Harsh Dobhal is joint Managing Editor of Combat Law .
Six years of satyagraha. Sharmila continues her fast, in custody, confined to a room in AIIMS, writing poetry, reading books, doing yoga. The struggle against AFSPA continues. In Manipur and in Delhi. Harsh Dobhal follows Irom Sharmila’s resistance in …
New private ward. All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. As you enter the building, about a dozen policemen and intelligence personnel stop you. After seeking permission from a reluctant inspector, about five suspicious and armed policemen stationed at the door of room number 57 carry on the interrogation and more questions follow.
Inside the room, a frail young woman is lying on her back on the hospital bed in a rather awkward position. She is doing halasan, a plough position of yoga. Her body carefully covered with a blue blanket. Clean complexion, sharp eyes, unkempt hair and a white strip of medical tape around her nose. Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries is next to her head; she has just finished reading the celebrated book on his young journeys by the legendary revolutionary. “This is a very good exercise for kidneys and to cure diabetes. I do it everyday for few hours.” She talks and continues her yoga. “You can talk; it doesn’t matter if I am doing yoga.”
A voracious reader, she has been relentlessly reading books on Japanese folk tales, yoga, Nelson Mandela, Che, Gandhi. Friends have been coming with gifts, diaries, calendars and she looks forward eagerly to pass these on to other visiting friends, her personal life being intensely sparse, stoic and simple. She liked reading the biography of Nelson Mandela and has now sent it to the central library of Manipur, along with the other books she happens to come across.
Irom Sharmila Chanu, 34, poetess, painter and Gandhian activist from Manipur, has been on fast-unto-death since November 4, 2000, being force-fed through a pipe in her nose. Her categorical demand — repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) which gives draconian powers to the security forces, who have used the Act brutally and repeatedly in the northeast.
Having completed six years of this ‘satyagraha fast’ on November 4, this year, Sharmila has come to symbolise the steadfast scaffolding of the movement against the injustices committed under AFSPA and in support of the protracted struggle for justice, human rights and peace in Manipur and the northeast. An iconic legend in Manipur’s politics, her fast is perhaps the longest political protest of its kind in history and in any part of the world.
Irom Nanda and Irom Sakhi Devi of Kongpal Kongkham village, on the periphery of Imphal, had no idea what was in store for their daughter, the youngest among nine siblings (five brothers and four sisters) and dearest to all, when she was born on March 14, 1972. “I am the youngest daughter born to an illiterate, compassionate and strong mother — we were nine children, my eldest brother died due to an illness. I am not important for this world, just like a worm that can be crushed. I failed my class XII exam. I don’t like speaking too much, but it is inevitable when someone comes to conduct an interview,” she told a friend who has been attending her in hospital. Sharmila never went to college.
On the first day in hospital after regaining little strength, Sharmila said that she did not need assistance to wash her clothes. “This is my work. I must keep my muscles strong. In Manipur, I cleaned the floor of my cell each day.” She has basically remained in custody all these years.
As a 15-day-old child, Sharmila was fed with boiled rice juice as her mother could not breastfeed her. Few days later, brother Singhajit would take her to “other mothers” in the neighbourhood who had recently given birth to babies. “She was fed by many mothers of Manipur. If any woman came to our small grocery shop with a small baby, we would request her to feed Sharmila,” he says. “Perhaps that is why she has grown so socially conscious and politically committed.”
As she grew up and “when I look back now, I realise I had a few different habits as a child. I used to sit in the Shiva temple, close to my house, and talk about regular, everyday things,” says Sharmila.
When doctors at AIIMS insisted that she must seek discharge from the hospital and the police complicated the issue by saying she would not be allowed out, she realised these were nothing but pressure tactics. Anguished that the doctors would ask her to pay the hospital bill, she told a friend: “What do they want from me? I possess nothing, only my organs.” As expected, the hard years of continuous fasting have taken their toll on her health and her fasting is now having a direct impact on her body’s normal functioning. Apart from other medical problems she has developed, her bones have reportedly become brittle. The doctors at AIIMS have not released any medical report on her health.
“I need to keep myself healthy. The force-feeding is completely unnatural.” She walks for about two hours, if given permission, in the hospital corridor with at least one security personnel stationed at each side of the corridor. “I must be strong. I have to fight.” Apart from learning shorthand, Sharmila has also completed a course in yoga and naturopathy.
When she began her fast on November 4, 2000, most people had little inkling of her resolve. Some of them shrugged it off, others took it non-seriously, a handful ridiculed it. But for Sharmila, life had taken a different turn, a tough long-distance journey with a clear destination, a U-turn with no return ticket.
The decision to go on long fast, though well-thought over, was not an action planned well in advance. In fact, Sharmila had joined the anti-AFSPA movement just two weeks before she began fasting. A three-member Indian People’s Inquiry Committee (IPIC) headed by Justice H Suresh had visited Manipur in the second week of October in 2000. The committee travelled to various areas of Manipur and met a number of victims, their relatives and friends, to hear their tales of injustice – cases of rape, violence, killings and disappearances. It held workshops and extensive discussions with human rights lawyers, journalists, academics and others. Sharmila was a part of this process as a volunteer and that was her first political participation and initiation. During the IPIC investigations, she was particularly shaken by the testimony of a young girl who was raped by the security forces at Lamden village. Sharmila and two other women volunteers had privately talked to the girl.
As the IPIC completed its investigations by the third week of October, something had already sparked inside Sharmila’s soul by now. For the next few days, she met with several human rights activists, lawyers and journalists to learn more about repressive laws, army atrocities and AFSPA in particular.
On November 2, 2000, security forces fired at and killed 10 innocent people waiting at a bus stop at Malom, about 15 km from Imphal. That was a Thursday when Sharmila would observe her weekly fast since her childhood. “The same fast continues till date, though she declared it on November 4,” brother Singhajit informs.
Though there was nothing new for the people in Manipur about the Malom massacre as they had witnessed similar cold-blooded killings before when the security forces would go berserk and kill ordinary people, Sharmila could not bear the sight of the blood spilled on the street. That sin
gle event changed her life. By now she had already taken a decision. She went to her mother on the evening of November 4 and took her blessings “to do something better for the people”. That was the last time the mother and daughter saw each other. “My mother knows everything about my decision. She is extremely simple, but she has the courage to let me do my bounden duty… My mother has given me her blessings. If I meet her, it may weaken both of us.” Ever since, Sharmila has not combed her hair, not looked into the mirror and not a single drop of water has crossed her mouth. She cleans her teeth with dry cotton.
Armed with her mother’s blessings, Sharmila headed straight to the site of the bloodbath. And thus began her historic, peaceful fast. By November 21, she was arrested on charges of ‘attempt to suicide’. The administration began force-feeding her nasally, confining her to the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal. It has been six years since. Under judicial custody, she has refused to break her fast or seek bail. As is the pattern, on the completion of one year, she is released by the court, as the maximum sentence given to her for ‘attempting suicide’ can’t exceed one year. She is repeatedly rearrested within 2-3 days as she continues her fast without water. And this yearly cycle continues, till date.
An iconic legend, her fast is perhaps the longest political protest of its kind in history in any part of the world. She symbolises the steadfast scaffolding of the movement against injustice
“I was shocked to see the dead bodies. There was no means to stop further violations by the armed forces…. It (fast) is the most effective way because it is based on a spiritual fight… My fast is on behalf of the people of Manipur. This is not a personal battle, it is symbolic. It is a symbol of truth, love and peace,” she says.
This year, on October 3, as she was again released by the court, her brother and a friend kept her away from the media limelight for one night. Next day, dodging media and security personnel, they literally smuggled her out of Manipur. She landed in Delhi the same day, in an attempt to highlight the issue nationally. From the airport, she headed straight to Rajghat to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi’s <samadhi>. “If Gandhiji were alive today, he would have launched a movement against the AFSPA. My appeal to the citizens of the country is to join the struggle against AFSPA,” Sharmila told journalists. Later that day, Sharmila went to Jantar Mantar and continued her fast with a stream of people coming to express support. Three days later, in a midnight swoop, police picked her up and admitted her in AIIMS.
Sharmila is not alone in her struggle. Women in the northeast have a history of concerted political action, intense resistance and sacrifice, especially the great mothers of Manipur. Sharmila is continuing that legacy, taking it to new heights. The state erupted in flames in 2004, after the brutal rape and murder of a young woman activist, Thangjam Manorama Devi, by the Assam Rifles personnel. The brutal incident triggered an unprecedented form of protest by Manipuri women that shook the nation’s conscience. In an attempt to draw the attention of an insensitive and cold-blooded security and political establishment in Imphal and Delhi, otherwise obsessed with giving its army and police unrestricted powers in the name of national security, Manipuri mothers, for the first time, turned to their bodies to give vent to their resentment. They bared themselves in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal and challenged the army to rape them. “Come Indian Army, Rape Us,” said their banner, as they protested, fully naked.
Meanwhile, Sharmila continues her fast, in custody, confined to a room in AIIMS, writing poetry, reading books, doing yoga. The struggle against AFSPA continues. In Manipur and in Delhi. Indomitable, firm and resolute, Sharmila’s clarity is lucid; she is in no mood to turn back. “Unless and until they remove the AFSPA, I shall never stop my fasting.”
In her satyagraha for truth and justice, in her pain and suffering against the violence of the State against its own citizens, this gutsy woman is trying to make a simple point. But will the ‘largest democracy in the world’ ever get this message and act – for the sake of humanity?