(This article was first published on 26 July 2016 and has been republished today to mark Irom Sharmila’s birth anniversary.)
Irom Sakhi Devi had once told me that though she is a proud mother, it breaks her heart that her child Sharmila hasn’t had a drop of water since 2000. She said, “Even if the Act can be repealed for five days, I think she can be saved. Just five days.’’
Sakhi Devi must be a relieved mother today. She has been waiting for this moment for sixteen years.
Irom, the Poster-Girl of Protest
In November 2000, her daughter Irom Sharmila had her last meal, touched her feet and left home, took a bus to Malom Bazar in the outskirts of Imphal and sat on a satyagraha that is unprecedented in the history of civil rights movement.
She vowed to be on a hunger strike till the government repealed the controversial Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) that gives immunity to the armed forces in disturbed areas and has resulted in huge excesses. That day, the soldiers of the Assam Rifles gunned down 10 bystanders at Malom. Sharmila’s unwavering protest began that very moment.
Bound to her hospital room or jail ward, Sharmila is freed once a year in what has now become a ritual in black humour. She is released for 48 hours on technical grounds and is rearrested as soon as two days are over. During captivity, Sharmila reads the Gita everyday and does Yoga.
In solitary confinement, Irom is force-fed with a tube: a picture that people across the world got accustomed to. Without her wanting it, she slowly morphed into a poster-girl for human rights defenders.
AFSPA Beyond Irom’s Fast
I met her when she had completed 10 years of her fast. She was calm and resolute and hopeful, telling me that the only thing which keeps her going is her “conscience, that’s all”. She would write poems, read her books and draw inspiration from her “surroundings”.
As I was leaving her room, she raised her soft voice and uttered:
I just want the Act repealed. That’s all.
But since then, Sharmila has grown restless and people close to her say she had been brooding about the hopelessness of her protest. She was tired of it and felt it was leading nowhere. She also spoke about being in love and her desire to lead a normal life.
Her announcement to the media on Tuesday at the local court where she is produced routinely may have come as a surprise but most people have welcomed it.
A youth from Imphal messaged me, “We think why only her who is fasting; what about the entire state of Manipur? Nobody tells her we are here to struggle with you, Sharmila, give up your fast so today I am very happy.”
Sharmila may have been the defining image of Manipur but a lot of people felt that her determined protest might have been feeding the interests of other agencies rather than pushing her cause, which is actually a collective issue.
However, Sharmila has actually changed the narrative on AFSPA and human rights and, through her impossible conviction, she succeeded in delegitimising AFSPA to the extent that the Prime Minister and the Home Minister had to publicly say that the Act needs to be more humane and probably even be replaced.
Irom Sharmila’s Contribution
Several commissions were set up and it was proven beyond doubt that the Act she was fighting against did abet human rights abuse. 15 summers have gone by in Malom, during which one half-hearted inquiry has been conducted.
All the Assam Rifles men who fired those bullets killing the people have got away without trial. AFSPA is still very much there despite sustained protests. The movement may have hit a roadblock but the issue moved from college debates to rock concerts, from books to academic conferences and helped raise concern in every section of society.
The armed forces though maintained a distance. Caught between human rights and wrongs over sixteen years, Sharmila has inspired a range of work from films to theatre and has had a number of organisations rallying around her. Many tributes are prepared every year, though most are weak and surface-level and none have the force to empower Sharmila’s cause, which has faded somewhat in public discourse.
What course she takes from August 9th (when she wants to call off her fast) will be her decision as much as sitting for the longest satyagraha was. She said she wants to use politics as a pitch to fight against the Act and also get married. Given her aspiration and Manipur’s 2017 election, hopefully her sacrifice will not be used as another tool to further political interests.
Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a senior journalist and author. His most recent book is Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters (Harper Collins 2015).