By Deepti Priya Mehrotra
A profile of the unique rebel who is fighting for a repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur
On March 8, 2008, peace activist Irom Sharmila was arrested in Imphal, Manipur. She was scheduled to address a meeting at the Meira Shang (Women’s Shelter), Porompat, organised by the Apunba Manipur Kanba Ima Lup (Mothers’ Union to Save Manipur).
A large number of women and human rights activists requested the police to allow her to be free as a symbolic gesture of respect on International Women’s Day. But their pleas went unheard. Sharmila, who had been released from judicial custody only the previous day (March 7), was re-arrested on charges of attempted suicide.
Irom Sharmila has repeatedly clarified that it’s not her intention to die. Her hunger strike, in its eighth year now, has one single goal: withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA), which empowers armed forces personnel to shoot and kill on grounds of mere “suspicion”. AFSPA was imposed throughout Manipur after the state was declared a “disturbed area” in 1980. This emergency law continues to be in force despite having had no positive impact on the insurgency situation in Manipur. Gross human rights violations are committed with impunity, under cover of this law, generating more insurgency. People in the state are caught in the crossfire between the armed forces on one side and the insurgents on the other. As State violence against ordinary citizens has grown over the decades, so too has retaliatory violence on the part of the insurgents.
Irom Sharmila represents the voice of the ordinary people of Manipur. Born and bred in simple circumstances, she barely completed her schooling, learnt shorthand and tailoring and then gravitated towards social work. She explored working with disabled children, youth and women’s groups. In October 2000, she joined Human Rights Alert (HRA) on a one-month internship. Quiet, observant and sincere, Sharmila cycled to and from HRA every day. During her internship, she met a number of victims of human rights violations and got an orientation on global human rights issues, as well as the situation in Manipur.
On November 2, 2000, the Assam Rifles (AR) gunned down 10 people at a bus stop in Malom village, near Imphal. Unknown insurgents had planted a bomb near the AR camp the previous day and, unable to locate the culprits, AR personnel hit out at random. Shaken to the core by this injustice, Irom Sharmila spontaneously decided to go on a hunger strike in protest. She took her mother’s blessings, then informed other activists who tried to dissuade her from taking such a difficult step. However, showing the first signs of her by-now legendary “iron will”, Sharmila went to Malom and began her fast. Scores of women and youth activists soon joined her, in solidarity with her anti-AFSPA stand. Within days, she was arrested by the police and sentenced under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — attempt to suicide – to a year in judicial custody (the maximum punishment awardable for this crime).
A series of arrests and re-arrests followed over the years. To this day, Irom Sharmila continues to be jailed and force-fed by the State. She spent her 36th birthday, March 14, 2008, in the security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru hospital, where medically unfit prisoners of Sajiwa Central Jail are housed. This has been her virtual home since November 2000: a small bare room, with a lady home guard in the corner to guard her at night, and five visits by a stiff-lipped nurse who feeds her a liquid diet through a nasal tube, during the day. In between, for around four months, Irom Sharmila escaped to New Delhi following her release on October 2, 2006. She went there to garner publicity and sympathy for her cause. Students, human rights activists and other concerned citizens rallied around her as she lay in protest at Jantar Mantar. The Delhi police swooped down and arrested her at midnight on October 6. They kept her in “protective custody” in hospital, where she was visited by journalists and supporters.
The first time I met Irom Sharmila, in early-November 2006, she was reading a book on Japanese folk stories. Subsequently, we discussed books whenever we met — Buddhist texts, Manipuri poetry, the newspapers, Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, Swami Rama’s Mystics of the Himalayas… I lent her Chinua Achebe and Greek mythology, and she spoke about her poems, saying: “I write long poems — some 400 lines, one 600 lines.”
In February 2008 she said she wanted to return to Imphal and, once alone, write a poem of at least 1,000 lines. “It will be about what I have seen and experienced of life, of our society,” she said.
Irom Sharmila left New Delhi for Manipur on March 4, 2008, and was arrested a few hours after her arrival in Imphal. She was remanded to judicial custody on March 7, 2008, for a year.
Permission to visit her in hospital in Imphal is not easily granted. When I made a trip to Imphal in April 2007, her brother, Irom Singhjit, ran around trying to get me permission to visit her. A jail escort came in with us. For six weeks, nobody had been allowed to meet her. Her face broke into a delighted smile when she saw us: she proffered a little notebook, saying: “I have completed writing the poem! It is a poem of one thousand and ten lines!” On my request, she read out the first page of the poem, and translated it. Called Rebirth, it reflects on the frailty of the human body, and the reason we are sent here, to exist between birth and death.
Irom Sharmila is philosophical, thoughtful and determined she will not eat until AFSPA is repealed. Not a single morsel of food, or even a drop of water, has passed through her lips since November 4, 2000 — a period of nearly 90 months. Stoic, friendly, and completely committed, Sharmila is a unique rebel.
In May 2007, she was awarded the Gwangju Human Rights Award in recognition of her unflagging efforts “to attain democracy, human rights and ethnic conciliation by peaceful means”. The Indian government did not allow her to travel to Gwangju, Korea, to receive this prestigious award. Instead a team went, including Irom Singhjit who received the award and made a speech on behalf of his sister, lawyer Preeti Verma of Human Rights and Law Network, and Annie Raja, General Secretary, National Federation of Indian Women.
In September 2007, a 50-member delegation of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), consisting of activists from across India, went to Imphal to join in a five-day hunger strike by Manipuri citizens protesting against AFSPA, in solidarity with Irom Sharmila. Solidarity fasts were held across the globe — in England, Pakistan and the US. But nothing seems to stir the conscience of the Indian State.
Government spokespersons have repeatedly assured the people of Manipur that they will review the Act. Yet the central government ignored the judgment of its own committee, the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, set up in 2004 to examine AFSPA. The committee report clearly states that the Act “has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness,” and should be withdrawn.
On March 4, 2008, Lok Sabha MP from the inner Manipur parliamentary constituency, Dr Thokchom Meinya, demanded immediate repeal of the AFSPA. Participating in a discussion in the Lok Sabha, he said: “There are laws in this country which are national in character and regional in application. One such infamous law is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.”
In early March, Peace Women Across the Globe, an international NGO, appealed for solidarity with Irom Sharmila, asking all women’s groups and democratic forces to become involved in action to support Sharmila’s campaign. Film screenings of Tales from the Margins, a documentary film about the struggles waged by Sharmila and other Manipuri women, were held in several places. On March 7-8, grassroots people’s movements in Kerala and Tamil Nadu observed Manipur Solidarity Day to express their concern for human rights violations in far-off Manipur and demand the repeal of anti-people laws.
Yet, Sharmila continues to languish in jail. Her grandmother Irom Tonsija Devi, who provided much of her early inspiration, died on March 1, at the age of 105. She had not met her beloved granddaughter for over seven years. Neither has Sharmila’s mother Irom Sakhi Devi, although she often passes by the hospital, located barely a kilometre from their humble home. Unshed tears shining in her eyes, Sakhi Devi says: “I feel I will go mad sometimes.”
Sharmila Irom one day said: “The day the Act is withdrawn I will eat rice from my mother’s hands.”
Physically isolated, her body frail, Sharmila’s spirit remains as strong as ever. Tucked away in a state geographically and culturally remote from the capital, she nonetheless poses a powerful challenge to the impunity and high-handedness of State power.
(Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer)
Additional note: This year, like the past many years, Irom Sharmila was released from prison on March 7, 2009 and rearrested again on March 9, 2009 as she continued her fast. Just before night-fall on 7 March 2009, after her release from the high-security ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, Sharmila walked to the market place less than a kilometre away where hundreds of Meira Paibi have been fasting in relays from 10 December 2008, the International Human Rights Day. Accompanying the Meira Paibi in solidarity were nearly 100 others including some 50 visiting members of the Network of Women in Media-India. Speaking softly after her release, Sharmila’s comments made in the Meitei language were lyrical and the ‘mothers’ were often moved to tears. Here is a rough transliteration put together from the recollections of some of the bilingual listeners:
Question: Are you tired?
Irom Sharmila: ‘I am not tired. I have the strength to walk the streets of Imphal. Will you be able to keep up with me?
Words cannot express my deep gratitude when I see you all waiting for me here. You have renewed my courage. I will continue my campaign till the draconian AFPSA is repealed throughout Manipur.
Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. As the world observes this day, there is a very beautiful place on earth, with lofty hills and the clear flowing water in the streams, where the flowers bloom, a place on earth where one woman is being kept in solitary confinement. Isn’t this ironic?
This time [the release] feels different because you all are here. When I come here and see the Meira Paibi and women from other parts of India, I hope that they will take with them this story and our voices.
Some time later, clasping the hands of yet a sister who had lost her brother to the violence gripping Manipur some days ago, she said:
There is more to life than death.
A dew drop on a lotus leaf is just blown away by the breeze. I don’t want to end my life [like a dew drop] without a purpose.’