15 years on, Irom Sharmila still fasts, but repealing AFSPA remains a distant dream

If you can’t instantly place who she is, fret not. You are not alone. It is a collective amnesia, the brain blocking out what makes us uncomfortable, what we cannot cope with. It is easier to press the delete button than to face up to the reality of Irom Sharmila, who has been on a continuous hunger-strike since 2 November 2000, precisely fifteen years ago to the day or for 5,475 days without a morsel going down her throat except the liquids force-fed her by doctors.

hidden November 03, 2015 07:30:07 IST
15 years on, Irom Sharmila still fasts, but repealing AFSPA remains a distant dream

by Gouri Chatterjee

The date: 27 October 2015; the place: the court of the chief judicial magistrate, Imphal West, Manipur. Reporters were milling around, evidently a VIP visit was on the cards. And it was. Irom Sharmila Chanu had been brought there by ambulance from the Security Ward of Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences where she is held under judicial custody, for yet another hearing of the case against her under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, ie attempt to suicide. The court simply fixed a date for the next hearing, 9 November 2015.

If you can’t instantly place who she is, fret not. You are not alone. It is a collective amnesia, the brain blocking out what makes us uncomfortable, what we cannot cope with. It is easier to press the delete button than to face up to the reality of Irom Sharmila, who has been on a continuous hunger-strike since 2 November 2000, precisely fifteen years ago to the day or for 5,475 days without a morsel going down her throat except the liquids force-fed her by doctors. The longest hunger-strike ever, anywhere in the world. Yet, her goal, the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), is still as distant as it was on that November day fifteen years ago when the senseless killing by the army of ten civilians waiting at a bus stop in Malom had stopped her from breaking the fast she had been observing that Thursday, as she did like a good Hindu every Thursday, in honour of the goddess Lakshmi.

15 years on Irom Sharmila still fasts but repealing AFSPA remains a distant dream

Irom Sharmila in a file photo. AFP

But the going is getting tougher and tougher. “When she started fasting, there were all kinds of rumours about Sharmila. Some said she was mad. Others said she came from a very poor family and was being paid to do this. Another rumour was that she had a boyfriend who died in the Malom massacre. People just could not understand why anyone would do something like this,” her brother had told journalists earlier. Yet, there was respect for her commitment, awe at her determination, and readiness to help. Today, as she told reporters outside the court room last month, her trial was at a crucial stage and she needs mass support now but even the people of Manipur had forsaken her. There were very few who were at her side these days. She was, reported Northeast Today, feeling very disheartened that not a single supporter was there in the court complex that day. People didn’t seem to care if the AFSPA, that gives the armed forces the licence to kill anybody on mere suspicion, was repealed or not. Given the people’s lack of interest towards her “democratic movement” she was, she said, feeling confused as to whether she was doing the right thing or not.

It will bring her no dishonour, no discredit if indeed she does surrender one of these days. Her indomitable spirit will still not be bowed, she will continue to remain a symbol of hope, of courage, of selfless devotion to a cause. But it is also true, nobody cares. In the fifteen years of her remarkable, peaceful protest, much has changed. When she began her fast, more than 2,000 women sat with her in relay hunger-strikes. Today, the interest is cursory at best. Last year, when she was released for a couple of days, she staged her protest on one of the busiest roads of Imphal. People passed by, a few stopped to greet her, a couple with a small son praised her courage and faith, posed for photographs with her — and left. Or so the Telegraph reported.

Meanwhile, the AFSPA has been withdrawn from parts of Imphal, thanks to a protest by another group of women but who were now at peace with the government, accepting, a few years back, even awards from the Centre. At the same time, the number of rebel organisations in Manipur has jumped to 42 in the last few years, strengthening the army’s demand for the continuance of the AFSPA in the rest of Manipur. Nor is there any political demand for its repeal either. Tripura has removed the offending Act from its books, Nagaland has at least made some such noises, but Manipur it seems prefers to live with it than without. Even though the army’s transgressions there under the protection of this Act are no secret; even a Supreme Court-appointed commission that investigated six random cases found all of them to be fake encounters.

Still, the biggest news coming out of that part of the world was a few months ago when India gleefully conducted the country’s first “hot pursuit”, chasing rebels into their hideouts in Burma, as it was gleefully announced by the junior external affairs minister. Even the new Naga peace pact which naturally affects Manipur has not been spelled out in detail. Little wonder that the prime minister, who had visited Manipur last November for the closing ceremony of Sangai festival, did not have time for or interest in Irom Sharmila languishing in her hospital ward.

Yet, unravelling the legal mesh that has her in its grip won’t be easy for Irom Sharmila. It is the law that has caused her to go on her heroic hunger-strike – she will happily eat again, she has said, once Manipur is free of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act but only then – and it is the law, section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, that is treating her as a criminal, forcing her to be fed through a Ryle’s tube, remanding her to a hospital, demanding her presence in court from time to time. If we want to honour Irom Sharmila, we should try to help her resolve this conundrum. As she told a Wall Street journalist last year, “Yes, of course I want other people to join my movement. I am a social being. I don’t like to live alone, isolated like in a jungle. But people just analyse what I am doing, they want me to stand on a pedestal without a voice, making a statue of me. But I am against it because I have bad sides and good sides. Why should they worship me after my passing away from this Earth, like a goddess or saint or nun? Instead, I want them to support me physically. I need their support.” Let the plea for help from the Iron Lady of Manipur not fall on deaf ears.

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