Lunch With Irom Sharmila: ‘The Iron Lady’ on Life After Manipur

Far from home in Bengaluru, Irom Sharmila talks about life outside the public eye. She doesn’t plan on returning.

4 min read
“They are just like an audience, just looking up to the stage, playing those characters. From the beginning, with thousands, lakhs of eyes looking on me.”
Irom Sharmila

As a 28-year-old in 2000, Irom Sharmila, already involved in campaigning for civil rights and participating in movements against human rights violations in Manipur, began a hunger strike that lasted 16 years. She was spurred to non-violent protest after a massacre in Manipur’s Malom town killed ten civilians, including children and the aged.

She grew to become a symbol of resistance for the people of the Northeast and those in Manipur particularly, as she called for the revocation of the problematic Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, that gave the army extraordinary powers to search, arrest and use ‘deadly’ power. She also famously vowed not to eat, drink, comb her hair or look in a mirror until AFSPA was repealed.

Two years after leaving Manipur in 2017, she has set out on a new experience, as she calls it, of marriage and motherhood, far away in Bengaluru.

The Quint caught up with Sharmila, just before her 47th birthday on 14 March. When asked if she was nervous about becoming a mother, she laughed and said ‘I don’t know what it will be like!’ She likes the peace and quiet in Bengaluru, where everything is in plenty. But she is stoic about the passage of time.

“It’s just experience, experiencing this naturalness of this course of life’s journey.”

Her ordeal of 16 years made her a global name, with Amnesty International labeling her a prisoner of conscience, a term given to those who have been imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for the non-violent assertion of their beliefs.

‘Dislike Being Treated Like a Celebrity’: Sharmila

However, she dislikes her ‘celebrity status’ or those hounding her for selfies, without a proper realisation of what she stood for, or how best to take her legacy forward.

“That kind of inspiration, that’s not what I really want. They just say somewhat, oh, that amazing, all that, I really don’t like that kind... on their own level, trying to convince others also, and exerting some efforts at their own level to get free of such laws. That way, I want them to be inspired,” she said.

Irom Sharmila 
Irom Sharmila 
(Photo: The Quint)

She also said that Members of Parliament elected from the northeastern states should play a bigger role in bringing citizen’s issues to the fore at the national level, instead of allowing the MPs of bigger states, that have a greater representation in Parliament to dominate the debate.

“They never represent people in the Parliament, and people’s voices. They just become puppets of the government, never representative of the people. In case of those big states, like UP or some other big state, with large populations, over 100 MPs from there, they rule the Parliament and everything.”

‘Everything Tasty is my Favourite’: Sharmila

While she gave up eating for a cause much bigger than herself, Sharmila said that she didn’t give up food because she doesn’t relish it, but owing to a Gandhian inspiration for someone who was not “well-educated, rich and strong”.

“Whichever tasty are all favourites (sic). I really have no articular food or taste,” she says nonchalantly, adding “I used to eat for one, now I have to eat for two more.”

Irom Sharmila with her husband, Desmond in Bengaluru
Irom Sharmila with her husband, Desmond in Bengaluru
(Photo: The Quint)

Instead, she recollects the first time she was force-fed. “That, my first eating was feeding by the police, which was just repulsive, I couldn’t ingest it,” she says.

‘Misunderstanding was There From the Beginning’: Sharmila

While she left Manipur in 2017, soon after her foray into politics, she doesn’t have any plans of returning to her native state, for whose citizens she had become the ultimate symbol of resistance. Ultimately, it ended up dehumanising her to the public at large.

“The misunderstanding between me and them (people of Manipur) was already there. They just felt proud of me sacrificing a young woman, a single woman for social cause. Mainly because our conservative society just saw me as a superhuman being, somewhat demigod like, and just all kinds of versions of me what they wanted”

Building a New Life

In Bengaluru, Sharmila spends her days busy at home, or spending time with Desmond travelling and at leisure.

“I am very relaxed,” she declares. However, in 2009, her budding relationship with Desmond had become a major security concern for the couple. On one of his trips, Desmond was beaten up and even jailed for 77 days ‘because’ of his British citizenship’ says Sharmila, attracting rumours that he was a spy out to misguide her.

For a large part of their relationship, their acquaintance was mainly through letters.

“Yes, we’ve saved them all. At one point, we were writing to each other nearly on a daily basis. It wasn’t just letters, I would also send her seeds, clothes, books from where ever I was at the time. She was alone in hostile company, so something to uplift her.”
Desmond and Sharmila
Desmond and Sharmila
(Photo: The Quint)

Sharmila maintained that each event in her life was a new experience, another challenge.

When asked about her plans for the future, she said, “Not from my side, but God’s plan. I just feel an unstoppable course of journey, from youngerness to olderness.”

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