Friday, August 26, 2011

Fasting for 10 years but jailed and forgotten

NEW DELHI: Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for 10 years to protest against military abuses, force-fed by tubes through her nose. But the tragedy for the world's longest hunger strike is that she is on the wrong side of India's digital divide.

Twitter, Facebook and aggressive private TV have helped rally India's biggest protests in decades to support civil activist Anna Hazare.

But Ms Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike in the northeastern Manipur state to demand an end to the army's sweeping emergency powers there, has only managed a small following, a footnote in media coverage.

'We also once tried to take our fight to New Delhi... but we did not get support from the rest of the nation,' Ms Sharmila, 37, told Tehelka magazine. She was arrested soon after she began her fast in 2000, and has been kept in the jail ward of a hospital where she is force-fed.

She must be frustrated. The Hazare phenomenon has rallied Indians from the start with social media. Hazare's India Against Corruption website says it has had 13 million phone calls of support. Its Facebook page has nearly 500,000 'likes'.

Its leaders have tweeted each step of the whirlwind crisis, whether describing their arrests in real time or negotiations with the government, outmanoeuvring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his ministers at every step.

Cases like that of Ms Sharmila expose the digital divide of Asia's third largest economy and underscore how a growing urban middle class may be getting its political voice heard while millions of poor remain off the digital protest map.

'This is the first time digital social media has resonated with such a large number of people,' said Mr Nishant Shah, head of research at the Centre for Internet and Society think-tank. 'But this is far more of a middle class, urban movement than a national movement. Many people in India are excluded from it.'

Twitter and Facebook are barely used in many of India's social causes, including battles over land rights that are one of India's most pressing problems, involving millions of farmers.

India's Internet users have grown 1,400 per cent between 2000 and 2010, behind only China and Vietnam among Asian countries, according to a report by Burson-Marsteller, a consulting firm.

But that masks India's low base. Internet penetration is around 8 per cent in India, the lowest among major Asian countries. That compares with nearly 40 per cent in China.

But some activists are already criticising Hazare as a hype of an elitist social media.

'Those thronging the Ramlila grounds or marching in support of Anna in the metros are not necessarily 'the people' of the country, and it is dangerous to take the two as identical,' academic Prabhat Patnaik wrote in The Hindu newspaper.