12 years on from Anna’s murder, 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award winner, BINALAKSHMI NEPRAM, publishes a personal Letter to Anna on the anniversary of her murder. Today, the letter was printed in Anna’s paper in Moscow, Novaya Gazeta:
I vividly remember hearing the news, on 7th October 2006, of the gunning down of brave woman journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. Even though Manipur, my homeland, is far away from Moscow, when the news of her assassination came, we felt the pain and the immeasurable loss her family and friends may have felt. We knew the killing was so wrong. In wars, true fighters do not do this. Anna was a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, a fearless journalist, a seeker of truth. Her killing was an extreme act of cowardice. And violence can never win in the end.
Many more have been felled like Anna since 2006. Seven years later, in 2013, the United Nations passed a historic resolution to protect women human rights defenders. However, this did not stop the killings. To date, most of the efforts to protect women human rights defenders remain mostly on paper. We need to work hard to ensure that we have proper systems in place to make certain that protection and support is there at hand. In 2017, over 312 human rights defenders from 27 countries were killed. We will need to work harder together to ensure that proper support is given whenever anyone is threatened for their vital work.
Manipur is in the Northeast Region of India, home to 45 million people, belonging to 272 indigenous communities and home also to South Asia’s longest-running armed conflict, where since 1958 – many have been living under martial law, called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), sanctioned by the Indian Parliament. For many of us, our world of seven decades of war was something India and its policy makers hid away from the rest of the world.
The day I was born in Manipur was a day of military curfew. And to date, violence continues unabated each day. My niece died in a bomb blast at the age of 14 and my parents were nearly shot. It was not just my family alone. 20,000 women have been widowed in Manipur due to the on-going conflict, in India’s Northeast region due to the seven decades long entrenched conflict. Yet, the terrible news of what is happening is not reported by news agencies around the world, as foreign journalists are not allowed to come to our area and there are severe restrictions on access. Even many UN agencies are not allowed to operate and international organisations have been asked not to operate in our region, in spite of a huge humanitarian crisis.
It is not just the violence in our lives. It is the violence in policies and politics that have defined our lives for years. Just think for a moment, how the history of the 45 million people who live in Manipur and Northeast India is blotted out of India’s textbooks. That means, if we all are wiped out, no one in the world will ever know we existed as peoples and as nations. And that our women and girls are subjected to trafficking, abuse and sexual assault every day of their lives.
The violence in our lives and our bodies has been going on for over 70 long years. Our mothers in Manipur, known as the legendary Meira Pabis (Women Torch Bearers) have fought long and bravely for peace and the rule of law. However, the so-called political leaders of our nations, who rule our lives, have risen to power by corrupt practices and by purchasing the votes of innocent citizens. We are ruled by men who have committed human rights violations, who are arms dealers, drug-traffickers and criminals, sanctioned and supported by “powers” in New Delhi.
If there are 300,000 members of the Indian armed forces in Northeast India, there are 72-armed groups that also operate in the region. We, as citizens, have been sandwiched between guns of state and non-state actors for all these years. In short, it is the sanction of violence that has become the norm in our home states.
It is under these extremely difficult conditions that we set up the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network in 2007 and later, the Control Arms Foundation of India and the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace. When one is pushed back against a wall, two things can happen: either you cower there or you fight back. We decided to fight back, to claim our rights to peace and justice. We started by getting together women widowed due to the armed conflict and then ensuring that we supported them to carry on with their lives. We help them to open bank accounts, get a livelihood and ensure that their children are sent to school. We help them access government schemes that are meant for them. And sometimes we help the survivor families file court cases for the wrongful death of their loved ones.
And for this humanitarian work in Manipur and Northeast India we have been repeatedly threatened. As early as 2002, as I started my research and writing, I was called to the Indian Mission in Colombo and warned not to speak about the Northeast Region of India outside the four corners of the country. Later in 2014, I was told by a current politician, who claimed to have links with a rebel group, that it would take 30,000 Indian Rupees (450 dollars) to sanction someone to kill me. That is the cost of killing a woman human rights defender in India. Rumours were also spread by men, heading NGOs, who, instead of supporting our work, told rebel groups that our group is working with Indian intelligence to disarm rebels. Later, over social media, I continued receiving threats for standing up for the rights of families who have lost loved ones in this entrenched conflict. In some cases where the families we have helped to fight for justice have lost their relatives due to acts committed by state politicians, rumours have been spread that what we have been doing is attempting to sabotage the ruling government. The ultimate threat came when heavily armed Manipur police commandoes, sent by corrupt politicians, came to my house in Manipur, looking for me. That was the time I decided, I will not be a statistic. I will live to fight with others for our peace, our justice and our rights.
In the brave and courageous lives of Anna Politkovskaya herself, Natalia Estemirova, Berta Caceres, Gauri Lankesh, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and countless and nameless others who were felled by the bullet, the awarding each year of the Anna Politkovskaya Award for Women Human Rights Defenders is a fitting reminder that our fight for justice, against militarisation, weaponisation, corporatisation and authoritarianism in our lives will continue strongly each day, every day.
Not violence but truth, peace and justice will win in the end.
A life of seeking truth and activism is not an easy life. We have to strain our bodies and souls. We have to fight a thousand struggles. Our efforts are humanitarian, in order to deepen democracy and to ensure the rule of law. This award is a recognition that we will not be silenced anymore by what we stand for.
I thank the organisation, Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR) and the distinguished jury for choosing to give me this honour, along with the noted writer and journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, from Belarus, who was also the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize winner for literature. I receive this honour wholeheartedly, on behalf of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, Control Arms Foundation of India and the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace.
I dedicate the Anna Politkovskaya Award 2018 to all women survivors of Manipur and the world, to my family and to all whose resilience, strength and belief in our work and courage made us rise, speak up, advocate and take action to bring the change we wish to see in this world.