The Iron Lady of Manipur

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“Unshackle me from this chain of thorns…that bind me, in this narrow room, for no fault of mine, like a caged bird” Irom Sharmila

These words, so aptly, express the anguish of the poet, but no ordinary poet she is. She is social activist, poet and a political prisoner for 13 excruciating years. Her grave crime – protesting by Gandhian method of fasting against imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA) in the North East, since November 2000.

We have all fasted at some stage in our lives, for health or religious reasons, in varying intensity. While Navratras or Ramadan may be our biggest achievement, here we are talking about a person who had her last meal on 4 November 2000, and has not eaten anything since. She does not comb her hair, clip her nails, or brush her teeth. All this to stand in support of the people of Manipur against the routine human right violations and the central government’s apathy towards the state. She has become the mascot of strength and perseverance of the peace-loving tiny state in the north east of India. To the obvious question as to how she is still alive, the answer is tedious and cruel – Irom Sharmila is lodged in the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, in Imphal amidst tight security, and is being forcibly fed by nasal tube twice a day.

How it all started

AFSPA is widely believed to be responsible for violence and feeling of alienation in the north east part of India. There have been reports of human rights violations by the armed forces because of the unchecked powers given to them under AFSPA, wherein the army can detain or kill anyone without notice, and cannot be questioned.

On 2 November 2000, 10 innocent civilians, harmlessly waiting for a bus at a bus stop, were gunned down by men of Assam Rifles on the suspicion of allegiance with Maoists. Those killed, included a 62-year-old woman and an 18-year-old Child Bravery Award winner of 1988, and many other members of the same family. This event appeared in newspapers on 3 and 4 November, and left such a lasting impact on the then 28-year-old Sharmila that she decided to fast in protest. Her demand was to repeal the draconian rule and reinstate the integrity of Manipur.

In her long protest, there have been many political parties vouching support for her and her cause, but true to Indian democracy, nothing moves beyond lip-service. To further rub salt to wounds, there was a half hearted inquiry on the accused army personnel, and later all were acquitted. There have been many high level judicial inquiries and committee findings into AFSPA and human rights violations in Manipur; each time triggered by fresh reports of rape, killings, and denial of basic human rights and dignity by Indian army. None of the recommendations have been considered or made public. To add insult to grave injuries, Human Rights’ Commission of the state has been defunct since 2010.

The protest

Ironically, Sharmilla holds world record of longest running fast. This month, Sharmila completing 13 years of fasting, and there is no need to marvel at the milestone.

As an Indian, I do not know whether to feel proud of the fact that she has chosen such a non-violent way of protesting or that even after six decades of Independence there is a need for integral parts of India and Indians to feel so alienated as to go to such extreme steps.

Her brother, the only person allowed to meet Sharmila regularly, recollects the lonely crusade his sister was leading before 2004. “Until 2004, it was lonely and difficult,” he says. After that, she started to get recognised nationally and internationally for her continued non-violent persistence. By 2006, she has become the epitome of non-violent public protests against one’s own state, anywhere in the world.

Her strength

She is a strong believer of principle of non-violence and draws inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. On 2 October 2006, during her arrest and procedural release in Delhi, she visited Rajghat to pay tribute to her guru and pillar of strength Mahatma Gandhi. Later during the day, she also held a protest meeting at Jantar Mantar, well attended by social activists and human rights activists alike. Here, she was successful in drawing the attention of the general public from mainland India and gained support of many famous peace and human rights activists, for her cause. In four days, she was again arrested for ‘attempt to suicide’, and kept in AIIMS for medical reasons.

In Sharmila’s own words “I am lonely but not alone in this fight.” She has the support of the people of Manipur, North East, and the rest of India. She gets hundreds of letter and wishes from followers and supporters, some requesting her to end her fast, some showing solidarity with her cause, and some plainly in awe of her unique life.

While in AIIMS and in Imphal hospital, she has written many letters to Prime Minister and President, requesting them to repeal the ghastly Act, imposed unwillingly on the people of north east. She also reiterated that North East is an integral part of India and should not be treated differently, or with disbelief or skepticism. To her dismay, she has not even received an acknowledgement or reply to any of her letters.

Sharmila has many charges laid on her, most being related to ‘attempt to suicide’. The first charge was laid just three days after she began her fast, and police forcibly used nasal tube feeding to keep her alive. About the accusation of trying to commit suicide, Sharmila says that she is a firm believer of Gandhian principles and will never commit suicide, but she is treading on the path shown by Mahatma himself, of non-violence and using your own body and self-harm as a weapon to protest against misuse of power. She also firmly believes in standing up against injustice, after all, not speaking against wrong is as bad as inflicting wrong.

Every fortnight, a local magistrate visits Sharmila and completes the formality of asking her to end her fast, to which her reply is a firm but predictable NO. She is then taken back to the same ward that has become a prison not only for her body, but her soul. She has spent the last 13 years in custody, barring a procedural release for 48 hours every year, after which she is taken into custody again. She has seen her mother just once in 10 years. Her only companion is a daily diary that she maintains from her jail hospital ward, and the letters and wishes of her supporters.

National and international recognition

Sharmila has been recognised nationally and internationally for her unrelenting efforts. She was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2007. In 2009, she was awarded the first Mayillama Award of the Mayilamma Foundation “for achievement of her nonviolent struggle in Manipur”. In 2010, she won a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission. Later that year, she won the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, and the Sarva Gunah Sampannah “Award for Peace and Harmony” from the Signature Training Centre.

Her ultimate prize though is nowhere to be seen. She is clear about breaking her fast when the Indian government starts the Parliamentary discussion about the imposition of AFSPA.

Ray of hope?

India against Corruption Movement (IACM) was a ray of hope for many alienated communities and marginalized groups in far-flung corners of the country. Sharmila and the people from north east India showed cohesion with IACM, and invited Anna Hazare and his team to visit Manipur to access the situation first-hand. She holds the aging Gandhian in high regard, and thanks him for all the attention she got from the movement.

IACM and Sharmila’s fight are woven by same thread of ensuring participative democracy and not just representative democracy currently practiced in India. In 2011, Anna sent two representatives to meet with Sharmila and to assure her of the support and strength of Indian people and to stand with her morally against the arrogant state and central governments.

Sharmila’s is a fight of entitlement, of pride in one’s identity, and struggle to demand equality in one’s own country. There are many indigenous groups fighting non-violent battles for their lands, rights and equality in India. The indifferent attitude of our successive governments has led to an increasing belief of isolation and alienation among the youth of such marginalized communities.

Such misled youth is a ripe playground for extremists to take advantage. It is also an opportunity for neighboring countries to exercise their dominion, and we have seen this as China is already claiming a part of Sikkim and Ladakh. IACM and the Aam Aadmi Party are a non-violent result of such aspirations of the common man for change and entitlement. For the sake of India, let’s hope it succeeds.

The writer is a Melbourne-based member of Aam Aadmi Party, and can be reached on +61 426250072 or aap.aussie@gmail.com

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