It was August of the year 2013.
I was in the final year of my Master's degree in journalism, and we were to do our first video news story. Enthusiastically, we began our search for stories. A good story. It was around then that Ashwini Mishra, aka A-List, a protest-rapper whom I had interviewed earlier for another story, posted on Facebook about a protest concert outside the Patiala High Court. He was to perform there in solidarity with Irom Sharmila, who was then in the 13th year of her fast in protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The court was at that time hearing an attempt to suicide case slapped against her for refusing to eat anything until the AFSPA is repealed from Manipur.
He said that the activists around Irom "work as mutual appreciation societies reporting to each other in junkets throughout India and the world and do not care about Irom."
"Perfect! We have a good story to cover," we cheered. I was working in a group of three, with my friends Garvita Khybri and Raghu Kalra.
After making a few calls and sending out emails/messages to people who could be our "talking heads" in the story, we got to know about her fiancé who had been pursuing her case from the front. Realizing he was the closest link to Irom, I sent him a message on Facebook. I asked if we could interview him and if Irom would be present on the day.
I got a reply from him the next day.
"A Master's! So they haven't yet drummed out the desire for truth from you yet," read the first line of his reply. He said that the activists around Irom were not happy with his presence, and that they "work as mutual appreciation societies reporting to each other in junkets throughout India and the world and do not care about Irom."
He then suggested that I print Irom Sharmila's own 5800-word article which "no Manipuri agency would publish." He pasted the entire article as a single message, which meant plenty of scrolling for me. He also added a disclaimer: "Use it or lose it." He told me that The Hindu had agreed to print an edited version of Irom's article but hadn't done so yet.
But given that we were to do a video story, we were disappointed. This wasn't helping us. We needed faces, voices, not text.
I barely read 300-400 words of that article and wrote back to him. I asked him again if we could interview Irom or him.
I got a reply from him the same day.
He was disappointed. Perhaps he was angry. I was just another journalist in pursuit of a good story. A journalist whose concern dies as soon as that final piece-to-camera is done?
Citing his inability to help in my "coursework", he gave me some numbers of "articulate" people related to the case who he claimed were "as corrupt as they come but do good interviews."
He gave me some numbers of "articulate" people related to the case who he claimed were "as corrupt as they come but do good interviews."
He ended the message rather sarcastically: "Irom Sharmila has judicial remand hearings twice a month in Imphal... bring your camera and get your interview. But Imphal is too far I know. There's a wonderful short story by Turgenev on how youth was meant to waste its opportunities and talents." I had not read that story. Nor did I try to find it. "But nobody is interested in the truth. Who knew you did written texts last term. My bad."
It was raining hard on the day of shoot and thus the protest concert got a very humble number of attendees. However, we managed to get enough footage for our story.
I went inside the heavily guarded court complex to meet Irom's fiancé. After waiting for some time, I got to meet him for a few minutes. He gave me a red-beaded souvenir. He wanted me to pursue the truth.
Irom has ended her fast now. The recent news coverage surrounding her took me to that long article lying in my inbox.
I finally read those 5800 words written by Irom. They are terribly moving to say the least. What's not is the response of her own people towards her decision to end her fast, get married and fight the next elections. They think they have lost the huge figure under whose shadow they could conveniently chant their demands. Their shield will be gone. They want the fruit ever so badly, but only if someone else plucks it for them. What a selfish move by Irom Sharmila!
A few days back, I wrote to her fiancé again. No, not for a story. Just to congratulate them. He chose not to reply.
Wrote Irom, in one of the many parts of the article which broke my heart:
"People see my movement as a kind of festival and when I am released from gaol every year people flock to get a glimpse of me as if it is a public procession of Lai Haroaba. Anna Hazare's movement could shake the government because it was supported by the people. Ten or 20 women under the banner of Sharmila's Kanba Lup stay the night with me when I am released from gaol but when day breaks they would all want me to be arrested by the police. I am not speaking at random. This is also not an ungrateful criticism, but only an expression of disappointment."
We are hypocrites. We are cowards. We only want and deserve leaders who divide us, fool us. Not those who are one among us. Not those who are true leaders.
A few days back, I wrote to her fiancé again. No, not for a story. Just to congratulate them.
He chose not to reply. Or perhaps he will. Like always.