We have personally seen and experienced this before. Anything that appears in a newspaper which is not to the taste of an interest group and the next day the group would ban the particular media. The Imphal Free Press has gone through this on at least three occasions, and one of the bans in the Naga districts lasted nearly a year. Why is it that so many are so unable to tolerate and accommodate dissenting views? It is depressing that there is such a lack of respect for democratic values amongst the people here by and large, although everybody swears by it. We refer now to the current ban on The Telegraph that the Apunba Lup has imposed in protest against the newspaper’s report on a love affair of Irom Sharmila with a foreign resident of Goan origin and the supposed statement made by her that she had fallen out with her supporters on the issue. On its own the importance accorded to the story seemed a little too disproportionate for it was given front page lead space together with a picture and several blurbs punctuating the story. One would have expected such a treatment of the private affair of a woman from a tabloid (so aptly also referred to as gutter press) and definitely not from a respectable broadsheet with very wide circulation in East India, including the Northeast. In any case the story of Sharmila’s love affair had already been carried in the same newspaper in July, although on that occasion it was sensibly on an inside page hence not many noticed it or gave it much importance. In the current case the newspaper has done a follow-up the very next day in which it highlighted Sharmila’s statement on the state of Indian politics which is marginalising the Northeast apart from condemning the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, demanding its repeal. This story ought to have appeared ahead of the one that sensationalised a personal affair.
But the ban on the newspaper was unreasonable for one more thing. Although as we said the display which sensationalised the story could have been better, the fact is the reporter who did the story was not writing from his imagination, but faithfully reproducing what Irom Sharmila had told him. All these statements by her were recorded too. Another news channel, NDTV has also since broadcasted a recording of Sharmila saying precisely these things on camera in her hospital cell to a reporter on the same day as The Telegraph reporter, so there can be no dispute whatsoever the story was not concocted. Even if suspicion of this persists, Sharmila is in Imphal, and somebody should go to her and confirm the veracity of the claim by the newspaper. If she denies she made these statements, then perhaps the outrage leading to the ban would become justified. But if she confirms she did make those statements, let it just be said the newspaper in very bad taste sensationalised the report by the display and prominence the story was given, and leave it at that. Let its subscribers in Manipur decide if they should continue their subscriptions.
Let moderating voices prevail. Let Sharmila be where she wants to be and do what she wants to do. If she chooses to step down from the exalted pedestal she has come to be elevated on and live an anonymous and ordinary life, let it be her choice. Nobody should expect her to be a martyr, and in fact everybody should be dissuading her to not seek to be a martyr. The movement against the AFSPA is a just and honourable cause and therefore does not need any martyr to sustain the energy which has been driving it in all the years. To repeat what we have already said in the wake of the present tension over the revelation of the news, at its most fundamental, the issue is AFSPA and not Sharmila. It will help if she remains part of the campaign for she is so well known now and can attract international audience much easier than anyone else behind the campaign can, but if she wants to call it a day and get back to normal life, let her have her wish. The ban on The Telegraph too should be lifted unilaterally without further ado. At the most The Telegraph will lose a few thousand copies from its circulation figure, which though important is not vital for the newspaper with several lakhs print order daily. However the image of intolerance the drastic step would send out to the world will be much more damaging for the state and its people in the long run. Conversely, a show of magnanimity on the part of the Apunba Lup now will give itself, and through it, to the image of the rest of the state, a liberal democratic credential which can win over many friends in the days ahead.