Mahatma Gandhi is revered as the ‘Father of the Nation’ in his native India but his legend and legacy belong to the world. He is an inspiration for activists around the globe who protest violence, tyranny and oppression wherever they find it. He is a reminder also that true revolutions take place in the heart and that batons and rubber bullets can only stall social change. Fighting British rule in India, Gandhi regularly used hunger strikes as a non-violent political weapon. Reflecting on the principles of revolutionary pacifism, Gandhi quipped, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’. 65 years after his death, the fight for civil and political rights is as fierce as ever. In the year 2000, Irom Sharmila began a hunger strike in the spirit of Gandhi. Incredibly, she has abstained from food and water for 12 years, being forcibly fed through a tube. Unlike Gandhi, she cannot seem to get past the stage of being ignored, even in India.
On 2 November 2000, the Malom Massacre took place in the north-Indian state of Manipur. Retaliating to a rebel attack, soldiers shot and killed ten innocent civilians waiting at a bus stop in the town of Malom. The guilty party could not be prosecuted as they were covered under the auspices of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which grants impunity to soldiers working in ‘disturbed areas’. Irom Sharmila was outraged and vowed to abstain from food, water and even brushing her teeth until AFSPA was repealed. This month marks 12 years of continual peaceful protest but tragically, the end seems no nearer than when it began.
The fact that Sharmila’s protest has not yielded results yet is not the issue. Gandhi was first imprisoned by the British in 1922 – a quarter of a century before Indian independence was finally achieved. AFSPA has been condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations but, like many oppressive laws, it may be decades yet before it is finally overturned. Government resistance is to be expected. What is remarkable, however, is the sheer apathy in the West and in India itself to this heroic protest.
Habitual apathy is the ultimate result of an information overload. In our globalised age, we have become accustomed to having instant access to more data than we could possibly consume in a lifetime. Growing up in the 1980s, before the internet became a staple of every home, our family library was crowned with an Encyclopaedia Britannica set. I was convinced as a young boy, if I could read and retain every book, I would possess the entirety of human knowledge. It was thrilling in the early 1990s to purchase a digital copy and to realise all of those lofty volumes could be reduced to a single compact disc. Today, it is still thrilling but also daunting to fathom what a drop in the ocean that set is when compared to the endless expanse of the information superhighway. With access to information at truly brobdingnagian proportions, perhaps we could be excused for throwing up our arms and declaring, ‘Enough! I just don’t care!’
Has the global West given in to habitual apathy and succumbed to the inevitable social inertia that follows? Driving though Sydney’s notoriously conservative Hills District in April, I was shocked to see traffic signs and bus shelters covered in Kony 2012 posters. The corresponding Youtube video was watched nearly 100 million times. Seemingly overnight, social media sites became obsessed with bringing this Ugandan militia leader to justice. It mattered little that Joseph Kony had left Uganda in 2006 or that the film was riddled with inaccuracies. Nor was it important that the film and the campaign reduced the complex tragedy of African child soldiers to a simple equation – catch the bad guy. The campaign was sexy and it was marketable. Dismissed as slacktivism by some, Kony 2012, with its catchy slogans, slick posters and digital appeal, broke the spell, albeit temporarily, of habitual apathy.
Herein lays the challenge for children of the Information Age. With an endless stream of sources available to us on our smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions, it is up to us to filter the information we are fed and develop a critical eye. The lazy mind will respond to this digital bombardment by either revelling in gullibility or sinking into a nasty cynicism. Only the brave and the brilliant will rise to meet the challenge of the age – to use the incredible access to information as a weapon. The average citizen is more empowered than ever to run fact checks on claims, to read newspapers from around the world and to take part in online discussions. We can hold our leaders and our mainstream media to account, if we choose.
With discernment, determination and a careful eye, the gulf between Irom Sharmila’s campaign against AFSPA and Invisible Children’s campaign against Joseph Kony becomes readily apparent. Why then is Kony a global celebrity while Sharmila and her 12 years hunger strike is virtually unknown? Have we been tricked by a marketing sleight of hand? Have we substituted online posters and Facebook ‘likes’ for genuine activism? Or is it simply the case that, as ever, a comforting lie is preferable to an inconvenient truth? Gandhi once said ‘even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth’. In an age where millions join a cause one month to abandon it the next, those words seem pertinent. Our unprecedented access to knowledge should be seen as a blessing but with it comes the responsibility to carefully separate fluff and fairytales from spirit and substance. Meanwhile, Irom Sharmila enters her thirteenth year of fasting. The spirit of Gandhi still has a voice, waiting to be heard.