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Irom Sharmila: a 14 year-long cyclical farce of release and rearrest.

21 Aug

Day 1: Sharmila released

She looked almost resplendent, certainly much more so than in the confines of the dull hospital room I last saw her in, where she was force-fed and detained on charges of attempted suicide. Amidst a lot of security, the Imphal Press Club saw Irom Sharmila attend her first formal media conference after her release following the Imphal East Sessions Court ruling on 19 August 2014. Speaking to journalists, activists and well-wishers, she was flanked by local women from the Save Sharmila group, many of whom have participated in the relay fasts in solidarity with her for some years now. Breaking down into tears, she said, “No violence of any sort can ever be a solution. I have literally been chewing on my tongue just so violence can end.”

Babloo Loitongbom from Human Rights Alert, who was chairing the conference, closed saying “Sharmila is not fasting unto death. People must not misunderstand this. She is fasting till the time AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) is repealed.” As the conference came to a close, the police came in swiftly expressing concern for her frailty amid the throngs of people who’d gathered to see her as a free woman on a day of victory for human rights. Escorted by the women from Save Sharmila group, she made her way out, for a change this time not in a police jeep but a regular car, Babloo‘s own. Among those that stayed back, Chaoba, a reporter with Imphal Free Press, remarked, “She doesn’t want to be a hero or a martyr. She just wants to say no to AFSPA. The constitutional framework allows each of us to protest peacefully and she has been doing just that. But one never knows. Arrest is likely again. Public pressure must increase.”

I accompanied the other women protesters to the sanglen, a temporary shelter draped in banners of repeal AFSPA and Sharmila posters. It was teeming with people wanting to know more, hear more and see more of her. It seemed as though everyone was taking it in as much as they could of her, given it was still not clear if or when she would be rearrested. After the crowd dispersed, I got a chance to chat with Sharmila. She smiled and told me, “I don’t know about the future. I feel excited by today, all those faces, those people in the market, people who agree with my message, to those that support me and give me blessings. To Amnesty International may feel some fulfillment of your set me free. My sincere gratitude for your deep understanding as a human being, of my cause. I feel indebted for the support but I expect more support from you to keep the pressure on the government to repeal the act. My happiness and gratitude to you will not be complete till AFSPA is repealed.”

Last year, over 18,000 people from across India supported an Amnesty International India campaign calling for the unconditional release of Irom Sharmila. The AFSPA, which has been in force in parts of North-eastern India since 1958, and a virtually identical law in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990, provides sweeping powers to soldiers, including the power to shoot to kill in certain situations and to arrest people without warrants. The Act also provides virtual immunity from prosecution for security personnel, by mandating prior permission from the central government, which is almost never granted. Sharmila, who is considered to have undertaken the longest hunger strike, will soon complete 14 years of her struggle against AFSPA. Her protest began on November 2, 2010 soon after the killing of 10 people in Manipur by the Assam Rifles (a paramilitary force) in Malom, Imphal.

22 Aug

Day 2: Sharmila detained

After yesterday’s resplendent Sharmila, the morning that followed painted a sad contrast. I got to the sanglen, where she and the others were. The atmosphere was palpably tense and tentative. The police had just made an attempt to take her away and the women resisted. Just as I sat down to speak to her, they came back and forced the circle around Sharmila. Chaos ensued. There was screaming and resistance as the older women jostled with policewomen. Sharmila fell to the ground engulfed in the ensuing push-and-shove between the older women and policewomen. The policewomen struggled to restrain her without using force and within what seemed like a few minutes, they deftly picked her up and drove off in the manner of a well-practiced drill. It was a shocking contrast from Sharmila’s peaceful press conference exit yesterday. Today was quick, loud and almost violent - the imas pelting stones at the jeeps driving off, weeping, hitting and swearing at the police, who despite the imas’ outburst, exhibited restraint. Sharmila was promptly taken to the hospital for a check-up and force feeding, and shortly rearrested under charges of attempted suicide. It was just about eleven in the morning. Suddenly, the sanglen bore a quiet and forlorn look, the pot of lotus flowers next to which Sharmila was sitting, lay kicked over.

And so the cyclical farce of Sharmila’s arrest, release and re-arrest continues again without respite for 14 years. Her release after the court order was a historic opportunity for the Manipur government to engage in a meaningful dialogue with Sharmila, but instead they chose to return to the same old ways. The last time I met Sharmila in November 2013, she had spoken to Amnesty International India of how she loves life and yearns for a sense of normalcy someday. Her struggle is for an end to violence in Manipur and that process can start with the repeal of the draconian AFSPA.

Will Sharmila get to return some day soon, to that sense of normalcy that she yearns for?

As the police jeep pulled away I thought of the irony and absurdity of it all. Just a few days ago, the court recognized Sharmila’s argument that her’s was a lawful protest and not an attempt to commit suicide. Her subsequent re-arrest and the lack of political engagement has quickly shut down that glimmer of hope—a crucial opportunity has been lost.

"A murder for murder cannot be justice," Mani said to me as we walked down the corridor of the school he went to with Simon some four decades ago. Mani still lives in the same village, while his friend Simon has been on death row for nearly 10 years. He’s a quiet person, Mani, but some things – like the death penalty – move him to rare long conversations.  

 Marthalli in Chamrajnagar district has had more than one ugly battle to fight against the death penalty. In 2002, four men from this district in the south Indian state of Karnataka were sentenced to death in the same case — Simon, Bilavendran, Madaiah and Gnanapragasam.  The men were convicted in 2001 of involvement in a landmine blast in 1993 which killed 22 people, including police personnel on their way to arrest the notorious sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

Unusually, their life sentences were raised to death sentences by the Supreme Court in 2004. The four have spent 20 years in jail, nearly 10 of those on death row. For the past few years, Mani has been campaigning alongside local churches to urge the Indian government not to execute Simon and the three others.

I was visiting in late 2013 to shoot video portraits for Amnesty International India. The four men have been in jail many years now, but they’re an indelible part of society here. Their sentences have brought the stain of the death penalty very close to home. 

Amnesty India has been campaigning against the death penalty for years. Going against the tide of vocal support for the death penalty from some quarters in the wake of widely covered incidents of violence against women, has been challenging. Yet, 65,000 people in 2013 supported the call to end this punishment. The fact that there was demonstrable support for abolition on the ground had never been established earlier in this way.

 Meeting activists who share the same passion and beliefs is inspiring each day. But until one interacts with the human behind the human rights campaigns we rally behind, the penny doesn’t quite drop. The simple act of listening to a firsthand story of human rights abuse has the power to move one into action.

We shot some three short films on three families in Chamrajnagar, interviewing the sisters, mothers and children of the men on death row.  While there’s always respect and empathy for the feelings and rights of families of victims of crime, when you hear from the prisoners’ families themselves, the futile nature of the death penalty becomes immediately clear. “My father has been imprisoned for nearly 21 years. Through that itself it’s as if he has died” said Gnanapragasam’s son.

But perhaps the most poignant point about this village and its four sons on death row, was the socio-economics of their situation. “Because we’re poor, we couldn’t afford expensive legal help,” said Gnanapragasam’s wife. Apart from the four men, the others who were arrested and acquitted in the landmine blast case were small businessmen, quarry owners and politicians. Not paddy farmers. It’s a stark reminder that the death penalty is discriminatory — often used to condemn the poorest of the poor.

Supreme Court verdict

On the morning of 21 January 2014, 15 prisoners including the Marthalli four were to have their verdict announced y the Supreme Court. With India resuming executions in 2012 – after eight years of effectively suspending them – the outlook looked bleak.

In a momentous judgement, all 15, including Simon, Bilavendran, Madaiah and Gnanapragasam  had their sentences commuted to life.

The verdict rekindled hope that India is moving forward incrementally towards the complete abolition of the death penalty. Moments like this help join the dots for people involved in human rights work. 

While these commutations are a positive step, the struggle does not end. Many are still on death row here in India. The impetus of this recent verdict hopefully will lead total abolition. 


8 years ago I lived in Dharamsala, the Indian Himalayan town that is the base for the Tibetan Government in Exile. I was working with newly arrived Tibetan refugees, many of whom would arrive after an incredible journey over the Himalayas directly from Tibet into Nepal, all the while dodging the Chinese army’s hawk-eyed surveillance of these strategically located mountains. Once in Nepal, some refugees would choose to stay and others would go further afield after some months, into India.

I began to learn about the Tibetan struggle for sovereignty through a close friendship I struck with Thupten, who I met through my work in Dharamsala.

Thupten had once been a monk in the famous Se Gompa, in the Tibetan county of Ngawa in Amdo province. He fled his monastery in the middle of the night in 2000, when the police stormed through in search of monks who had published and distributed leaflets calling for Tibetan Independence.

Like his Tibetan counterparts over 5 decades, Thupten was driven to forgo the warmth of his family and the familiarity of his homeland, in unshakeable defense of an ideal he believed in with every part of his being — sovereignty. 

6 decades since the Dalai Lama left Tibet, the world is being confronted by the still-resonant Tibetan cause, now in the fiery form of self-immolations. The spate of recent self-immolations take the death toll since 2009, to 114. Many of the deaths have been in that special town etched in my heart — Ngawa.

To immolate oneself is an act of sheer and unfathomable despair. It is the selfless act of people calling on the world to act on injustice. The stifling of Tibetans’ fundamental rights by the Chinese government underscores every aspect of daily life of a historically independent and resilient people, for whom self-sacrifice is the very last resort to have their pleas heard. 

With China’s intensifying strangle-hold on the culture, demographic distribution and local economy of the Tibetan population, thousands so far have been displaced or sidelined in their pastoral homelands — and that’s not only the Tibetan Autonomous Region(TAR), but in ethnographically Tibetan provinces like Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai. 

By 2014, it’s said that 1.4 million Tibetans will have been forcibly resettled away from their pastures by the Chinese Government. Their land, rich with natural resources and minerals is being pillaged before their eyes without their approval as cultural and historic custodians of that land. 70% of the small businesses in Lhasa are owned by Chinese who’ve been settled through support by the government, while 40% of local Tibetan school graduates remain unemployed. The very bedrock of Tibetan culture — the language, has already been replaced by Mandarin in several schools. One can say that Tibetan culture is purposefully being diluted and pushed to the brink, while the intention of creating malleable homogeneity is manifest in a wave of Chinese governmental reforms in Tibet.

Over a period of year and a half, I lived in north-west China and was lucky to spend a lot of time in the Tibetan regions of Gansu, Qinghai and Amdo. After working with Tibetan refugees in India, this time spent in China offered precious insight into the other side of the prism.

In Langmusi, an enigmatic Tibetan town nestled between hills whose barren peaks are peppered with vultures assisting locals’ ‘sky burial ritual’, a simple moment shared with an aging nomad made the extent of the oppression truly hit home. 

He wore a weathered, ancient yak-leather coat, fastened at the waist with meters of rope. His long hair was dreaded, brown and contrasted sharply with the smoothness of the turquoise beads threaded through his ears. Spinning his prayer wheel, the old nomad shuffled alongside me as I walked the kora, the circumbulation of the stupa. He smiled, his gold teeth glinting in the high-altitude afternoon sun. Recognizing me immediately as Indian, the man extracted a yellowed and tattered photograph from his coat, showing it to me discreetly. He asked, "Do you know him, have you seen him in India?" Of course I did, and of course I have. In fact, I’d lived in the same town as he did, fortunate to feel the very shade of his incredible presence. It was an old photo of his Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile in India since 1959. 

For Tibetans in India, seeing His Holiness is a blessing each and every time. Here in the middle of Tibetan China, public display or even personal ownership of his images is an unspoken no-no. The very mention of his name and any association with him can spell trouble. And any calls for his return to Tibet can land supporters in jail, be persecuted or simply disappeared.

Talking with the old nomad, I realized the struggle was not just about political ideologies, intellectuals or monastic control over communties — it trickles down to people at the grassroots who may not even harbor any strong political views but who worship Dalai Lama as a living god. It was about ordinary people who look to him for spiritual guidance in this life. It was about a man who represented and articulated the Tibetan struggle for human rights in it’s entirety — their right to make sovereign decisions for and with their people and traditional homelands. The Dalai Lama’s enforced absence from the Tibetan homeland meant a gaping hole in the lives of all there. Consequently, their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, belief and association have been steadily and deliberately eroded since 1959. 

Through the prism of time spent in Tibetan China, I witnessed the layered spectrum of this human rights denial that has become systemic in the lives of Tibetans. Every attempt to speak out by the Tibetan community in these volatile parts has so far been met with crushing suppression from the state. Stories of torture, violent interrogation and enforced disappearance are so common, nearly every family in some towns, have a tale of tragedy to tell.

In Ngawa, I managed to meet with my old friend Thupten’s aging mother. She came riding down her donkey while I waited across the road from Se Gompa, the controversial monastery where Thupten had studied.  In her heavy leather overcoat, her bulky coral and turquoise neckpiece framing her kind, weatherbeaten face, the weight of her life’s burdens under Chinese rule came trickling down through deep furrows on her cheeks. I filmed her talking to my camera with the intention of passing on this video to Thupten. Fighting back maternal longing to see her son, she asked for Thupten to never even attempt returning for the fear of reprisals — he and his relatives remain on one of those ‘blacklists’. Their crime — being boldly vocal against inequality and exercising their right to free expression. Her loss and that of thousands of other Tibetans — a family fragmented and a way of life subjugate to persecution and oppression. 

When Thupten’s 17 year-old cousin joined a peaceful protest in Ngawa in 2008, he had no idea that that would be the last day he’d ever see.  He was shot and killed as the police broke fire onto the crowd.

And in 2009, 39 year-old Jamyang, another one of Thupten’s cousin was detained without fair trial, under the accusation of communicating with exiled Tibetans in Dharamsala about the worsening human rights situation in Ngawa. 

And it goes on, the list of atrocities against fundamental rights is long and Tibetan families that suffer the consequences —  countless.

Stifling and disproportionate presence of police all around Tibetan regions in China, tight restrictions on religious practice and hardline policies of Beijing have pushed to the brink Tibetans young and old. And the spate of self-immolations these past few months simply reflect this strangle-hold reality. 

In the face of this wave of fiery protests sweeping the region, Beijing has further forbidden any local Tibetan fundraising for “community or social welfare”, or activities of the Tibetan community that call for protection of the environment or Tibetan languages, culture and identity. 

Instead of opening dialogue to address Tibetan human rights concerns, since October 2012 the government has been responding to immolation with broad collective punishment — punishing family members of immolates. Some prefectures have ordered the “cancellation of benefits received by the households of self-immolators under public benefit policies” and announced that “all projects running on state funds in self-immolators’ villages must be stopped.” The officials extended those cancellations to any families, monks, or monasteries who take part in “instances of greeting and making contributions to family members of self-immolators,” and ordered criminal investigations to begin against any “laypeople and monks who organize to greet family members of immolates.”

This cruel and collective punishment in itself breaches international human rights precepts. Treating immolation as a criminal offence will add to the already complex quagmire of human rights abuse in Tibetan China. Beefing up Chinese fire-fighting forces in towns where self-immolations occur will not quell the burning desire of the Tibetan people to have their fundamental rights upheld in true practice. 

We have now reached a stage in our collective history where the Tibetan struggle is staring us in the face, unfolding like gruesome theatre as monks burn in their maroon robes, prostrate in their despair. The time now is to stop being passive audience and demand that China address long-standing Tibetans human rights concerns at their very root. 

(Images copyright: Kadambari Gladding)                                                     

                                                           ~ A TIME FOR CHANGE ~

When the raincloud burst, parched red earth dust lifted lightly and settled damp and heavy on the fields in Batticaloa in east Sri Lanka. In a series of squeals, these kids summarized perfectly what this afternoon thunderstorm meant for all in the area — a welcome relief from weeks of sweltering heat. 

After years of raging violence, by early 2009 most people in this eastern village had been resettled after landmines were cleared and the last of government led offensive against the LTTE, moved north of here.

A chronic sense of the recent strife was palpable to me, as was war weariness and a heavy sense of a people ready to move on. What their future holds may not be crystal clear yet — but whatever it is, we’re all hoping together that it’s peace.

 Images copyright: Kadambari Gladding

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(Images copyright: Kadambari Gladding)

Palmerston North isn’t exactly a must-see in New Zealand.  Though it’s a smallish town,it comes with a large heart. It takes in a significant part of New Zealand’s refugee quota of 750 a year, settles the newcomers and offers them opportunities in its rural job sector, amongst others.There are about 8 Karen Burmese families in Palmerston North, about 80 Bhutanese families and a sizeable Cambodian population. I met the Burmese, Bhutanese and Cambodian refugee community a month ago, to find out how they’ve settled in and what life in Palmy was like for them. There were smiles abound,but stories of loss and separation remain a lingering sad truth behind so many of the smiles. (Images copyright: Kadambari Gladding)

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