16 years have shaped, reshaped Irom Sharmila

Back in November 2000 when Irom Sharmila decided to fast for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur, she did not get much response. Indeed, she did not move many hearts and minds in her state, let alone the government. 

Babloo Loitongbam, a rights activist with whom Sharmila was associated then, didn't take her seriously. But when she began the hunger strike and was detained, Loitongbam ran from pillar to post seeking support and tried to raise Sharmila's cause at various levels. 

Sharmila continued her fast. Equally, the state and central governments remained unshaken. Manipur in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly the Imphal Valley, witnessed several protests against AFSPA. This period also saw massive human right abuses by security forces. 

Very little was known about Sharmila or her protest outside of Manipur. Year after year, there was no sign of AFSPA being removed or amended. Even the Manipur media had nothing new to write about her. 

On the sixth year of her fast, during a routine release, Sharmila flew to Delhi. As expected, she got national media attention. She became an icon, won global fame for her steadfast resistance. Support and solidarity poured in from India and even outside. Sharmila came to be known as "Iron Lady" or "Icon of democracy". She got many recognitions and awards. 

She was arrested and a case was registered against her in Delhi for attempt to suicide. Sharmila was sent back to Imphal within a year, probably due to the massive national and international attention and civil society support. She was acquitted by a Delhi court in June this year. 

Over the years, Sharmila has grown from an unassuming, shy young woman. I have closely interacted with her in Delhi. She is well informed and well read. In the years of fasting, she studied, contextualized, internalized and sharpened her thoughts. In detention, she got newspapers and books to read. She also received letters and gifts and was in touch with her fans. In recent years, she was allowed visitors including media persons. In the meantime, Sharmila fell in love. 

All this has made Sharmila, remade her, shaped her, re-shaped her. She has also become fiercely outspoken and opinionated. She would update herself about current affairs, particularly AFSPA, Manipur politics and more. She openly talks about love, about her fiancĂ©, which she was unlikely to do 10 years ago. 

Sharmila has said she was never consulted or updated about the court proceedings and cases. She told me she never gets to see or get a copy of the court proceedings. In a Delhi court, she stood her ground: she did not intend to kill herself but was protesting against AFSPA. She was ready to end her fast if AFSPA was repealed. 

Last year, during one of her periodic releases, Sharmila moved around Imphal. People gathered to see her but not to Sharmila's expectations. She said then: "I think these people turn up just to look at me, as if I am some alien. They seem to be surprised to see me." 

Her fast is an individual decision but Sharmila is a product of a collective psyche. In a land with a history of "women's war" against colonial rule, Sharmila's sub-conscious mind cannot be un-inspired and un-influenced. Her decision now, to end her hunger strike, too is a decision shaped by the twists and turns of events over all these years. 

It cannot be said that Sharmila's hunger strike has failed. AFSPA has been removed from seven municipal constituencies in the valley districts in Manipur. In recent years, violence has also come down considerably. Though it cannot be attributed to an individual, the collective voice comprises individuals such as this Iron Lady. 

IANS August 9, 2016


Giving words and voice to Mizo women

Broken? She was lacerated, ripped apart. A fiend in human body did it in revolting lust. When the thirteen year old did not come back from the tuikhur where she had gone to fetch water, her worried mother took a couple of neighbours with her and went in search of her daughter. They found her unconscious, her dress torn and soaked with urine and blood, in the bushes. In the hospital, after she regained consciousness, a nurse stitched her up. Without anaesthesia. How she screamed! The needle pierced her again and again. Stinging pain upon pain.

And the dirt, the dirt! How she wanted to wash herself clean, to be immersed in a flowing river! But there was no such river within reach. All she could get was a few mugs of water for a bath. She loathed her defiled body like a rotten carcass. In sleep, she dreamt of a brook running down a hill. She ran to it, hoping for a dip in its clear, clean water. But when she reached there, she saw only muddy, filthy water.

Within a day, the buoyant, rather boisterous young girl had turned into a weepy, terrified wreck. … As time passed, the wounds on her body healed, leaving scars. But her wounded psyche festered. 

—Excerpted from 'Zorami' 

Fear, pain, resentment, acute loss… these emotions have marred the everyday existence of generations of Mizo people, who have lived through turbulent years of Insurgency, the impacts of which are fresh in their memory even today. Writer and poet Malsawmi Jacob is one of them and her most recent book, 'Zorami', the first ever English language novel penned by a Mizo author, tells the story of a young woman and the influences of the political unrest in her life. At the same time, it vividly describes the culture and ethos prevalent in Mizoram.

Jacob spent a few years of her childhood in the state during which she imbibed an undying love for the language, literature and local legends. For her higher studies she shifted base to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, where she did her Masters in English. Thereafter, she went on to do her PG Diploma in teaching English in Hyderabad. Since then she has lived and worked in various cities across the country - the Aizawl College in Mizoram, SPARROW, an archive of Indian women's history in Mumbai, Maharashtra, and St. Claret College, Bengaluru, Karnataka. On the sidelines of her career as a researcher and teacher, Jacob, who now stays in Bengaluru, has been religiously documenting the socio-political developments happening in her home state as well as the larger north-east region through her books as well as articles in newspapers such as 'The Assam Tribune', 'The Telegraph', 'Newslink' and 'The Northeast Frontier'. 

The recently-published 'Zorami' is Jacob's seventh book. Her previous works include collections of poems, short stories, children's stories, and non-fiction narratives; she has also contributed poems and articles to four anthologies. Most of these are self published with some financial assistance from the state government of Mizoram. Although she reveals that has never consciously focused on articulating "women's issues", since women are central to Mizo society they inadvertently play a significant part in her stories. 

Talking specifically about the status of women in the state, Jacob says, "Mizo society is deeply patriarchal. Though women are highly visible in the work sphere - they do step out of their home to make a living - they are deliberately kept out of social and political decision making." Sharing an example of this exclusion, something she has "tried to reflect in 'Zorami'", she reveals that during the Mizo fight for independence girls had actively joined and contributed to the "movement", albeit in smaller numbers. Yet, for "no particular reason" they haven't been able to make their presence felt in the corridors of power - Mizoram got statehood in 1986, but has since elected only two women to its legislature. Incidentally, despite 91.33 per cent literacy (2011 Census), the state's only female minister so far has been Lalhlimpui, who was elected to the assembly in 1987 and became a member of the cabinet of Chief Minister Laldenga, a former rebel leader. Since Lalhlimpui there was a 27-year drought, which was broken in 2014, when 35-year-old C. Lalawmpuii won the Hrangturzo assembly by-election. With decision making powers, both within the family and in the larger social context, vested firmly in the hands of their men, the only real avenue available to Mizo women to express themselves and excel has been education. 

In some way or another Jacob has been addressing this compromised social situation for years. "While I was freelancing with newspapers and magazines, I wrote extensively about the society's attitude and treatment of women. I have also been writing a great deal on militancy - my articles are mostly a call for justice and non-violence," she elaborates. 

Even as the body of her literary work had been in Mizo, Jacob was keen on penning something in English in order to reach out to a larger readership, one that had had no opportunity to experience Mizo culture and learn about the milieu. That's how she embarked upon 'Zorami'. "By some strange twist of fate, this novel actually came to me in English. Perhaps because I wanted to tell this story to people outside our state; in a sense, I wanted to make the Mizo voice heard across the country and the world," she remarks. Presently, the book is available in Europe, USA, Australia and several Asian countries. "It's not been easy to market it so far but I am optimistic; the response has been limited because I'm still practically an unknown author outside of my region," she reasons.

Of course, 'Zorami' has been one of the most painful stories she has given words to, one that took her nearly a decade to pen. The reason: she would simply go "numb with pain" listening to the recorded interviews of the people who had lived through the most traumatic period in Mizo history, on which the narrative is based. Jacob has drawn on the Insurgency years of the Sixties, when the Mizo Liberation Front (MLF) was at its peak, to tell the story of young Zorami. Coming of age the same time as the political unrest and struggle for independence gathers momentum, the young girl's life and experiences reflect those of her people, land and culture. 

Jacob recalls, "In 2004, I had travelled to Mizoram to do research for the novel. I had met several people and recorded their reflections on tape. But later when I started to write I could only manage to do a few chapters. It was just too painful. It was finally in 2013 that my publisher, Morph Books, and my editor were able to motivate me to finish the manuscript."

Like most Mizo people for Jacob, too, the "movement" and the many stories connected with it are like "folklore". "The story of Mizo people, especially what they went through during those turbulent times, is important. I used to wonder how they were dealing with the psychological trauma of the time even though 'political peace' had returned. After listening to many people, I realised that the emotional wounds had not healed. So the novel is a quest for inner healing," she states.

There are no easy answers to "how the Mizo people can emerge from the shadow of the Insurgency years". Maybe widespread economic progress would fade away those uncomfortable feelings. "But it is not enough. Inner healing has to come at a personal level. Perhaps a divine intervention would make a difference, like in Zorami's story," she says. For Jacob, 'Zorami' has been a complicated "personal and political journey". And just like her people, she is trying to move on.

— (Women's Feature Service) JUNE 2016

The only alternative

Over the past few days, Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh had been shuttling between Imphal and New Delhi after being summoned by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi following dissidents’ demands for reshuffling the ministry and “one-man one-post” formula and also accusation of “non-performance”. 

In the 2012 assembly poll, the Congress won 47 of the 60 seats — a record of sorts — but it also posed a serious problem for Ibobi in the sense he was unable to keep the flock in good humour by giving each and everyone a ministerial berth as he had to strictly adhere to  the Tenth Schedule which is against the formation of a jumbo ministry. 

With just 10 months left for the next assembly elections in Manipur, the Congress  high command has to act fast to bring about some semblance of cohesion in its state unit. Home minister Gaikhangam appears to be the dissidents’ main target.  Apart from being deputy chief minister, he is also president of the state Congress committee (as this is written, TN Haokip has been appointed the new Pradesh committee chief). They hold him responsible for Congress candidates’ humiliating defeat in last November’s by-elections to the Thongju assembly constituency and Thangmeiband AC. They lost to the  BJP with huge margins. 

Ibobi has often complained that the Centre has never consuted him vis-a-vis the  Naga peace talks. But the dissidents have  alleged that his right-hand man, Gaikhangam, has supported the NSCN(IM)’s demand for a greater Nagaland which, in other words, means the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

Surprisingly, the state BJP  president Th Chaoba has reportedly told the local media that most Congress dissidents were keen to join him.

The Centre is keeping a close watch on developments in the hills, particularly in Churachandpur where, in September last year, nine persons lost their lives in clashes after the state assembly in a special session on 30 August passed three controversial bills without a debate. Significantly, these bodies are still lying in morgues. The state BJP is maintainng a studied silence over the incident. 

There have not been any major dissidents or desertion from/by Congress members in the past.

The Congress has been in power for three consecutive terms and there had been no reports of rumblings in all these  years. The assembly has 20 members from the hills — 16 of them from the Congress and four from the Naga People’s Front. The latter are facing a “social boycott” by the public for not being able to speak against the bills. In fact, the Joint Action Committee against the Bills has asked all the 20 tribal MLAs to “step down”. But none has obliged so far. On 10 March, the JAC said in a statement that these MLAS would be barred from setting foot on tribal territories and would not be invited to public functions/ceremonies, particularly the six MLAs from Churachandpur district. Now Ibobi has four tribal ministers in his ministry. 

The All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur had also appealed, on 30 August 2015, to all tribal MLAs to abstain from the special session of the state assembly at the time of passing the three bills, which, they said, went against the tribals.

The only alternative to silence the dissidents before the assembly election is to reshuffle the cabinet. But this is unlikely to go in favour of the Congress, as  this will come a little too late.The dissidents’ move, too, is questionable, as it comes almost at the fag end of their tenure and with seemingly vague allegations. One thing is clear, the dissidents were not rebelling against Ibobi rule but are basically demanding “ministerial berths”. 

Their move is unlikely to bring in any major reshuffle though latest reports speak of the high command having given Ibobi permission to this effect. In case of any change in the ministry, it would not affect the next election either — in terms of giving the Congress a major boost. In any case, with or without dissidents, the Congress is losing popularity in Manipur, particularly in the tribal hill areas.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Delhi.

Read more at http://www.thestatesman.com/news/north-east-page/the-only-alternative/134209.html#BBqFQLEOWRkAASEe.99

Dissidents but not dissenting the Congress rule in Manipur

With less than ten (10) months for the next assembly election, dissidents in the Manipur State Legislative Assembly have surfaced or rather come out in the open with Congress president Sonia Gandhi summoning Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh to New Delhi for discussions.
Reportedly the dissidents, about ten of them have been demanding reshuffle and be inducted into the council of ministers in the current Congress led government in Manipur.
In the 2012 assembly polls the Congress won a whopping 47 seats out of the total of 60. These is a major victory but have also been a tough task for the State Congress leadership to make all the Congress elected legislators happy. This also have left the state assembly with literally no opposition in the bench, which is a mere 13 members that too from different political party the AITC, NPF , BJP , NCP and JP.
As far as the State Congress party is concerned in Manipur, there have not been any major dissidents or desertion from/by congress members. The party has been in power for three consecutive terms as well. The party have also been having a smooth and comfortable rule for decades, as the state not only saw the last 15 years of congress rule under Ibobi Singh but in the past too, ever since its statehood.
For the last 40 years, Manipur saw very few government led by non INC . The Manipur Peoples Party in 1972 when the Manipur was granted statehood. Other party includes Janata Party in 1977, The Manipur State Congress Party in 1997 and Samata Party in 2001. These parties though do not last for more than a year or one term.
Presently, the tribal hill legislators, a total of 20 members in the state assembly have been boycotted by the various civil society organizations. In the aftermath of the violent uprising against the passing of the three controversial Bills in the state assembly in August 2015, where in 9 people have been killed and the protest still continuing. The 20 MLA – 16 of them from INC and 4 from NPF, have been facing “social boycott” by the public at large.

Recently, the Joint Action Committee – JAC Against the three Bills has reiterated their stand in the “social boycott” particularly MLAs from Churachandpur district, that has a total of 6 Congress Legislator. The committee strongly came out with a statement on March 10, stating that these MLAs shall not be allowed to set foot on tribal territories and not be given any platform in public functions and ceremonies. Earlier the JAC has also publicly declared Boycott in September 2015, soon after the public uprising against the three Bills.

It may be also recalled that All tribal Students Union Manipur had made an appeal on August 30, 2015 to all tribal MLAs to abstain from the special session of the Manipur State Assembly wherein the three bills viz, the Protection of Manipur Peoples’ Bill, 2015; The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (seventh amendment) Bill, 2015 were intended to be passed, however, the appeal has gone unheeded.
It may be mentioned that there are four tribal Ministers in Ibobi’s cabinet, currently. Further all the 20 tribal MLAs including the minister have been asked to “step down “by the JAC last year. Of which none of them have so far been reported to officially resign.
It is believed that the said call for social boycott and demand for resignation of the tribal MLAs have also reached the congress high command in New Delhi. Though this may not be in written, as the MLAs have been requested to resign on “moral grounds” the Congress high command is expected to have information about the ongoing situation as far as the Congress led government in Manipur is concerned. Whether there have been a serious considerations on the matter by the high command is all together another matter and remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the BJP and the ruling NDA government is believed to have been keeping a close watch on the developments in the hills, particularly situation in Churachandpur with the ongoing protest and nine bodies still lying unburied since September last year. But until now, as far as the state BJP is concerned with its own internal crisis in leadership have been unable to do much, neither in tackling the issue confronting the state nor questioning the state assembly over the impasse in the on-going protest against the three Bills.
BJP Manipur president Th.Chaoba have also been exposed of siphoning funds during the general election in 2014 ( The Statesman September 22, 2014) . The amount reportedly ran into lakhs of rupees.
In its attempt to take the current churning inside the state ruling congress party, now the state BJP chief claims that the dissident Congress legislators have been lining up to get admission into his party. This is unlikely, though few of the dissident may have been considering hopping on to another party or to the BJP, most of the legislators are known to be strong Congress loyalist.
Earlier, after formation of the new government in 2012 reportedly CM Ibobi had told the INC elected MLAs that given the large number of members elected from the INC, his ministry would be reshuffled and that a rotational shift would be considered in the cabinet ministers. This never happened.
Pulling up the state Chief Minister at a time when election is in the near maybe a good move by the Congress high command. But this might not go in favor of the Congress, as the move comes in a little too late, while the dissident’s move too is questionable as it comes in after their term is almost over. A change in the minister berth too would not make much of a difference either, with less than a year in hand before the state goes to polls.
All in all, the entire dissident’s move is unlikely to bring in any major reshuffle. In case of any change in the ministry, it would not affect the next election either – in terms of giving congress a major boost, which is in any case, with or without dissidents among the legislators, the Congress is losing out popularity , particularly in the hill areas.
With polls ahead, the dissidents, if serious could have deserted the party on their own. Even as many of the MLAs, the 20 tribal MLAs to be specific, have already face the wrath of the general public, will the Congress party high command’s intervention in terms of a mere re-shuffle in the state government be of any impact and save the face of the congress in Manipur remains to be seen in the coming election next year.
Link - http://thenortheasttoday.com/dissidents-but-not-dissenting-the-congress-rule-in-manipur/

Easterine's Writings From The Heart

Stories and storytelling have been the constants in Easterine Kire’s life. This award-winning poet, novelist and children’s book writer from Nagaland, who, incidentally, is the first Naga novelist to write in English, grew up on a staple of folktales related by her grandparents and it is these early storytelling sessions that inspired her to write some of her own. Like most of her contemporaries Kire spent her adolescent years living in the shadow of violence with the Naga movement at its peak in those days. As gun battles, midnight ambushes and mindless aggression became part of everyday life she took to writing to escape the hostile atmosphere. From the time she published her first book in 1982, a collection of poems called Kelhoukevira, today, Kire has written around 25 books on a variety of subjects, from historical accounts to contemporary politics and women’s issues. Of course, the underlying tone of her works is always optimistic and hopeful because even though significant changes have been taking place within the Naga society for generations now, according to her, it’s only by focusing on the positives that “we can move forward”.

“I have always liked to read and write since my school days. I even won prizes for creative writing in school and college and that only motivated me to continue to nurture my passion. Although I grew up on Naga folk stories I went on to read the works of different authors. Stories by Moris Farhi, Ben Okri and Hugh MacLellan are among my favourites and I absolutely love the poems of Swedish novelist and poet Karin Boye,” says the woman whose novel, ‘When the River Sleeps’, won The Hindu Prize, 2015, recently.

A Ph.D in Literature, Kire worked at Nagaland’s Directorate of Information and Publicity and then went on to teach first at Kohima College and later at the North Eastern Hill University. While her first published work was a poetry compendium her maiden English novel was ‘A Naga Village Remembered’, a historical narrative woven around the factual story of the Battle of Khonoma, the last clash between the Naga people and the British colonisers in 1879. The novel narrates the story of a small village’s resistance against the invading British Army. “Like many of my writings this one is also rooted in the history of the Nagas. The story presents the cultural, social and political picture of the Angami villages of that time. In spite of early contact with the British, this village is conscious of preserving its heritage, especially the Morungs and monoliths. And except for the tin roofs and few brick houses, Khonoma is an idealistic and typical Naga hamlet,” shares Kire, whose writings have been translated into German, Croatian, Uzbek, Norwegian and Nepali. In fact, she has translated a number of poems and stories from English to Nagamese.

There is a clear positive and progressive thought that emerges from all her works. She explains, “Each story of mine is different; so each message is different, too. However, I always try to give my readers something positive to hold on to. I particularly like to write stories for children and the response I have received from the local kids is encouraging. I write from my heart; whatever is in my heart at that moment is reflected on paper.”

Naturally, the issues, concerns and lived realities of women, too, are subjects close to Kire’s heart. In 2007, she wrote ‘A Terrible Matriarchy’, a tale set 50 years in history and reflecting the ideal, value systems and attitudes of those times. Dielieno, an angami girl, is the central character and the plot traces her life from when she is five years old to when she turns 23. However, it’s not just about one character’s trajectory but closely looks at three generations of Naga women – Dielieno’s grandmother and mother figure prominently. Kire elaborates, “The story is set in a time of rapid social change, the Nagaland of 1960s in particular and the region of north east in general. The three women’s lives intertwine intimately and contrarily, defining them as individuals and portraying their generational differences.”

To Kire, ‘A Terrible Matriarchy’ clearly expresses “a purposeful desire to change the way things have been for women even as it talks about the changes that have taken place through the generational shifts”.  She says, “Naga women today are far better off than their counterparts 50 years ago. But more and better changes are still to come. Being a woman writer, whose publisher, editor and agents over the years have been all women, has put me in a unique position to project the realities of my sex freely and fairly.”

As she likes to dwell on the positives in her writings, Kire happily observes that in societies in the Northeast and Nagaland specifically, women have had the opportunity to take on a progressive, prominent role. Even as the traditional Naga society follows a patriarchal system “historically women have always been respected,” she states, adding, “Today there are educated and successful women in every field. Indeed, literary pursuits have become a popular vocation among women as well. Female writers are being recognised within the state and even outside as they write about situations that most regular readers are facing day-in-and-day-out. Their writings are easily identifiable and make for interesting reading so now more than ever people are eager to pick up books on the Nagas. The North East has some fine women writers and I enjoy their work, whether it is poetry or prose. They write with delicacy and their work will go very far in the future.”

For the present, Kire is enjoying the attention that is coming her way thanks to the prize-winning ‘When the River Sleeps’. The story of a lone hunter looking for a faraway river to get his hands on a stone that will give him untold powers has found many new readers, especially among the non Nagas. “This book is the exploration of the Naga spiritual universe, a very personal journey. It’s all about my roots, identity and the belief system I have grown up with and I am glad that it has resonated with a larger audience,” she concludes. 

Women's Feature Service 
February 24, 2016