Once again I am dumbfounded. I have been startled into believing that another way of living can actually exist. I am wonder-struck that a woman can actually go on a fast and not let food pass her lips for 14 long years.
The last time I saw a woman use her body as a political tool, and make it a site of deprivation to draw attention towards the plight of the marginalised, was when Medha Patkar went on a fast for 21 days at Jantar Mantar in 2008.
She was lifted in the dead of the night and taken to the hospital. I somehow managed to sneak into her room, which was heavily guarded, having been entrusted the task to carry letters of support that had come to her from all over the country. As she read the letters she said, “the doctors have let me continue my fast here. The struggle must continue.” It still does, as the government has raised the height of the dam yet again, increasing the submergence area, while the 40,000 families that are affected are yet to be rehabilitated. Is this development or civilisational destruction?
Not having witnessed the freedom struggle, and being privileged to having been born in free India, I had only read of Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts.
But when I met Sushila Nayar who had been in jail with Gandhi in the Agha Khan Palace, it came to life. Sushila Nayar’s account was riveting; she told me, “Gandhi was allergic even to water, as in South Africa he was used to having juices. When his blood pressure dropped, I got scared and told him the time had come to give up his fast.” He replied in the negative. When I asked her how Gandhi had acquired the will she said, that Gandhi said, “ if God wants me to serve, he will see that I live.” His fasting was a potent symbol of communication, for the British did not want to see “that half-naked fakir”, Churchill’s infamous words, to die.
Irom Sharmila’s ability to continue a fast for 14 years (she has been force-fed through a nose-drip) in an effort to ask the authorities to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that enables the army to act with impunity in Manipur, takes one’s breath away. And if we have some humanity, we must learn the humility to engage with those who are communicating in such a non-violent way. Irom Sharmila was released from her hospital by a court order, but to see her being roughly taken away by the police was heart-breaking. But it also raises the hackles of the youth and people agitating for their causes in Manipur, long declared a ‘disturbed area’. A psychiatrist in-charge of a mental hospital once confided in me that most of the women locked away, had been declared ‘disturbed’ by their families after they had been abused by their own family members. It is easy to declare a woman ‘mental’ and an area ‘disturbed’. As we violate women — rape is used as a tool to show women their place — to make them subservient to the dominant order, we do the same with people whose territories we wish to control. In Pararia in the Santhal Parganas, the police entered the homes of the village women in the dead of the night. They were wearing uniforms to assert the might of the State; then they brutally gang-raped the women.
As I wandered around, I found a large area of the earth dug up. On enquiry, I learned that a dam was to be built on the Ajoy river and that Pararia was to go under water. The villagers did not want to move as they would lose their land, livelihoods and all what they had as a way of life. Rape was used as a tool to oppress them and destroy the spirit of the movement. However, the weapons used by the State and its arms cannot destroy the agency of the people, forever. Sooner or later, groups that are termed ‘subversive’ will emerge. They have the sympathy of the people and a struggle for freedom starts under cover.
Another woman who has become an icon for freedom is Aung San Suu Kyi. Having won the elections in Myanmar (Burma), the junta put her under house arrest for over 14 years. In a bid to meet her I travelled to Burma and lived down the road from her. Unfortunately, I could not get to meet her, but even the junta could not keep her in prison forever.
She was released as the junta declared elections and Myanmar limped her way to democracy, however flawed. It was mesmerising to see Aung San Suu Kyi, when she visited New Delhi to receive the Jawaharlal Nehru award. She talked about her reading Nehru’s Discovery of India while under house arrest and having an imaginary argument about his quoting Yeats poem — An Irish Airman Foresees His Own Death. The line Nehru quotes is ‘the lovely impulse of death’. Suu Kyi pondered, how can death be ‘lovely’, perhaps the disputed word was lonely? Su Kyi says these imaginary arguments are what prisoners of conscience do, to convince themselves they are not entirely isolated in the ethical stands that they have taken. In other words she found both solace and solidarity in Nehru’s words in prison. On being freed, she found the disputed word was indeed, ‘lonely’.
As I write this, the recent floods in Kashmir have a toll mounting to 85 people and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. This only shows that our model of development, is a patriarchal one; it is top-down, only growth-oriented and does not take into account the effect on the environment and the livelihoods of the poor. So can we ignore the lessons from the natural disasters — Uttarakhand, where over 10,000 people died, and now Kashmir? If we listen, the sound of a snail eating can actually say something. To me Sushila Nayar, Medha Patkar, Irom Sharmila, and Aung San Suu Kyi are all talking about ahimsa — a gentler way of living; that is taking into account the feelings of the people instead of trying to control them. We can dismiss their views as passe, naive feminine talk; but only at our own peril.
The writer is the author of the forthcoming book In Search Of Freedom