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'Media ignores Irom Sharmila but focusses on Hazare'

By The Assam Tribune

Imphal, Aug 21 (IANS): Civil rights campaigners in Manipur are upset with the mainstream Indian media for blowing up activist Anna Hazare's anti-graft fast that entered its sixth day on Sunday and ignoring the over decade-long hunger strike by Irom Chanu Sharmila against rights violations by the security forces in the region.

"There is a general sense of feeling that we, the people of the northeast, have always been neglected, discriminated, and looked down upon by the rest of India, including the mainstream media. See how Anna's fast has hogged media headlines and see our very own Irom fasting for nearly 11 years," Singhajit Singh, a civil rights campaigner and elder brother of Sharmila, told IANS Sunday.

Dubbed as the "Iron Lady of Manipur", Sharmila began her fast Nov 2, 2000, after witnessing the killing of 10 people by the army at a bus stop near her home.

Now around 40, she was arrested shortly after beginning her protest -- on charges of attempted suicide. She was sent to a prison hospital where she began a daily routine of being force-fed via a nasal drip.

Sharmila is frequently set free by local courts, but once outside, she resumes her hunger-strike and is rearrested.

She is campaigning for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that enables security forces to shoot on sight and arrest anybody without a warrant.

"The attitude of the Indian public is sad in the sense that something happening in the northeast is seldom recognized by the mainstream media. The whole attitude is discriminatory," said Babloo Loitongbam from a local human rights group.

AFSPA was passed in 1990 to grant security forces special powers and immunity from prosecution to deal with raging insurgencies in the northeastern states and in Jammu and Kashmir.

The act is a target for local human rights groups and international campaigners such as Amnesty International, which say the law has been an excuse for extrajudicial killings.

Amnesty has campaigned vociferously against the legislation, which it sees as a stain on India's democratic credentials and a violation of international human rights laws.

Sharmila is currently being held in an isolated cabin at the Jawarharlal Nehru Hospital here.

"If Anna was born in Manipur and Sharmila born in New Delhi, things would have been just the reverse. For the mainstream media, northeast or things happening in the northeast hardly excites them," Singh said.

"The feeling of alienation among the people of northeast not being part of the mainstream naturally sets in and this is one of the reasons for breeding insurgency in the region. And the case in point is the discrimination in media coverage and attention shown towards Anna's fast and Sharmila's crusade," said Tushar Singh, another rights campaigner.

Manipur is home to 2.4 million people and about 19 separatist groups which have demands ranging from autonomy to independence. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed during the past two decades of violence.

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