New Delhi: Irom Sharmila's struggle to get the Armed Forces Special Act (AFSPA) out from her state of Manipur has entered its tenth year on Tuesday.
The Iron Lady of Manipur as she is often called has been on a fast for the last ten years protesting against the AFSPA that is in place in parts of Manipur and the north east and gives the Army and the paramilitary forces the power to shoot or arrest on mere suspicion. Sharmila's fast began 10 years ago after an incident involving the Assam Rifle in Malom.
A Gandhian on a modern day satyagraha. Sharmila's battle isn’t just against the AFSPA but the cycle of violence the state finds itself in.
For ten years Irom Sharmila Chanu hasn't eaten anything - not a morsel of food, not a drop of water.
She is fasting in protest. Her demand, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) must go to free Manipur from the grip of fear.
Peace and dignity must return.
“I can't tolerate the atrocities on my contemporaries, on my people. This is God’s will. I will carry on. It’s intolerable,” said Irom Sharmila Chanu.
This interview was taken four years ago. Sharmila now weighs 37 kgs, most of her body organs are wasted and her menstrual cycle has stopped.
The Indian state has kept her alive on a cocktail of vitamins and nutrients. She is force-fed twice a day through her nose.
Irom Sharmila has been a high security prisoner,,,sometimes in Delhi, mostly in Imphal.
In a nation that revers the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha one of Gandhi's greatest followers has been forgotten. Irom Sharmila's story is magnetic in its moral force, yet not violent or binding. It’s heroic yet rooted. It's self-sacrificing. Irom's struggle talks about human life when it's robbed one of its most essential commodity - dignity. Far away in this Imphal hut is where the story began.
The AFSPA gives the Army and the paramilitary forces the power to use force, shoot or arrest anyone on a mere suspicion.
The Act has been in place in Manipur and most of the Northeast since 1980. Sharmila was then just 8 years old.
The youngest of 8 siblings - by the time Sharmila was born her mother Irom Sakhi was dry.
She couldn't breast-feed so Sharmila would be taken to any mother who could.
“Every meal I have had in the past 6 years, I have thought of her. I can't bear to think how painful nasal feeding must be. If she is victorious I will offer milk. Sharmila is the daughter of the people. She was breast fed by so many mothers,” said Irom Sakhi, Sharmila’s mother.
Perhaps this is her service to all her mothers. But what made a young girl of 28 begin an epic fast?
On November 2, 2000, a day earlier, an insurgent group had bombed an army column. The 8 Assam Rifles retaliated by killing 10 civilians at a bus stand in Malom.
Stirred by the incident Irom Sharmila began her fast.
Ridiculed at first for taking on the might of the Indian Army many wondered how long she would last.
“The state responded by charging Sharmila with attempted suicide and put her here, at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Hospital in Imphal where she has spent majority of the last ten years,” said Babloo Loitangbam, Human Rights Alert, Manipur.
“If it’s true I made an attempt to commit suicide, or if I really wanted to die, there is an electric bulb available. I would have used that. I have plenty of clothes I would have hung myself. It’s not a matter of death,” said Irom Sharmila.
Sharmila's simple Gandhian fast - an epic protest - remains unparalleled in history and for her mother although she hasn’t seen her daughter in the last ten years for fear that her brave daughter may see her mother’s weak side.
But who can say the Mothers of Manipur are weak?
Sharmila's protest had been for four years when the Assam Rifles picked up Thangjoram Manorma, claiming she was part of the banned People's Liberation Army. Her body was later found with clear signs of brutal torture and rape.
Manipur broke out in violence once again.
And that's when this group of 12 women decided to speak out. Protesting against the indifference of a apathetic nation.
As we enter Wangkhie, a small village in Imphal, to meet the 12 Imas or Mothers of Manipur who disrobed themselves at the Kangla fort nothing has changed.
The pain, the anger, the outrage, the cynicism still reflect as they look through pictures of that fateful day.
“What moral authority does anyone have to ask us for votes. They talk about Gandhi and Gandhigiri. It’s such a farce. We have burnt the Assembly down. We have protested naked. We are women. What more do you want us to do?” said Ningthoujam Sorojini, 'Mothers of Manipur'.
“Indian army rape us kill us,” Laishram Gyaneshwari, 'Mothers of Manipur'.
Not just Sharmila, not just the mothers, women of Manipur have become the face and perhaps the solution of an unceasing war.
Meanwhile Irom Sharmila is continuing with her fast, 10 years on, still hoping some day peace would return.