Eat, protest, love

Deccan Chronicle.  | manoj anand

Sunday Chronicle, headliners

Irom Sharmila’s 16-year battle against AFSPA makes away for a shot at normal life, and democracy

Irom Sharmila

On August 9 this week, Irom Sharmila — the woman who has not eaten a full meal in 16 years — left the confines of a ‘jail-hospital’ in Imphal, Manipur.  She headed to court where she spoke for herself and a bail order was issued with the judge even wishing her luck. Within the next few hours, the world’s “longest hunger strike” came to an end. Sharmila licked some honey from her palm as anxious faces stared at her. “I want to be a human being. I am being seen as a strange woman. Why can’t people see me as an ordinary person? I am cut off from everyone. I now want to be the Chief Minister of Manipur to make a positive difference,” she told reporters.

“People say politics is dirty, but so is society”
Some have welcomed her move into politics. Others are happy she’s getting married and then, there are those who are convinced her decision to start eating again is a bad idea — for Manipur. In fact, even before her fast came to an official end, two insurgent groups served her with a threat to life — if she joined politics or got married. She has been the one fasting but the fight against the Army has had its foundations in collective anger and even close relatives feel her decisions can’t be her own.  For many who have been at the receiving end of a state’s might, legends don’t travel in cars with flashing red lights. For the Iron Lady of Manipur then, these are uncertain times.

The Malom massacre
To fathom Manipur’s fight against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts, one must revisit what’s known as the Malom massacre. Ten people standing at a bus stop were allegedly gunned down by active elements from the 8 Assam Rifles on November 2, 2000, following the bombing of a military vehicle. One of the dead was 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. The soldiers’ claims that they had acted in self-defence failed to convince a judicial inquiry into the matter but due to provisions within AFSPA, no one went to trial. Sharmila, like many Hindu women who fast on Thursdays, was staying away from food on that day when news of the slaughter reacher her. Her stomach turned. 

“I thought what is the point of working for peace unless we do something to bring about a change. I was so upset after Malom massacre that I didn’t eat,” says Sharmila. That Thursday marked the start of her epic fast and it has been 16 years since any form of nutrient has passed through her mouth. She brushes her teeth with cotton — so that there’s no water either.  The government continues to forcefeed her and arrests her every year on the charge of attempt to suicide. She is fed a mix of proteins and juice — 1,600 calories a day.

Early years
Daughter of an attendant in the state veterinary department, Sharmila was born during a decade of violence — protest rallies were all she saw as a child. “I was on my bicycle once… coming back from a friend’s home. At the corner of a bridge, there were three rickshaw pullers, one of them barely a child. His face was half covered by a dirty cloth. An army vehicle drove by and, suddenly, without reason, one of the soldiers took his baton and started hitting the boy. They just took off after that.  I never forgot the incident.’’ That is just one of the incidents Sharmila often refers to to explain motivation. She has many others in memory.

Early childhood was spent in Porompat colony in Imphal with a large family of 19. Sharmila was the youngest of nine siblings, a loner who stood out from the rest of the riotous gang. At school, she spent days giving the tests her best but dreams of becoming a doctor had to be forfeited due to a failed, final attempt at the Class XII exam. The family, however, were encouraging and Sharmila soon started taking up active roles in various protest movements across Manipur. As of August 9 this year, she remains famous worldwide and has several thousand admirers. One in particular though, got a little closer. Enter 50-year-old India-born bearded Briton, Desmond Coutinho.

The soap opera
Coutinho, over the course of several, regular letters ended up proposing to Sharmila and is now — for many in Manipur — the much-hated “boyfriend” who has steered their icon away from her destiny. Coutinho came to Imphal for the first time in February 2011, two years after the exchange of letters started. He finally managed to meet Sharmila on March 9 — on court — just before she was released for a brief period.

For her, he’s become the one “who cares” and for him, she’s already, “mahatma”. “I am like Yoko Ono. Or Gandhiji’s wife. I will enable her to do her thing. I am marrying a mahatma and I have a rough idea that it’s not going to be an easy-going life,” he once wrote on his blog. Besides letters, he has sent over to Sharmila a wall-hanging and a tablecloth printed with the images of Radha and Krishna. But Sharmila’s family are not impressed. Their daughter’s request for a normal life they fear, will “dilute” Manipur’s fight against AFSPA. Sharmila’s mother has not spoken to her since the July 26 decision to break the fast and her brothers are furious as they claim they were “not consulted”.

There are others however, who are confident. Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Watch, a long-time associate of Sharmila’s, feels his friend should be first seen as a normal human being. In what has been perhaps the most humanising statement from the past several weeks, Loitongbam told journalists recently: “If something has not worked for 16 years, it is not likely to work for another 16 either. Right now, her decision to enter politics could go either way. But if she has managed to garner so much support over the years, there is no reason why she would not be able to do it as a politician.”