Belonging, at the margins
Irom Sharmila’s failure to get an official acknowledgement speaks to the larger silences on the Northeast
Irom Sharmila’s extraordinary fast of 16 years, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA, has come to an end. Her struggle drew on the most sanctified mode of protest at the very heart of the formation of the Indian nation. Yet, despite its length and hardship, it failed to receive an acknowledgement from the Indian state, nor did it register in the consciousness of the nation. How are we to read this non-acknowledgement in the context of our polity?
In this regard, it is instructive to contrast Ms. Sharmila’s fast to that of Anna Hazare, whose anti-corruption movement in 2011 galvanised the nation and shook the political establishment. On the 12th day of his fast, concerned about his well-being, the government agreed to a dialogue with him. At the time, there was much optimism amongst civil society that, perhaps, Ms. Sharmila too would receive a similar acknowledgement. Many civil society groups got together to form the Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign in September 2011. Activist Medha Patkar who was part of the campaign had, in fact, hopefully speculated that “when Anna’s 12-day fast could move the entire nation, why can’t Sharmila’s 10-year fast help remove the AFSPA?”
Inequality of representation
Ms. Patkar’s hope, of course, did not materialise. But her question is instructive, for it suggests an inequality of representation between Ms. Sharmila and Mr. Hazare within the national imagination. Whereas Mr. Hazare’s protest can be accommodated within Indian nationalism’s Gandhian conception, Ms. Sharmila’s seems to be a jarring presence in it. We want to suggest that there is a relationship of proportionality at work here — Sharmila : Hazare = Northeast : India. Within the representational schemata of the nation-state, the first term on either side of the equality is of a lesser worth than the second. Therefore, understanding the lack that the category Northeast connotes in relation to India is productive ground for understanding Ms. Sharmila’s failed attempt at getting an acknowledgment from the Indian state. At the same time, we have to consider whether this very non-acknowledgment speaks to the political condition of marginality of India’s Northeast.
The fact that AFSPA and representative democracy have co-existed in many parts of India’s Northeast for almost 60 years itself suggests that there is something amiss about the way democratic institutions have functioned in the region. Consider for a moment how AFSPA found roots in post-Independence India. Its formulation in 1958 was a response to the demands of the Nagas for sovereignty based on the assertion that the Nagas are a nationality, distinct from the Indian nationality. This claim was something the Indian nation-state could neither ignore nor acknowledge. The institutional response in the form of the AFSPA precisely entailed considering the demands of the Nagas as neither that of an outsider nor an insider; in other words, as the demands of someone included within the nation-state, yet excluded from nationalism’s imagination of the national.
In purely logical terms, there is, of course, nothing that can be both inside and outside (a set) at the same time. That is why, within these terms, when the presence of such an element shows up, we refer to it as a contradiction. India’s Northeast very much finds itself within such a theoretical and political impasse, caught up, as it is, within a non-space — inside the physical space of India, yet outside the political and epistemic space underlying its imagination. How does one stand and take a position on a space that is actually a non-space? That is the challenging question that intermediates the political articulation of marginality in the region, one that we must ask of Ms. Sharmila as well.
A pattern of exhibition of sovereign power has persisted for the last 16 years. Soon after Ms. Sharmila started her fast, the state arrested her, charging her with the crime of attempted suicide under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Every 15 days she was produced before a magistrate and as she refused to eat or drink, her judicial remand was extended by another 15 days. As the maximum punishment for attempted suicide is one year’s imprisonment, every year she was released after completion of the one-year term and rearrested a few days later. In exercising this power, the state has tried to “protect” her as an Indian citizen. However, this gesture immediately opens up a paradox. Because she has been protesting against AFSPA, her supposed protection immediately points to the precariousness of everyday Northeastern citizens under the peculiar politico-juridical arrangement of representative democracy co-existing with martial laws. Therefore, the very moment of her inclusion also turns into an exclusion. That exclusion manifests itself in the form of an absolute non-acknowledgement by the state of her call for a political dialogue.
Being included and excluded at the same time, Ms. Sharmila too has been caught up in a non-space. She cannot be excluded from the legal category of Indian citizenship and yet cannot be included within the political imagination of the nation, which, in this postcolonial context, appears to be what this legal category draws on for its force. Her struggle personifies the very impasse of the Northeast, its non-space. In so doing, it has provided, arguably, the most powerful democratic expression of a political condition that, given the ways in which nationalism’s language has stripped the categories of citizenship and representative democracy of their emancipatory potential, has proven almost impossible to articulate. Indeed, her struggle takes us to and exposes the very limits of these categories at the margins of the postcolonial nation-state. That is the enduring political content of her struggle. It is a struggle that asks of those of us who abide by India’s Northeast to re-examine the very lexicon with which to articulate claims of political belonging at the margins of the postcolonial nation-state.
Papori Bora and Abhinash Borah are faculty, respectively, at the Centre for Women’s Studies of JNU and the Economics Department of Ashoka University. Some of the arguments made here draws on earlier published research of Ms. Bora.