On November 5, 2000, a frail young woman from Manipur quietly sat on a hunger strike at Malom, near the site where three days earlier 10 civilians were shot dead while waiting at a bus stand by Indian paramilitary forces. Irom Chanu Sharmila had resolved to fast until the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, (AFSPA), was repealed by the Central government.
In that dignified, peaceful protest that lasted 16 years — considered the world’s longest hunger strike – a most unlikely icon of 21st century India was born. Not only did Irom Sharmila become a symbol of non-violent resistance against the brute force of the establishment and armed forces, she also assumed the stature of an incorruptible, uncompromising martyr for the people of not just Manipur, but all the States where AFSPA was imposed. From a normal, life-loving, gentle young woman, Irom Sharmila became the “Iron Lady of Manipur”; she was also “Mengoubi”, or the “Fair One”.
Under the AFSPA, the armed forces were given sweeping powers to maintain law and order in regions where it was applied. They could “fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death”, after giving due warning, against any “person who is acting in contravention of any law or order in the disturbed” area; to arrest without warrant any person who has “committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable offence”; to enter and search without warrant etc.
Four years after Sharmila began her fast, another powerful and one of the most disturbing images of protest seen by Indians jolted the nation: a group of middle-aged women stood naked in front of the gates of Kangla Fort in Imphal, holding up banners saying “Indian Army, rape us” and “Rape us the way you did Manorama”. Four days earlier, on July 11, 2004, a young woman named Thangjam Manorama, 32, had been dragged out of her house by 17th Assam Rifles personnel, tortured, raped and killed. She had been picked up on suspicion of being a militant.
The incident led to widespread protests across Manipur, and the demand for the repeal of AFSPA grew louder by the day. Assam Rifles claimed that Manorama was a member of the militant outfit People’s Liberation Army and was killed while trying to escape. But the judicial inquiry report, which was made public a decade later in 2014, stated that she had been subjected to “brutal and merciless torture”.
The protests that followed the killing of Manorama, particularly the one staged by the women in front of Kangla Fort, resulted in widespread acknowledgement of the need “to review the continuance of the AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas” (Justice JS Verma Committee report, 2013).
At the time of Sharmila’s hunger strike, AFSPA gave armed forces operating in “disturbed” areas legal immunity. In 2016, the year she ended her protest, a Supreme Court judgment put an end to that immunity. On March 31, 2022, the AFSPA was withdrawn from parts of Manipur (15 police station areas in six districts), Nagaland and Assam. It is still applicable in various parts of Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and the whole of Jammu and Kashmir.
It is widely believed that the game of chess originated from an Indian strategy game, Chaturanga, sometime in the 6th century CE. But it would take another 1,400-odd years before the genius of a young man from Chennai would put India at the top in the world of chess. In 2000, when Vishwanathan Anand became the FIDE world champion, and subsequently the Undisputed World Champion in 2007, he single handedly sparked off a chess revolution in the country, which led to India emerging as a superpower in the sport. A Five-time world champion and a two-time world rapid chess champion, Anand is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest chess players in the history of the game.
In 1988, the country took note of a new sporting sensation, when, at the age of 18, Anand became the first Indian Grandmaster. As Anand quickly rose up the world rankings and began to dominate the game, Indian chess too began to grow in tandem with his success. His near-invincibility in speed chess won him the nickname “Lightning Kid”. In fact, many consider Anand to be the greatest ever speed chess player.
Between 1993 and 2006, the world chess championship had split into two factions—the FIDE World Championship and the Classical World Championship. In 2000, Anand became the FIDE world champion; the same year his close rival and later good friend Vladimir Kramnik defeated Garry Kasparov to become the Classical world champion—or the linear world champion.
In 2007, when Anand defeated Kramnik to become the linear world champion, he attained legendary status in the game. Between 1886 and 2022, only 16 players have been the undisputed world chess champions, and Viswanathan Anand from India was one of them. In 2006, Anand became only the fourth player in history to cross the 2800 ELO rating.
Age has done little to diminish his great powers, and Anand continues to remain a top draw in international tournaments. In 2017, at the age of 48, he won the World Rapid Chess Championship for the second time, and earlier this year he scored a victory over world champion Magnus Carlsen in the Norway Blitz tournament. At nearly 53 he once again broke into the top 10 highest rated players in the world this year.
A testimony to Anand’s achievements: by 2001 India had 74 Grandmasters, 125 International Masters, 18 woman Grandmasters, 42 women International Masters, and a total of 33,028 rated players. A crop of extremely gifted young players like R. Praggnanandhaa, D. Gukesh, Nihal Sarin, Vidit Gujrathi, Pentala Harikrishna, Adhiban Baskaran, who are taking the chess world by storm, look upon Anand as their guiding light. Today India has also become a destination for big international chess events. After hosting the world championship in 2013, India hosted for the first time the prestigious Chess Olympiad in 2022.
At 7.42 a.m. on February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati Express pulled into the station at Godhra. Among the passengers were karsevaks returning from Ayodhya. Apparently, a fight broke out between them and some Muslim tea sellers on the Godhra platform. As the train pulled away, someone pulled the emergency brake cord when it was passing through what was primarily a Muslim neighbourhood.
Apparently, a Muslim mob attacked the train at this point. Two carriages were burnt, killing 58 passengers, who it was claimed were mainly karsevaks but later reports did not bear this out.
The incident resulted in State-wide riots in Gujarat that lasted seven days, leaving over a 1,000 dead and more than a lakh in refugee homes. The victims were primarily Muslims and the attackers Hindus. It is considered India’s worst riot since Partition.
At the time, the BJP was faring poorly in Gujarat electoral politics. In 2001, it had lost the gram panchayat elections as well as three Assembly byelections. In October 2001, the old BJP war horse, Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, had been summarily replaced with Narendra Modi.
Godhra happened four months later. Chief Minister Modi has been criticised for maintaining a studied silence through the one week of violence and bloodletting. Soon afterwards, Modi asked that the Assembly election scheduled for April 2003 be brought forward to June 2002. The Election Commission partially obliged and scheduled the elections for December 2002.
It was the BJP’s second term in Gujarat and it still had to prove itself. Modi had three things going for him—a reasonably strong support base, an Opposition that had not gathered itself after losing the 1995 elections, and the inflamed post-Godhra sentiments raging in the State.
The BJP won. But the anti-Muslim fires were kept burning with at least 20 purported encounter killings. Modi stayed Chief Minister of the State until 2014 and his ability to win elections made him the poster boy of the BJP. The “Gujarat Model” of development also became a byword in popular discourse. After that, Delhi was the obvious destination.
Several people came forward to give testimony about the government’s alleged involvement. These included Sanjiv Bhatt, Teesta Setalvad, and R.B. Sreekumar. All three are currently under arrest on charges of fabricating evidence after a Supreme Court verdict in June 2022 specifically named them.
India won its first ever medal in the World Championships in Athletics (now known as World Athletics Championships) when Anju Bobby George made her historical leap, clearing 6.7 m and securing the bronze medal in long jump, in France in 2003. It was the biggest achievement by an Indian in World Athletics and it was another 19 years before India got its second medal at the event, with javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra winning silver in 2022.
Following her feat, she won gold in the 2002 Busan Asian Games and a bronze in the Manchester Commonwealth Games; came fifth in the 2004 Athens Olympics, but set a new national record with a jump of 6.83 m; won gold at the 16th Asian Athletics Championship in South Korea; gold at the IAAF World Athletics Final in Monaco in 2005; silver in the 15th Asian Games at Doha in 2006; silver in the 17th Asian Athletics Championship at Amman in 2007; and silver in the 3rd Asian Indoor Championship in athletics at Doha in 2008. Anju was one of the most consistent performers in Indian athletics history.
Born on April 19, 1977, at Kottayam, Kerala, Anju started off as a heptathlete but later focussed on long jump. Among the numerous national and international accolades she received in her career, this icon of Indian sports was bestowed the ‘Woman of the Year’ award from World Athletics in December 2021.
Though it took nearly two decades before India could win another medal at the World Athletics Championships, Anju’s performance in 2003 opened the eyes of the nation to its own potential in athletics. In the 2022 World Athletics Championships, India not only won a medal, but also had six athletes in finals—Avinash Sable in the 3,000 m steeplechase, Murali Sreeshankar in long jump, Eldhose Paul in triple jump, Neeraj Chopra and Rohit Yadav (men) and Annu Rani (women) in javelin throw. Anju Bobby George showed the way.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was introduced by the United Progressive Alliance government, partly to fulfil an election manifesto promise. Rural distress and unemployment were so high at the time that the Bill did not encounter any opposition when Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh presented it in Parliament. It was greeted with applause and passed by voice vote. It has to be seen alongside other progressive pieces of legislation introduced by UPA-I such as the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Right to Education (RTE) Act, and the National Food Security Act. But the MGNREGA was so successful that it is often credited with enabling a second term for Manmohan Singh’s government in 2009.
It was implemented in a phased manner, with the 200 most backward districts covered in 2006-07. The primary objective of the Act is to provide a minimum level of household security to rural families by providing work for unskilled labour for at least 100 days.
The other objectives include creation of productive assets of prescribed quality and durability by providing wage employment, strengthening the livelihood resource base of the rural poor, ensuring social inclusion of women, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and strengthening the Panchayati Raj institutions. The Act is aimed at strengthening natural resource management through projects that address causes of distress such as drought, deforestation and soil erosion.
The MGNREGA is said to have been inspired by Maharashtra’s Employment Guarantee Scheme, which was conceived as a drought relief measure in 1972-73. Later, it got converted into a legal guarantee programme. But it comes on the heels of a long list of public-works-based employment guarantee programmes since the 1980s. Some examples are the National Rural Employment Programme, the Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme, the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, the Employment Assurance Scheme, the Jawahar Gram Samridhi Yojana, the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana and the National Food for work programme. After the BJP came to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mocked the Act in Parliament. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic collapse forcefully established how useful such a scheme is in times of crisis.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly called the Forest Rights Act (FRA), addressed a long-pending need but also threw up hurdles for forest and wildlife conservation. The challenge before the Act was to balance the needs of Adivasis and forest dwellers with those of forests and wildlife.
The Scheduled Tribes and forest dwellers, who are among India’s most marginalised communities, number around 250 million and many of them continue to live in areas marked as forest or forest land. The main objective of the Act is to recognise the rights of the forest dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers to forest resources for livelihood and habitation.
Its priority is people but environmental conservation has been written into it to some extent. Opponents of the Act believe implementation of the Act will lead to the destruction of forests and wildlife. Part of this stems from the belief that the Act will lead to the carving up and distribution of forest land. Those in favour of the Act say that it provides a clear process for resettling people when this is required for wildlife protection.
Conservationists fear that inviolate spaces for already besieged wildlife will shrink further. Two clauses can cause indefinite delays to conservation efforts. One says that the entire community must agree to relocation, and the second says that there should be compensation and the surety of secure livelihood. The onus to ensure both is on conservationists.
There are also doubts about the argument that forest dwellers will protect wildlife and the forest. This was possibly true in another age when there was a symbiotic relationship between the two, but basic amenities such as roads, dispensaries, schools, and electricity and telecommunication infrastructure are now an integral part of forest dwellers’ lives.
At the core of the argument for the Act is that it rectifies the wrongs of the past. The reference is to the old Indian Forest Acts of 1865 and 1927, which promoted revenue from the forest and benefitted neither traditional forest dwellers nor wildlife. The same argument needs to be extended to the wrongs suffered by forests and wildlife not just in the past but in the present.
As it stands, neither side is completely happy with the Act, with some people calling it “both a victory and a betrayal”.
On March 14, 2007, 14 villagers, including two women, were killed in police firing at Nandigram, a sleepy fishing village in West Bengal’s Purba Medinipur district. The villagers were protesting against rumours of land acquisition by the Left Front government to set up a chemical hub. The killings sparked off a violent agitation that lasted over one and a half years and hastened the end of the Left Front’s rule in the State. It also had far-reaching implications as far as government policy for land acquisition was concerned. Such a long-drawn resistance by ordinary villagers against the might of a State government has seldom been witnessed in India.
In the 2006 Assembly election, the Left Front, riding high on Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s promise of industrial resurgence, returned to power for its seventh consecutive term with 235 out of the 294 seats. The opposition led by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was all but decimated. The police firing at Nandigram dramatically changed the political dynamics. The issue of forcible land acquisition took centre stage in Bengal politics. Mamata Banerjee had already taken up the cause of the farmers of Singur in Hooghly district, who were protesting against their land being taken away for the establishment of the Tata Motors Small Car Project and had sat on a historic 26-day hunger strike in Kolkata in December 2006.
In Nandigram, under the Trinamool’s leadership, the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee (BUPC) was set up, supported by the Socialist Unity Centre of India, the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind, and naxalite forces. CPI(M) supporters and their families were driven out, and there was an attempt to create a “liberated zone”. BUPC activists destroyed roads and access to bridges, dug up culverts and set up roadblocks to prevent any entry into the region under their control.
At the same time, the Singur protest raged on unabated, and in October 2008 the Tatas decided to move their project out of West Bengal, much to the humiliation of the State government. The parallel protests at Singur and Nandigram, coupled with Maoist activities in the Jangalmahal region (the contiguous forested areas of Bankura, Paschim Medinipur, Jhargam and Purulia districts) overwhelmed the ruling party, leading to its defeat in the 2011 election.
In 2013, the CBI, which had been investigating the Nandigram firing, practically absolved Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his government of any blame in the incident in its charge sheet. But the Left in Bengal never quite managed to fully recover.