By Harsh Dobhal
17 November, 2006
New private ward. All India Institute
of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. As you enter the building, about
a dozen policemen and intelligence personnel stop you. After seeking
permission from a reluctant inspector, about five suspicious and armed
policemen stationed at the door of room number 57 carry on the interrogation
and more questions follow.
Inside the room, a frail
young woman is lying on her back on the hospital bed in a rather awkward
position. She is doing halasan, a plough position of yoga. Her body
carefully covered with a blue blanket. Clean complexion, sharp eyes,
unkempt hair and a white strip of medical tape around her nose. Che
Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries is next to her head; she has
just finished reading the celebrated book on his young journeys by the
legendary revolutionary. “This is a very good exercise for kidneys
and to cure diabetes. I do it everyday for few hours.” She talks
and continues her yoga. “You can talk; it doesn’t matter
if I am doing yoga.”
A voracious reader, she has
been relentlessly reading books on Japanese folk tales, yoga, Nelson
Mandela, Che, Gandhi. Friends have been coming with gifts, diaries,
calendars and she looks forward eagerly to pass these on to other visiting
friends, her personal life being intensely sparse, stoic and simple.
She liked reading the biography of Nelson Mandela and has now sent it
to the central library of Manipur, along with the other books she happens
to come across.
Irom Sharmila Chanu, 34, poetess, painter and Gandhian activist from
Manipur, has been on fast-unto-death since November 4, 2000, being force-fed
through a pipe in her nose. Her categorical demand — repeal the
Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) which gives draconian
powers to the security forces, who have used the Act brutally and repeatedly
in the northeast.
Having completed six years
of this ‘satyagraha fast’ on November 4, this year, Sharmila
has come to symbolise the steadfast scaffolding of the movement against
the injustices committed under AFSPA and in support of the protracted
struggle for justice, human rights and peace in Manipur and the northeast.
An iconic legend in Manipur’s politics, her fast is perhaps the
longest political protest of its kind in history and in any part of
Irom Nanda and Irom Sakhi
Devi of Kongpal Kongkham village, on the periphery of Imphal, had no
idea what was in store for their daughter, the youngest among nine siblings
(five brothers and four sisters) and dearest to all, when she was born
on March 14, 1972. “I am the youngest daughter born to an illiterate,
compassionate and strong mother — we were nine children, my eldest
brother died due to an illness. I am not important for this world, just
like a worm that can be crushed. I failed my class XII exam. I don’t
like speaking too much, but it is inevitable when someone comes to conduct
an interview,” she told a friend who has been attending her in
hospital. Sharmila never went to college.
On the first day in hospital
after regaining little strength, Sharmila said that she did not need
assistance to wash her clothes. “This is my work. I must keep
my muscles strong. In Manipur, I cleaned the floor of my cell each day.”
She has basically remained in custody all these years.
As a 15-day-old child, Sharmila was fed with boiled rice juice as her
mother could not breastfeed her. Few days later, brother Singhajit would
take her to “other mothers” in the neighbourhood who had
recently given birth to babies. “She was fed by many mothers of
Manipur. If any woman came to our small grocery shop with a small baby,
we would request her to feed Sharmila,” he says. “Perhaps
that is why she has grown so socially conscious and politically committed.”
As she grew up and “when I look back now, I realise I had a few
different habits as a child. I used to sit in the Shiva temple, close
to my house, and talk about regular, everyday things,” says Sharmila.
When doctors at AIIMS insisted
that she must seek discharge from the hospital and the police complicated
the issue by saying she would not be allowed out, she realised these
were nothing but pressure tactics. Anguished that the doctors would
ask her to pay the hospital bill, she told a friend: “What do
they want from me? I possess nothing, only my organs.” As expected,
the hard years of continuous fasting have taken their toll on her health
and her fasting is now having a direct impact on her body’s normal
functioning. Apart from other medical problems she has developed, her
bones have reportedly become brittle. The doctors at AIIMS have not
released any medical report on her health.
“I need to keep myself
healthy. The force-feeding is completely unnatural.” She walks
for about two hours, if given permission, in the hospital corridor with
at least one security personnel stationed at each side of the corridor.
“I must be strong. I have to fight.” Apart from learning
shorthand, Sharmila has also completed a course in yoga and naturopathy.
When she began her fast on
November 4, 2000, most people had little inkling of her resolve. Some
of them shrugged it off, others took it non-seriously, a handful ridiculed
it. But for Sharmila, life had taken a different turn, a tough long-distance
journey with a clear destination, a U-turn with no return ticket.
The decision to go on long
fast, though well-thought over, was not an action planned well in advance.
In fact, Sharmila had joined the anti-AFSPA movement just two weeks
before she began fasting. A three-member Indian People’s Inquiry
Committee (IPIC) headed by Justice H Suresh had visited Manipur in the
second week of October in 2000. The committee travelled to various areas
of Manipur and met a number of victims, their relatives and friends,
to hear their tales of injustice – cases of rape, violence, killings
and disappearances. It held workshops and extensive discussions with
human rights lawyers, journalists, academics and others. Sharmila was
a part of this process as a volunteer and that was her first political
participation and initiation. During the IPIC investigations, she was
particularly shaken by the testimony of a young girl who was raped by
the security forces at Lamden village. Sharmila and two other women
volunteers had privately talked to the girl.
As the IPIC completed its
investigations by the third week of October, something had already sparked
inside Sharmila’s soul by now. For the next few days, she met
with several human rights activists, lawyers and journalists to learn
more about repressive laws, army atrocities and AFSPA in particular.
On November 2, 2000, security
forces fired at and killed 10 innocent people waiting at a bus stop
at Malom, about 15 km from Imphal. That was a Thursday when Sharmila
would observe her weekly fast since her childhood. “The same fast
continues till date, though she declared it on November 4,” brother
Though there was nothing
new for the people in Manipur about the Malom massacre as they had witnessed
similar cold-blooded killings before when the security forces would
go berserk and kill ordinary people, Sharmila could not bear the sight
of the blood spilled on the street. That single event changed her life.
By now she had already taken a decision. She went to her mother on the
evening of November 4 and took her blessings “to do something
better for the people”. That was the last time the mother and
daughter saw each other. “My mother knows everything about my
decision. She is extremely simple, but she has the courage to let me
do my bounden duty… My mother has given me her blessings. If I
meet her, it may weaken both of us.” Ever since, Sharmila has
not combed her hair, not looked into the mirror and not a single drop
of water has crossed her mouth. She cleans her teeth with dry cotton.
Armed with her mother’s
blessings, Sharmila headed straight to the site of the bloodbath. And
thus began her historic, peaceful fast. By November 21, she was arrested
on charges of ‘attempt to suicide’. The administration began
force-feeding her nasally, confining her to the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital
in Imphal. It has been six years since. Under judicial custody, she
has refused to break her fast or seek bail. As is the pattern, on the
completion of one year, she is released by the court, as the maximum
sentence given to her for ‘attempting suicide’ can’t
exceed one year. She is repeatedly rearrested within 2-3 days as she
continues her fast without water. And this yearly cycle continues, till
An iconic legend, her fast
is perhaps the longest political protest of its kind in history in any
part of the world. She symbolises the steadfast scaffolding of the movement
“I was shocked to see
the dead bodies. There was no means to stop further violations by the
armed forces…. It (fast) is the most effective way because it
is based on a spiritual fight… My fast is on behalf of the people
of Manipur. This is not a personal battle, it is symbolic. It is a symbol
of truth, love and peace,” she says.
This year, on October 3,
as she was again released by the court, her brother and a friend kept
her away from the media limelight for one night. Next day, dodging media
and security personnel, they literally smuggled her out of Manipur.
She landed in Delhi the same day, in an attempt to highlight the issue
nationally. From the airport, she headed straight to Rajghat to pay
homage to Mahatma Gandhi’s <samadhi>. “If Gandhiji
were alive today, he would have launched a movement against the AFSPA.
My appeal to the citizens of the country is to join the struggle against
AFSPA,” Sharmila told journalists. Later that day, Sharmila went
to Jantar Mantar and continued her fast with a stream of people coming
to express support. Three days later, in a midnight swoop, police picked
her up and admitted her in AIIMS.
Sharmila is not alone in
her struggle. Women in the northeast have a history of concerted political
action, intense resistance and sacrifice, especially the great mothers
of Manipur. Sharmila is continuing that legacy, taking it to new heights.
The state erupted in flames in 2004, after the brutal rape and murder
of a young woman activist, Thangjam Manorama Devi, by the Assam Rifles
personnel. The brutal incident triggered an unprecedented form of protest
by Manipuri women that shook the nation’s conscience. In an attempt
to draw the attention of an insensitive and cold-blooded security and
political establishment in Imphal and Delhi, otherwise obsessed with
giving its army and police unrestricted powers in the name of national
security, Manipuri mothers, for the first time, turned to their bodies
to give vent to their resentment. They bared themselves in front of
the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal and challenged the army to rape
them. “Come Indian Army, Rape Us,” said their banner, as
they protested, fully naked.
Meanwhile, Sharmila continues her fast, in custody, confined to a room
in AIIMS, writing poetry, reading books, doing yoga. The struggle against
AFSPA continues. In Manipur and in Delhi. Indomitable, firm and resolute,
Sharmila’s clarity is lucid; she is in no mood to turn back. “Unless
and until they remove the AFSPA, I shall never stop my fasting.”
In her satyagraha for truth
and justice, in her pain and suffering against the violence of the State
against its own citizens, this gutsy woman is trying to make a simple
point. But will the ‘largest democracy in the world’ ever
get this message and act – for the sake of humanity?
'Iron Lady' Of Manipur
By Subhash Gatade
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