For 11 long years, Irom Sharmila has been on a hunger fast, protesting against the Armed Forces Special Act in Manipur. An interview with an almost forgotten heroine.
May be the fact she was a slow learner made her a reclusive child. Or perhaps it was the fact that she was the youngest of eight and born at a difficult time in her family's fortunes. Her father had died; her mother was trying to run a provision store to keep the home fires burning. Even as a baby Sharmila had to depend on the kindness of other women to nurse her and her elder siblings to tend to her daily needs and upbringing. Sensitive and introspective, Sharmila, through her teens, kept much to herself; her favourite companions her books, the Bhagwad Gita among them.
The quiet thinker grew up to be a writer and her column in the local paper found her readers and some attention. She spoke up for freedom, for human rights, in a voice all her own. Perhaps the Armed Forces Special Powers Act - that was part of life in Manipur and much of the North East and other ‘ disturbed' areas - was a subconscious reason for the tone of her writings.
The subconscious came to the fore in 1999. A group of young lawyers who had formed a Human Rights Forum in Manipur initiated a move to ask for a proper inquiry on the impact of the AFSPA on life in the State. A call was sent out for volunteers. Many joined, Sharmila among them. As part of her training, Sharmila visited homes of civilians to acquaint them with inquiry and how they could help make it happen. Many of these were affected civilians, whose family members had been arrested, disappeared, or been killed, sometimes on mere suspicion. Very soon, Sharmila was participating closely in every aspect of the Forum's struggle for justice and respect for the rights of the civilians of Manipur. On November 2, 2000, Sharmila was part of a small contingent of Human Rights activists who went to Malong for a peaceful demonstration. Nothing that morning prepared her for what she would see.
Retaliating to an ambush by militants, a group of armed forces men opened fire at a bus stop shooting down innocent ciivilans, including women and youngsters. Among them an 18-year-old who had won a national award for bravery as a child. It would be two days before the curfew clamped almost immediately after the massacre would be lifted and the bodies could be claimed by next of kin.
The incident spurred Sharmila to action. Babloo Loitongbam, one of the founders of the HRF, Manipur remembers: “Sharmila came riding on her bike to where we were staying. Her hair was loose, she always kept it that way, seldom combing it and she looked very frail. But her voice was determined. ‘Brother I'm going for a hunger strike,' she said. We could not believe it but she was adamant... ‘until the AFSPA is removed,' she repeated calmly, ‘I will go on hunger strike'. Nothing we could say would change her mind. She told us she had her mother's blessing and that was that.”
Eleven years later, nothing has changed. Except that Sharmila can ride her bike no more. Even as she embarked on her fast and attention to her cause gathered, she was arrested for attempted suicide and remanded into custody. The force feeding began, and today the tube that snakes down her throat from her nose is as much a part of her as the hospital room she is interred in.
Sharmila is a forgotten heroine. For years her cause and her quiet struggle remained hidden in a private room in a State that many Indians need to look up on the map to locate. Then the Anna Hazare fast and protests somehow brought Sharmila's struggle into the media.
“I hope it will help my cause and make my struggle successful,” she says, when I visited her. It has been an almost impossible mission, getting to meet her, but I have succeeded thanks to a miracle engineered by the kindness of an efficient government servant.
The room is well lit and large. Sharmila sits on an iron cot. Her hair is still open and she, but naturally, looks frail. She speaks little. And after much thought. I watch her mouth working over her sentences. Isolation does that to people; they forget the niceties of conversation. When she does speak, her words are well chosen and pointed.
She has no agenda beyond the one she has stated. She wishes Manipur be free of the AFSPA. The massacres, the terrorism that is sanctioned by law must cease. Once it happens, she will resume her life. Go back to being a normal human being, to meeting her mother and her family. (Not long after she started her fast, Sharmila decided not to meet her mother as seeing her anguish could weaken her resolve.) She might find time for marriage... she does admit to a romantic involvement with a sympathiser whom she has met once and corresponds with.
Only once in the 11 years has Sharmila been out of Manipur. “We smuggled her to Delhi, and tried to get some support from the national press”, Babloo says, “but nothing much came of it.” Somehow the press and public could not empathise with the struggle of a quiet warrior who had little drama or rhetoric. Babloo adds, “Of course, the poet in Sharmila awakened at the sight of the clouds our plane flew over and she wrote a poem, wondering how Kalidasa who could never have seen such a sight could describe the clouds so beautifully.”
Sharmila's only outings now are the mandatory visits to Court to sign her declaration of intention of continuing her fast, so she can be sent back to custody. The convoy of armed vehicles that take her to and fro from her hospital mock her frailty and lack of aggression.
Her days pass in solitude; it is increasingly difficult for anyone to meet her. Journalists get permission according to the whims of the authorities, and the wait can be as long as three months. Family and Forum members are not allowed though how their meeting her will upset peace and order is debatable.
So Sharmila lives in her seclusion, waiting for a day when her penance will bear fruit. Her self-taught yoga, her walks up and down the corridor of her ward and her books and poetry is how she bides her time. And she has her ‘sparkling' companions: two large stuffed toys gifted to her that sit by her bedside.
But she is strangely sanguine. “The days rush past, time rushes for me,” she says. And time, she hopes will help realise her dream of a state free from the terror of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.