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Missing the mainstream


STEP CAUSE: Many fighting for a clean Ganga complain that civil society hasn't really been responsive to what may turn out to be India's most serious ecological disaster.

No one comes out with candles at night for them. Are the likes of Irom Sharmila in Manipur and the Matri Sadan swamijis in Haridwar fighting lost causes?

Manipuri activist Satyabati Sanasam is upset. As she speaks to TOI-Crest from her home in Imphal, her anguish is obvious. "Sharmila is my dear friend. I am always telling her to call off her fast. But her mind, her thinking is so different. " It pains Satyabati to see Sharmila, alongside whom she started activism more than a decade ago, become a cause herself. "She has become like an exhibition. It is fashionable to say 'Oh, I went to Manipur and met Sharmila', " says Satyabati, who is now coordinator of Human Rights Initiative in Manipur.

Irom Sharmila's 10-year-old fast unto death against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has indeed sparked its own movement. The 'Save Sharmila Group' of women activists embarked on a relay hunger strike. The movement is on for more than a thousand days now, but removal of the Act, says Satyabati, is not on the cards.

So, is Sharmila's a lost cause? The response is quiet. "For Sharmila to fast, it is not a joke. She is different from us. She is our inspiration. Manipur's situation is disgusting. But we don't have support. " (See 'Centre has discriminated between me and Hazare' )

Activists soldier on nonetheless and no cause is ever lost. Unrest sparks protest, and each social cause runs its own course. Every movement has its own lifespan, a theory first put forth by sociologist WE Gettys a little less than a hundred years ago. According to Gettys, all movements/protests pass through much the same set of four stages - unrest, excitement, formalisation and institutionalisation. Some do not enter the last stages, while others, such as Anna Hazare's anti-corruption agitation, do.
Further, a set of conditions must come together to create interest in any movement. "A cause needs something solid to anchor itself. For instance, the Fukushima disaster (Japan's damaged nuclear plant) has now activated the anti-nuclear energy movement, " says Mary John of Delhi's Centre for Women's Development Studies.

Anchoring on a physical development is crucial. Volunteers say it took four months to prepare for Hazare's fast: when the 72-year-old hit the stage at Jantar Mantar, India's legislature, executive, judiciary and media were reeling from a series of exposures of corrupt practices.

Further, different movements come to different conclusions or undergo transition where they pursue objectives other than what they started with. In Nagaland, for instance, Rosemary Dzurichi is the second-generation activist in her family to be involved with the Naga Mothers Association. Her mother played a pivotal role during ethnic clashes in the 1990s, when women walked into the hills at night to meet underground groups of their tribes and tell them to stop killing each other. "It started as a movement for peace, to stand against factionalism and against militarisation. But the focus has changed over the years. We now fight for women's reservation in village councils, we fight against strictures of the strong patriarchal constitution, " says the 50-year-old.
For Satyabati, too, in Manipur, her work is more educational, less to do with the initial demand for removal of the AFSPA. She concerns herself with educating people on human rights and helping victims of domestic violence.

Most agitations around us in India today are works in progress. Like Haridwar's Matri Sadan swamijis who have undertaken several fasts-unto-death against illegal mining in the Ganga riverbed. Each time there's a state assurance, they call it off only to return to it when illegal mining restarts.

Activists of the Safai Karmachari Andolan are also fighting on. Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, but despite Supreme Court directives four states - Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Manipur - and the Union territory of Dadar continue to disregard the law. "The law has no teeth", says Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan. "The karamchari or the activists can't file a case. Only the district magistrate can. How can a DM file a case against himself?" he asks. But the activists are undeterrred. They also work with the scavengers, rehabilitating them in other work. "There are 3 lakh scavengers including sewerage workers and septic tank cleaners today. When we started in the 1980s, there were more than 13 lakh. They'll all come out. The fight is on."

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