issue. The show quoted Irom Sharmila as saying, "I want to tell the people of India that if Mahatma Gandhi would have been alive today, he would have launched a campaign against the AFSPA." The show which recounted the traumatic struggle of Sharmila ended with a poignant line, "If Sharmila dies, each of you journalist would be responsible as you did not do your duty....."
Riding on the Anna wave, Sharmila has also managed to garner support from netizens on her struggle. The Deccan Chronicle ran a story on how netizens are using facebook and twitter to support Sharmila. “The lack of government response convinced Irom Sharmila, then 28, to act. On the evening of Nov 4, after taking blessings from her mother, she launched her hunger strike against the wider problems of AFSPA. In due course she extended the scope of her demand to all regions of India's northeast where AFSPA has been imposed,” says the Facebook page on Sharmila.