Irom Sharmila — the Iron Lady of Manipur — who has been on a fast going on 16 years, fighting for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), has now broken that fast – with a taste of honey. Her struggle is far from over, she says, and she will enter the electoral fray, aiming to be Chief Minister, and make that change a reality.
While nationally and internationally, she has made headlines as an icon and hero for her incredible struggle and fortitude all these years, in Manipur itself, the reactions range from full-blown support to a more complicated assessment. Irom Sharmila’s decisions to marry and contest elections — while personal — are also, after all, socially and politically significant.
We get you a View From Imphal by the intrepid freelance journalist, THINGNAM ANJULIKA SAMOM, who tells us what happens immediately now is unclear, as late into the night, Irom Sharmila was taken back to JNIMS hospital after angry womenfolk stopped her from entering some of the places where she had planned to take shelter.
Imphal: For fifteen years, nine months and five days, Irom Chanu Sharmila fasted in a heavily guarded hospital room in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, refusing to even brush her teeth lest she accidentally swallows some water – believing in the world’s largest democracy, and in that mode of peaceful protest patented by Gandhi.
Yesterday, in front of media persons from all over the world, this frail-looking woman broke her fast, tears streaming down her face as she stared at the spoonful of honey on her palm. Struggling to regain her composure, she wiped her tears, stared up at the rain-drenched sky, and scooped up a few drops of honey with a finger unto her tongue, grimacing a bit at the sudden rush of sugar after nearly sixteen years of tastelessness.
Sharmila’s only demand during the long years of her fast was repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 enforced in Manipur since 1980 as counter-insurgency measure to fight the armed underground groups that were demanding political autonomy and restoration of lost sovereignty of the erstwhile princely kingdom forcibly co-opted into the Indian Union in 1949.
Critics see the AFSPA as contradicting the “Right to Life” one of the main foundations of democracy enshrined in the Indian Constitution and the root cause of the cycle of violence and widespread human rights violations in the states where it is enforced. At present a petition filed at the Supreme Court by the Extrajudicial Execution Victims’ Families’ Association of Manipur (EEVFAM) lists as many as 1,528 “extrajudicial killings” between 1979 to 2012 in the state.
With a spoonful of honey, the world’s longest fast has been broken. And with it the isolation of Sharmila has ended. Or has it lengthened her isolation, now outside the jail but still furthered from the people?
Looking at Sharmila’s stand, she has not failed. Perhaps wearied by the long denial of the government to her demand, she might have changed tactics but her crusade against AFSPA continues. Speaking to the media at the High Court at Cheirap complex after appearing in front of the CJM where she agreed to break her fast, she said, “I want to change my strategy because only when I have power I can do everything. So, I want to be the CM (chief minister) of Manipur and change the administrative system of Manipur and then I will remove the draconian act.”
Analysts have been quick to come to a conclusion when two weeks ago, on 26th July, she had announced her intention to break her fast, join politics by running as a candidate in the upcoming 2017 state general elections and marry her long-time boyfriend. It became the main topic of heated discussions on local TV and radio as well as casual conversations of neighbours and relatives meeting and chatting during religious rituals. Statements such as “How could she even think she will win in the elections given the money culture during polls?,” “She has become mad after all this time in isolation,” and even extreme reactions as “Why can’t she just die if she is going to marry a Mayang (non-local)?” abound.
Thirty-two year old housewife W. Ibetombi from Malom had heard the news of Sharmila’s decision while shopping for groceries this afternoon at the Nupi Keithel, the women’s market, barely hundred metres, away from the Cheirap court. Speaking to this writer during the ride home in an autorickshaw, she sighs, “If she is doing something, she should have seen it till the end.”
Statements such as “How could she even think she will win in the elections given the money culture during polls?,” “She has become mad after all this time in isolation,” and even extreme reactions as “Why can’t she just die if she is going to marry a Mayang (non-local)?” abound.
Perhaps this desire that she should have seen it till the end was fuelled by Sharmila’s indomitable strength as Ibetombi observed, “She is a woman of very strong will, I am sure she will be as strong-willed till the end.”
Meira Paibi women who had been been supporting Sharmila’s campaign with relay hunger strikes since December 10, 2008 under the banner of “Sharmila Kanba Lup” or “Save Sharmila Campaign” popularly known as SAKL were aghast at Sharmila’s sudden change of action. Shouting slogans for repeal of AFSPA at the Cheirap Court, Soibam Momon Leima, 62, of SAKL, said, “Without telling us … in such a short time … this change in her is very regretful. It is all a policy of the government, Ibobi’s policy.”
Ima Laishram Gyaneshori, 64, of Apunba Manipur Kanba Ima Lup (AMKIL) said, “That she should break her fast when she is just about to reach her goal took us by surprise. Since she is in government custody we couldn’t do anything. We tried to meet her after the announcement, but even her family was not allowed entry. We can’t help but suspect the government’s hand. This is very regretful.”
“We Meira Paibi have been fighting against AFSPA since 1980, and she had joined our struggle. We had also supported her when she started her fast after the Malom incident and she became a powerful strength against AFSPA. And now the sudden change in her unrelenting stand to remove AFSPA from Manipur is very heartbreaking for us,” she adds.
Both Momon and Gyaneshori were among the 12 women who had disrobed in front of Kangla gate in protest against the rape and killing of a young unmarried woman, Thangjam Manorama, by security forces on July 11, 2004, after she was picked up from her house
Many civil society organisations and individuals including Sharmila’s own brother Singhajit had meanwhile advised caution. In an open letter published in the Imphal-based Hueiyen Lanpao daily today, Singhajit writes, “… Do the best – but think for our society and future.”
In another open letter published in local newspapers on Thursday last, the Alliance for Socialist Unity, Kangleipak (ASUK) – an umbrella body of banned underground outfits, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) –- appealed to Sharmila to review her decision to join elections and marry a non-local.
“As for Sharmila’s decision to break her unprecedented fast, the ASUK asserted that it could not be assumed as failure or defeat. There were no strikes, social movements or reformist agitation which achieved 100 per cent of their demands/objectives. If viewed from this perspective, Sharmila’s crusade could be assumed as a spectacular success,” the letter said, adding, “Iche’s campaign as a champion of human rights has exposed the hypocrisy of the Indian State.”
Babloo Loitongbam, Director, Human Rights Alert, said, “She is ending her fast, but she is not ending her fight against AFPSA. If she feels that elections are the best option, we welcome her decision.”
Rights activist Jinine Lai opines, “No human being has done what Irom Chanu Sharmila has shown to us. It’s not 16 days, it’s Phenomenal 16 Years Long Hunger Strike against Indian Militarization. She has done for a cause. Loser is New Delhi failing to show us Justice done.”
Ending the fast and entering into politics is the second best option, according to Jinine. “Yes, Sharmila is coming to political arena, after she was forced to exit from that beautiful domain that Gandhi kept, only because New Delhi closed the entrance.”
THE IROM SHARMILA STORY: A LOOK BACK AT HOW IT ALL STARTED
Issues or subject matter for protest, agitations and bandh are dime a dozen in Manipur. A recent study by independent researcher Serto Tondana Kom reported loss of as many as 55 working days in six month, from January to June of this current year due to bandh or general strike and other forms of protest.
While the most recent cause for protest is on the issue of framing a law that protects the indigenous peoples from the unchecked influx of migrants from other parts of the country, like the banyan tree, one issue cannot be segregated fully or be wholly independent of the other, yet each sometimes demands separate dealings and time. It is one tree but the branches themselves take root and grow into huge trees themselves.
Flipping through the local newspaper archives of November, 2000, the first mention of Sharmila was a picture of her then 28-year old self, wrapped in a green shawl, seated beneath a hand-written chart paper on which read “HUNGER STRIKE” in the front pages of the November 5, 2000 local newspaper editions. In front of her were a lantern, the auspicious ghot-chaphu which was an earthen pot ringed with mango leaves around its neck and an earthern plate with banana and a coconut.
If the yardstick for the success of her unparalleled and unique protest is media coverage, then the scores of cameras and microphones thrust into her face today, the journalists from all over the world, jostling for space and trampling on each other to get a glimpse, a shot and a comment from Manipur’s iconic Iron Lady would need no commentary. Sharmila’s struggle has overflowed the small state into international consciousness.
When Sharmila first embarked on her Herculean (pardon the masculine idiom) fast, the local newspapers faithfully followed her first and subsequent arrests and releases, being produced in court and her refusal to break her fast. Meanwhile statements of support poured in from all over the state, with even two other women –- Pakpi and Memcha -– briefly starting their own fasts in her support. Relay hunger strikes and sit-in protests continued to support her demand.
In the streets there were mixed reactions. There were many who ridiculed this young girl. But for many the need for some kind of extreme action was felt as the unabated killings during the armed conflict between the underground groups and the state forces was claiming hundreds of lives, many of them in what rights activists alleged were “extrajudicial killings” or “fake encounters.”
Almost sixteen years down the line, Sharmila with her curly hair snaking around her face, halting speech and the nasal tube stuck to her nostrils became the face of the protest against AFSPA, overtaking and overwhelming others protests against the same Act not only in the state but also in other parts of the country like Nagaland where the AFSPA is in place.
Since the beginning of her fast, Sharmila has written many letters to the Presidents, and met Nobel Prize winners, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers, Governors and other representatives of the Government. There has been many promises, many denials and many solidarity wishes. Meanwhile the long decades of state apathy, impunity, violence, protests, and denial of justice has taken its toll on the people, now atrophied and immune to the situation, until a fresh act of violence or injustice calls for a knee-jerk reaction of another bout of tyre-burning and chest-beating. And the rights activists and Meira Paibi would be hard-driven to rush from one protest spot to another, sometimes dividing areas amongst themselves for the day.
In between Sharmila has written scores of poems, fallen in love and aged in her isolated chamber. But AFSPA remains in place, except for the lifting of the Act from seven Assembly Constiteuncies of Imphal after the 2004 anti-AFSPA protests in Manipur. Every 15 days, she would stand before the magistrate to give the same answer – she will not break her fast, and she is not trying to kill herself by refusing to take food. All the while as she took notice of the dwindling group of people who came to stand by her during these court visits. A feeling of being unsupported, fuelled by the now growing crop of parachute journalists who tried to draw comparisons with the audience at the Anna Hazare and Ramdev fasts. Totally oblivious to the fact that such a long-drawn struggle in a neglected periphery state cannot be compared to the orchestrated political drama in New Delhi.
On the other hand, Sharmila’s continuous appeal throughout has been not to treat her like a goddess, but to see her “reality.” “People of Manipur, do not take this in negative way. Nurture the leadership qualities and stop depending only on me … Please see me as a human being too. Sharmila’s campaign is for all the people. Help me on the CM seat. I want to bring a change, a positive change in the land …” she called out amidst the din of police personnel wrestling with the sea of camera and reporters.
The futility of an “indefinite” form of protest has been felt for some time in Manipur where terms like “indefinite bandh,” “indefinite economic blockade,” and “indefinite fast” are doled out at the drop of the hat while announcing a strategy for agitation. In the face of the government response of “wait, watch, delay” which Chief Minister Okram Ibobi has mastered and perfected during his three chief ministerial terms, most agitations which started with a boom had fizzled out in meek compromises. As Sharmila said, “It is like entering a chakravyu without knowing how to come out.”
The need of the hour is to change the course of the movement by charting a new strategy. “I need power, I need power, and in Manipur, there is no real democracy … I am being the real embodiment of revolution,“ she told reporters yesterday. It takes great insight to arrive at this conclusion and greater strength to be able to carry out the decision as Sharmila has done.
Thingnam Anjulika Samom is a freelance journalist based in Imphal, Manipur. Views expressed are personal.