ibnlive » India

Sep 10, 2011 at 11:13am IST

Special: Iron Lady of a lost cause

New Delhi: Irom Sharmila Chanu'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.

Irom hasn't eaten a morsel of food or taken a drop of water for the past six years.

Synonymous with the agitation against the Armed Forced Special Powers Act (AFSPA), Irom Sharmila demands that the draconian act 'must go' to restore peace in the state.

"I can't tolerate the atrocities on my contemporaries and on my people. This is God's will and I will carry on. It's intolerable," she says.

Today, she weighs just 37 kgs and most of her body organs are wasted. For the past six years, the Indian state has kept her alive on a cocktail of vitamins and nutrients and she is forcibly fed twice a day through her nose.

Charged with attempt to suicide, Sharmila has been in the custody of the Delhi Police for the past one year and five police personnel guard her round the clock.

Irom Sharmila, a poet, a Gandhian on a modern-day satygraha, is today a high security prisoner.

Those who come to visit her at Room No 8 in the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in the Capital—where is is currently lodged—are searched, their gifts opened, and conversations overheard.

In a nation that reveres the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha one of Gandhi's greatest followers has been forgotten.

What is AFSPA?
bullet The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gives the Army and the paramilitary forces the power to use force, shoot or arrest anyone on a mere suspicion.
bullet The Act allows no judicial proceedings against Army personnel without the sanction of the Central Government.
bullet The Act has been in place in Manipur and most of the Northeast since 1980, when Sharmila was just eight-years-old.

The story of Irom—the 'Iron Lady'

Far away in a hut in Imphal is where the her story began. Sharmila is the youngest of eight siblings and by the time she was born, her mother Irom Sakhi was dry.


She couldn't breast-feed Sharmila who was taken to any mother who could. As Sakhi sits outside their small hut in Imphal, she often wonders how her simple little daughter became such a steel willed and stubborn woman.

"When we don't have one meal, we feel so uncomfortable. Every meal I have had in the past six years, I have thought of her," says Irom Sakhi, Irom's mother.

"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," she adds.

Perhaps this is her service to all her mothers. But what made her begin this epic fast? The power of Irom Sharmila's story is in her simplicity. Her struggle is simple and honest—devoid of cliches that heroism is often associated with.

The beginning of Irom's struggle

On November 1, 2000, an insurgent group had bombed an Army column. The 8 Assam Rifles retaliated by killing 10 civilians at this bus-stand in Malom.

Among the dead was an 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. Sinam was a 4-year-old when he saved another child from drowning.

He had gone with his brother to see their aunt off to the bus station. Their mother wouldn't see her eldest and youngest sons again.

But the mother Chandrajani doesn't weep as she brings out a bag full of memories—photographs, certificates, a bravery medal and numerous newspaper clippings carefully underlined.

"When the soldiers came, there was chaos. Everyone was running here and there. I didn't even get to know that my sons had been shot," says Sinam Chandramani's mother, Chandrajani.

The Centre's Child Welfare department, unaware of the tragedy, sends a letter every year to find out how the boy is doing. What do one say to a mother who has lost two sons to the AFSPA?

Irom's struggle continues

Over the years, defending the AFSPA has become increasingly difficult as the Army in its bid to quell insurgency has often trained its guns at the young and brave Manipuris.

Malom wasn't the first violation by the Army. It wasn't going to be the last. Sharmila, a young girl of 28, was already a Human Rights activist.

She was speaking regularly to victims of Army atrocities - rape victims, families whose members had disappeared. She felt their pain, their struggle was hers. Malom was the breaking point. Stirred by the incident, Irom Sharmila began her fast.

"She came to me and said 'please bless me'. There is a meeting after which I will not come home," recalls Irom Sakhi.

No media. No slogans. No grand announcements. Just a young woman with faith in her belief that her people must be allowed to live without fear.

Ridiculed at first for taking on the might of the Indian Army, many wondered how long she would last.


Days turned to weeks, weeks into months and soon all of Manipur was standing behind her. Irom's simple Gandhian fast gradually became an epic protest that still remains unparalleled in history.

The state responded by charging Irom with attempted suicide and put her at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Hospital in Imphal. Sharmila spent the next five years in this hospital room in a security ward set up just for her.

Ministers came and ministers went, but no one could persuade to take back her demand or end her fast. Powerful, honest and resolute, she continued. And the centre, it remained unresponsive and indifferent.

An attempt to suicide charge means she couldn't be arrested for more than a year. So every year she was released for two odd days and then re-arrested.

"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. Its not a matter of death," says Irom.

Sharmila gave up all pleasures and all aspirations—everything. Yoga and reading were the only habits. From Gandhi to Nelson Mandela and from the Buddha to Che Guevera, books were her only companions through the days and nights of her pain and loneliness.

Her mother who had blessed Sharmila to succeed in her mission, hasn't seen her daughter for the past six years. "I blessed her, you will be successful. I didnt know what she was asking for. Her call has not been fulfilled. How can I meet her?" she says.

Just metres away from her daughter, but Irom Sakhi never met Sharmila for six years. What kept her away was the fear that her brave daughter may see the mother's weak side.

The story of Manorama

Irom'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.

For Manorma's mother, time has stood still. In their three room house, Manorma's room has been left just as it was the day she was picked up by the Assam Rifles.

Her spectacles, a book and slippers remain carefully placed. Almost as if it was a daily habit, her mother looks through album after album hoping to come to terms with this loss.

Three years after the incident, Manorma's last rites still haven't been performed. Unless and until the AFSPA is repealed, there will be no ceremony.

Following the incident, Manipur broke out in violence once again. And that's when a group of women decided to speak out.

Fear and counter fear. Violence and counter violence. Combine that with the paralysing and crippling indifference of the rest of the country. It's a cycle of violence, civil society in Manipur is trying hard to break through the most non violent of means.


But sometimes human expression can take a very different form, for instance why did the 12 mothers disrobe themselves in protest?

Protesting the indifference of a disinterested nation, these 12 women walked naked, finally catching the country's imagination. They would become the Imas or the mothers of Manipur.

It has been three years since their daring protest, but the fire is still intact.

"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?" says Ningthoujam Sorojini, one of the protestors.

The pain the anger the outrage the cynicism, the indifference of a nation that refuses to take notice. "Indian army rape us and kill us," says Laishram Gyaneshwari, another protestor.

But the protests didn't end the hardships. The state responded by putting them in jails for three months, and accusing them of having links with underground outfits.

"If anyone claims we did it at the behest of the underground outfits come before us and say that. We did not even tell our boys," says Yumlembam Mema, a member of Mothers of Manipur.

And not all families understood what they were doing and why. "It was difficult to go back to the family. Everything wasn't fine," says Soibam Momon, another member of Mothers of Manipur.

"There was a larger understanding. The hard part was that they detained and kept us in jail for three months. It's difficult as a mother to dream that my child will be successful in this state," she adds.

The Imas of Manipur are today one of the most revered group in the state. The question everyone is asking here is that will the Act be repealed in their lifetime?

Every village has a story of someone lost, someone tortured and many others who live in constant fear. The photographs placed just as one enters the village are a grim reminder of a collective pain and trauma of Manipur.

In another part of Imphal, a testimonial session is going on organised by Apunba Lub, an umbrella organisation fighting against the AFSPA. And it's a burning issue in Manipur something that comes before all else.


The Battle Within

On one side is the Army and the on the other, rival insurgents. One look at the streets of Manipur and you'll know how strong the presence is—fifty to fifty five thousand Army personnel for a population of two million.

With guns and combat fatigues, the Indian Army is a common sight everywhere, from busy markets to narrow gullies, from the main roads to the interiors. A military camp can be found in nearly every inhabited area of the region.

The reasons for the heavy deployment are also hard to see. The Indian Army today is fighting numerous insurgent groups with ethnically-based support among Meities, Nagas and Kukis. In recent years, smaller ethnic groups have also formed their own-armed organisations.

Then why have these powers given to soldiers in insurgency situations become such a debate?

"It is not so much the number of people who get killed, but the possibility that your life can be worth the suspicion of a soldier is very scary in itself," says Babloo Loitangbam from Human Rights Alert, Manipur.

The Army's own casulaties in Manipur have been on the rise. The Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission set up by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to look into the AFSPA and many other reports that have recommended a more humane act and are yet to be discussed.

It's not the Army alone, it's the cycle of violence young Manipuris are trying hard to break, looking for life beyond.

And Sharmila's niece is one of them. "Actually, I want to become an air hostess, but I am a social worker in HRA," says Irom Sunibala, Irom Sharmila's niece.

It would have been easier to narrate a story on gender bias, but Manipur's women have not risen against anything that ordinary. Their's is an extraordinary battle because the men are mostly in the shadows fighting another war.

The women of Manipur have become the brunt, the face and perhaps the solution of an unceasing war. Meanwhile, Irom Sharmila is far far away from her home, continuing with her fast, hoping some day peace would return.