The tale of North-Eastern women’s participation in the peace process is a testimony to their indomitable courage and belief
THIS is a unique countdown that can put the collective conscience of the nation to shame. The Iron Lady of Manipur, Irom Sharmila, will complete a decade of hunger strike on November 2. Along with that, her protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the Northeast that she started in the aftermath of the Malom massacre on November 2, 2000, will also complete 10 years.

The Just Peace Foundation (JPF), in collaboration with several civil society organisations in Manipur, is celebrating Sharmila’s indomitable spirit, her unwavering stand for justice and her deep yearning for peace. They are doing it by launching a 100-day countdown that will end on November 2. A series of cultural programmes, literary and artistic activities, public meetings and rallies, and poster campaigns will mark the occasion.

A befitting tribute to an extraordinary deed, but looking at Irom’s nasal tube, her bright but sad eyes, one cannot help but wish that she would rather stop. Nobody deserves to be force-fed through the nose, nor does one deserve to be kept under vigil with the charge of attempting suicide. All because she could not stomach the gory sight of blood and dead bodies when the armed force personnel gunned down 10 innocent people who were waiting at a bus stop at Malom.

Oppression, psychologists say, gives voice to even the meekest ones and the extraordinary tale of an otherwise ordinary woman like Irom proves this beyond a shadow of doubt. Irom’s protest against the draconian law is silent but it definitely speaks volumes about the women power in the trouble-torn Northeast and their effort to bring peace.

Indira Goswami, retired Delhi University professor and Jnanpith winner, whose novel A Saga of Kamrup subtly deals with clash of civilizations long before Huntington coined the term, has actively participated in building bridges between the Centre and the banned United Liberation Front of Assam.

She justified her role of a peace crusader in one of her interviews in these words: ”I have seen death from very close quarters since my childhood and I have never learnt to accept death and killings so easily. I understand what the death of hundreds of young men has caused to families across Assam. That is why I want this crossfire to end.”

It was the same anguish that came out in the most raw form when 12 naked Manipuri women carrying banners saying “Indian Army rape us”, “Indian Army take our flesh” stood outside the gates of Assam Rifles for 45 minutes on July 15, 2004, in protest against the custodial rape and killing of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama. It takes courage to fight a force equipped with arms and shielded by a draconian law like the Armed Forces Special Power Act with nothing but bare bodies!

The tale of North-Eastern women’s participation in the peace process does not extend to policy-making but it involves the masses who want to live life with dignity. They want certainty that they would come back home safe when they go out of the house. They also want a guarantee that they would not be taken out of their homes in the middle of the night either by the Army or some terrorist outfit.

This is the reason most social activists are trying to reach out to the people at the grassroots-level through various routes. One of the unique examples is the Asom Likhika Samaroh Samiti which is not just a platform for budding writers to voice their opinion. It has also taken up the task of going to the remotest corners of Assam to sensitise women about the political scenario.

“The organisation now has about 10,000 members all over the state and they are educating the mothers to keep vigil on their sons so that they do not fall prey to unlawful activities”, says Anuradha Sharma Pujari, a renowned writer and editor of an Assamese weekly.

However, all is not well. The segmented efforts have not yet yielded the desired results. “Women groups, though active in the fields, have been shunned away from policy-making. Their good deeds reach up to a level and then get stunted after a certain point. The only woman who reached a certain level in that direction is Indira Goswami but that process, too, collapsed somehow. People like Irom Sharmila is keeping the AFSPA issue alive, however, for better results, we need more women at the helm of policy-making,” says Sanjoy Hazarika, renowned author.

Another solution comes from Dilip Chandan, a social activist and editor of the well-known Assamese literary journal from the Assam Tribune stable, Asom Bani. “Women at their own level are doing a great job of bringing peace to the region but there has to be an umbrella under which all can unite and make their voices heard. Given the multi-ethnicity, multi-lingual, multi-cultural background and separate set of problems in different states, there are too many gaps among the groups who are working for peace. The NGOs have a great role in bridging those gaps.”

Chandan has a point there. The problems that exist in Assam or Manipur may differ from those in Nagaland or Meghalaya, but the basic aim is one — live a life the way it was meant to be lived, not under the shadow of terrorism or fear from the protectors. After all, it’s every mother’s wish that her strayed son comes back home, every young woman’s dream that her beloved gets settled with a respectable job in the mainstream society, and given a choice Irom Sharmila would love to eat again.

Parbina Rashid

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