Friday, December 2nd, 2022 18:06:26

The Other ‘Annas’

Updated: October 8, 2011 11:16 am

Before Anna Hazare, the septuagenarian arrived from Ralegan Sidhi to Jantar Mantar and Ramlila ground to battle for Jan Lokpal, Shambhu Dutt Sharma, a nonagenarian who participated in Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement during his youth and his band of freedom fighters held the fort on the issue. They pushed the government by writing letters, persuaded with satyagrahas and nudged with relay fasts and fasts unto death. It all began with Sharma, who shunned politics to join Lala Lajpat Rai’s Lok Sevak Sangh after Independence, writing a letter to the then Prime Minister Indra Kumar Gujral in 1998 demanding formation of Lokpal to check corruption. He followed it up with all successors of Gujral including Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. At the same time he also corresponded with Presidents, Law Ministers and other political leaders in the hope of achieving something tangible. In February this year when Anna and his team of India against Corruption (IAC) activists approached him and requested him to drop his fast unto death and hand over the baton to him, he did not reject the offer outrightly.

And the result is there for all to see. Government of the day has been forced to consider all demands of the Anna team. Obviously Sharma (now in his 94th year) is quite happy. He lauds Hazare and his team for attaining their goal and the Parliamentarians for rising to the situation. His only concern is that by proposing to put the lower, middle and higher echelons of the governance under Lokpal, the government and team Anna may have bitten more than what it can chew. He also has reservations about the kind of language the civil society members used against the entire political class. In an interview with Uday India, Sharma refused to accept the Lokpal as one stop solution to all the ills that plague the country. Excerpts:

Considering you originated the fight for Lokpal how do you look at Parliament’s recent resolution on Anna Hazare’s demands for citizen charter, jurisdiction of ombudsman over lower bureaucracy and state Lokayuktas?

I am quite happy with the results. On January 30 this year, I had launched a fast unto death. This was when people from India against Corruption came to me. They asked me to give up the fast. They said, ‘you need not give your life.’ Our own working committee (of Gandhian Sewa & Satyagraha) also asked me to postpone the fast. Under the circumstances, this is the best result (that Hazare and his team have achieved). They have succeeded because people were sick of corruption. They were sick of government’s inability to contain corruption. The point is Anna Hazare galvanised the people of the country. I am happy for Hazare giving up his fast. The motion of the Parliament has been outcome of mutual efforts. The MPs rose to the situation.

Were there no negatives in the campaign against corruption?

The only minus of the situation is denunciation of entire political class (by IAC activists). It was not good. Sharad Yadav and Lalu Prasad spoke against it. The denunciation is not democratic. There shouldn’t be wholesale condemnation.

Wouldn’t the institution of Lokpal be bogged down by the three responsibilities that team Anna has been trying to foist on him?

It will be almost impossible for the organisation to manage so many things. If Parliament finalizes something of this sort, this will indeed make things difficult for the Lokpal. This will create a Frankstein’s monster. It would be better to follow Aruna Roy’s version of the bill. Let the Lokpal only tackle high level corruption. We supported Anna Hazare but when they insisted on putting higher judiciary under Lokpal, we parted ways. It is absurd to demand such a thing.

Is this what you people in Gandhian Sewa & Satyagraha have been fighting for?

Besides Lokpal, we’ve been fighting for two other demands—one disqualify the candidates with criminal misconduct. In order to win elections, political parties give tickets to people against whom cases are going on. There are over 170 MPs who are undergoing trial for moral turpitude. Over 150 face serious criminal charges like murder and rape. The parties go on giving tickets to such people. We want them to debar the criminals.

Our other demand is about confiscation of illegally acquired property. You know 40 per cent of Indian economy is a parallel economy. Money is stashed abroad. Confiscate wealth amassed through bribery.

 Anna Hazare Is Inspiring India’s Somnolent People: Irom Sharmila

 2,500 km away from the Ramlila ground, where Anna Hazare’s fast had the government in jitters, Irom Sharmila in Manipur continues unheard into the 11th year of her fast protesting human rights abuses under the AFSPA. Thingnam Anjulika Samom asks this prisoner of conscience what makes her continue to uphold democratic ideals with her only weapon her body.

Around 2,500 km away from the Ramlila ground where 74-year-old Gandhian Anna Hazare has been on a week-long fast seeking to root out corruption, 30-year-old Khundrakpam Bidhan has no illusions about life in his homeland the northeastern state of Manipur situated on the Indo-Myanmar border. His father, who works in a garage as a mechanic, will not be able to pay for a government job for him. In Manipur, a government job can cost anything from Rs 2-15 lakh, and even higher. There are very few job opportunities in the private sector too, making unemployment one of the main problems of the state.

What however tops the problem list in this state of 27 lakh population and more than 33 ethnic communities is the Right to Life. This right which has been enshrined in the Indian Constitution as one of the fundamental rights of the people of the country, has been denied and transgressed in Manipur for more than five decades now.

Annexed into the British Indian Empire in 1891 and merged with the Indian union in 1949, the former independent kingdom of Manipur is today in complete chaos. Around 40 underground outfits have been waging an armed struggle for various demands including political autonomy and restoration of lost sovereignty for five decades now. The ensuing counter-insurgency operations of the government came with a rider—its security forces are empowered by the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 which enables them to arrest, search, and destroy property without warrant as well as shoot, and even kill any person, on mere suspicion.

Bidhan’s own brother Boyai is a victim of this Act. Faced with the inability to find adequate earning avenues in Imphal, the capital city, he had gone to Jiribam a satellite town on the Assam border — to trade in bananas and areca nuts. He had been there for about a year when in September 1998, he was picked up along with a friend during their morning walk by personnel of 317 Field Regiment.

The AFSPA clearly states that the army authority is duty-bound to quickly hand over anyone they arrest under the Act to the officer-in-charge of the nearest police station. However, while his friend was released the next day, Boyai was never seen again. “We tried to trace him but drew a blank at every turn. So we filed a case against the army personnel. It was only in June 2006 that we won the case and were given Rs 3.5 lakh in compensation. But what use is the money? They got away without any punishment. We don’t even know where and how he died or whether he died at all,” Bidhan narrates.

“My brother was made to disappear involuntarily under the shadow of AFSPA. The Act has caused the death of so many people, made widows of so many women,” he adds. Fake encounters, bombings, kidnappings and extortions are routine affairs for the 27 lakh population to grimace and bear. According to media reports as many as 235 people were killed in the Manipur conflict between January and April 2009, while 75 were killed in 2010. Many of them were alleged to be “fake encounters”. The Act enforced on Manipur since 1980, is also in force in the northeastern Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, as well as Jammu and Kashmir.

Bidhan is not the only person in Manipur who believes that the AFSPA 1958 is the root cause of the cycle of violence and widespread human rights violations in the state. The state has risen against it time and again. But the most relentless crusader against this Act is 38-year-old Irom Sharmila Chanu who is in the 11th year of her indefinite fast urging the repeal of the Act not only from Manipur but from the whole country. Thousands of women, vigilante members locally known as Meira Paibi have also been on a relay hunger strike since December 10, 2008 in support of Sharmila.

Sharmila started her campaign two days after 10 civilians, waiting for a bus in Malom village, around 8 km from Imphal, were gunned down by personnel of the Assam Rifles on November 2, 2000. Members of an insurgent outfit had earlier ambushed the Assam Rifles convoy and they had shot the civilians in apparent retaliation. The Assam Rifles, raised as Cachar Levy in 1835, is the oldest central paramilitary force in India.

Within days of initiating her fast, Sharmila was arrested by the police and sentenced under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on charges of attempting suicide to a year in judicial custody, the maximum punishment awardable for this crime. Every year she would be released in early-March but as she refuses to discontinue her fast, she is promptly rearrested the next day to be force-fed through a nasal tube. She is also produced before the court every 15 days.

Meeting Sharmila inside her hospital prison requires permission from the state home department which is headed by none other than the Chief Minister of Manipur, after which the Inspector General Prisons is alerted. The whole process takes around 10 to 15 days, sometimes even longer than that. Speaking to this writer recently during one of her fortnightly dates with the court, on how she has been able to sustain such a long campaign, Irom Sharmila said, “I am a prisoner of conscience. I just see the goal and induce myself to have positive thoughts.”

“I never thought about any other method of protest. My mind is very strong; once I set my mind on something, I pursue it single-mindedly. For me there are many who are seeking refuge in the shade of my demand,” she said. “How could this be possible? Is this (AFSPA) really an Act? How could one human oppress another in this manner, how could you call this justice through law? Even if I am expended, I would be the reason to save hundreds and thousands like me. This obsession made me strong enough to take the decision to start my campaign,” she said. Commenting on the fasts by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, she said, “Their inspiration to the sleeping ones is a good thing.”

Human rights activist and Executive Director of Human Rights Alert (HRA) Babloo Loitongbam explains, “AFSPA says that if you are not a good Indian, you do not deserve to live. Sharmila says the law is there to protect my life, but this very law is threatening my life. So, my life has no meaning if AFSPA is there. She has been challenging this paradox with her campaign.”

“If you think about it, both Anna’s campaign and that of Sharmila are for similar causes. Anna says that all, even the Prime Minister, should be equal under the law. Anna says even the Prime Minister must be punished for corruption. He is therefore calling for accountability and transparency in governance. Sharmila also wants that the government and its army should function under the framework of the rule of law. AFSPA is against accountability and transparency in governance, and so it should be repealed,” says human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam who has been solidly backing Sharmila`s decade-old campaign.

“After four days of Anna’s fast, the country’s parliament was shaken, but the government still continues to neglect the 10-year-old fast of Sharmila. Despite international criticism why is the government not doing anything about AFSPA?” he asks.

Says Bidhan, “I support Sharmila’s fast. This is something that we are not able to do. I have so many grievances, but I am not able to show my strength outright, mainly due to my family. They have already lost a son.” “But I also pity Sharmila. She is a woman, but her struggle is unique and requires so much strength from her. She has sacrificed her whole life for people like me and my brother. Yet she continues to be ignored. A slap in Delhi is deemed more valuable than a kick in Manipur,” he adds.

Until the rest of India, and especially the government becomes more sensitive to the sentiments and struggles of the Northeast, including Manipur, this frail woman may have to continue challenging the world’s largest democracy to live up to its democratic ideals with the only weapon she has, her body. And if the past decade of her protest is anything to go by, this may actually take some more time. (Infochange)

What is the status of your two demands? Would you continue to fight for them?

We are following these with the Law Ministry. I recently wrote a letter to Law Minister Salman Khurshid. We are told it is being actively considered. This was also the recommendation of administrative reforms commission, headed by Veerappa Moily.

Would Lokpal alone be able to check the bribery culture?

Certainly not. We will need to pursue electoral reforms. Anna Hazare (for now) only concentrated on Lokpal. Team Anna says it has governance reforms, police reforms, electoral reforms and judicial reforms on its agenda. Police reforms are in Supreme Court. We need to follow it up. It all starts with political corruption. Political corruption in fact is the mother of all corruption. The corruption of political class and bureaucracy has played havoc in the country.

You’ve been fighting for 13 years and yet you failed to achieve your objective. Anna Hazare on the other hand has attained his objective within no time. What is it that your campaign lacked?

This time around people were sick of corruption. There was national humiliation. There is corruption everywhere in government hospitals, offices etc. The government gave so many assurance but did nothing. Anna Hazare became a trump card. The government added fuel to the fire by taking wrong decisions. It strengthened the campaign with its follies. Anna appeared like a messiah. Secondly, Team Anna had funds (Rs 83 lakhs all publicly declared) to mount a national campaign. We didn’t even have Rs 83,000.

Would you also approach the Parliamentary Standing Committee with your suggestions on Lokpal?

Kamleshwar Nath, a former judge of Allahabad High Court and our colleague in Gandhian Sewa and Satyagraha will be submitting a 12-page document to the committee. We’ve made a detailed study. It will be closer to Aruna Roy’s version. I cannot give you details of this because it is still on the anvil.

Anna Hazare and his team termed the campaign second freedom struggle. Was it right?

Second freedom struggle was led by Jayprakash Narain. It is also not correct to call somebody Gandhi. Even Tushar and Gopal Gandhi differed on the idea of hero worship.

What would you do next?

I’ve been to jail twice. Once with Mahatma Gandhi and then during Emergency. I sat on a relay fast for two months and on a fast unto death twice. I’ve written 42 letters to the government till now in support of our demand. We will continue to fight.

 By Narendra Kaushik




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