SOMETIMES, TO accentuate the intransigence of the present, one must revisit the past. So first, a flashback.
The year is 2006. An ordinary November evening in Delhi. A slow, halting voice breaks into your consciousness. “How shall I explain? It is not a punishment, but my bounden duty…” A haunting phrase in a haunting voice, made slow with pain yet magnetic in its moral force. “My bounden duty.” What could be “bounden duty” in an India bursting with the excitements of its economic boom?
You are tempted to walk away. You are busy and the voice is not violent in its beckoning. But then an image starts to take shape. A frail, fair woman on a hospital bed. A tousled head of jet black curls. A plastic tube thrust into the nose. Slim, clean hands. Intent, almond eyes. And the halting, haunting voice. Speaking of bounden duty.
That’s when the enormous story of Irom Sharmila first begins to seep in. You are in the presence of someone historic. Someone absolutely unparalleled in the history of political protest anywhere in the world, ever. Yet you have been oblivious of her. A hundred TV channels. An unprecedented age of media. Yet you have been oblivious of her.
In 2006, Irom Sharmila had not eaten anything, or drunk a single drop of water for six years. She was being forcibly kept alive by a drip thrust down her nose by the Indian State. For six years, nothing solid had entered her body; not a drop of water had touched her lips. She had stopped combing her hair. She cleaned her teeth with dry cotton and her lips with dry spirit so she would not sully her fast. Her body was wasted inside. Her menstrual cycles had stopped. Yet she was resolute. Whenever she could, she removed the tube from her nose. It was her bounden duty, she said, to make her voice heard in “the most reasonable and peaceful way”.
Yet both Indian citizens and the Indian State were oblivious to her.
That was three years ago. On November 5 this year, Irom Sharmila entered the tenth year of her superhuman fast — protesting the indefensible Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that has been imposed in Manipur and most of the Northeast since 1980. The Act allows the army to use force, arrest or shoot anyone on the mere suspicion that someone has committed or was about to commit a cognisable offence. The Act further prohibits any legal or judicial proceedings against army personnel without the sanction of the Central Government.
Draconian in letter, the Act has been even more draconian in spirit. Since it was imposed, by official admission, thousands of people have been killed by State forces in Manipur. (In just 2009, the officially admitted number stands at 265. Human rights activists say it is above 300, which averages out at one or two extrajudicial killings every day.) Rather than curb insurgent groups, the Act has engendered a seething resentment across the land, and fostered new militancies. When the Act came into force in 1980, there were only four insurgent groups in Manipur. Today, there are 40. And Manipur has become a macabre society, a mess of corruptions: insurgents, cops and politicians all hand in glove, and innocent citizens in between.
A FEW YEARS ago, an unedited CD began doing the rounds in civil society circles. It showed footage of humiliating army brutality and public rage. Images of young children, students, working-class mothers and grandmothers taking to the streets, being teargassed and shot at. Images of men made to lie down while the army shot at the ground inches above their heads. With each passing day, the stories gathered fury. Disappeared boys, raped women. Human life stripped of its most essential commodity: dignity.
For young Irom Sharmila, things came to a head on November 2, 2000. A day earlier, an insurgent group had bombed an Assam Rifles column. The enraged battalion retaliated by gunning down 10 innocent civilians at a bus-stand in Malom. The local papers published brutal pictures of the bodies the next day, including one of a 62-year old woman, Leisangbam Ibetomi, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. Extraordinarily stirred, on November 4, Sharmila, then only 28, began her fast.
Sprawled in an icy white hospital corridor that cold November evening in Delhi three years ago, Singhajit, Sharmila’s 48-year-old elder brother, had said half-laughing, “How we reach here?” In the echo chamber of that plangent question had lain the incredible story of Sharmila and her journey. Much of that story needed to be intuited. Its tensile strength, its intense, almost preternatural act of imagination were not on easy display. The faraway hut in Imphal where it began. The capital city now and the might of the State ranged against them. The sister jailed inside her tiny hospital room, the brother outside with nothing but the clothes on his back, neither versed in English or Hindi. The posse of policemen at the door.
“Menghaobi”, the people of Manipur call her, “The Fair One”. Youngest daughter of an illiterate Grade IV worker in a veterinary hospital in Imphal, Sharmila was always a solitary child, the backbencher, the listener. Eight siblings had come before her. By the time she was born, her mother Irom Shakhi, 44, was dry. When dusk fell, and Manipur lay in darkness, Sharmila used to start to cry. The mother Shakhi had to tend to their tiny provision store, so Singhajit would cradle his baby sister in his arms and take her to any mother he could find to suckle her. “She has always had extraordinary will. Maybe that is what made her different,” Singhajit says. “Maybe this is her service to all her mothers.”
There was something achingly poignant about this wise, rugged man on the sidelines – loyal co-warrior who gives the fight invisible breath, middle-aged brother who gave up his job to “look after his sister outside the door”, family man who relies on the Rs 120 a day his wife makes from weaving so he can stand steadfast by his sister.
It was a month and a half since Singhajit had managed to smuggle Sharmila out of Manipur with the help of two activist friends, Babloo Loitangbam and Kangleipal. For six years, Sharmila had been under arrest, isolated in a single room in JN Hospital in Imphal. Each time she was released, she would yank the tube out of her nose and continue her fast. Three days later, on the verge of death, she would be arrested again for “attempt to commit suicide”. And the cycle would begin again. But six years of jail and fasting and forced nasal feeds had yielded little in Manipur. The war needed to be shifted to Delhi.
ARRIVING IN DELHI on October 3, 2006, brother and sister camped in Jantar Mantar for three days – that hopeful altar of Indian democracy. Typically, the media responded with cynical disinterest. Then the State swooped down in a midnight raid and arrested her for attempting suicide and whisked her off to AIIMS. She wrote three passionate letters to the Prime Minister, President, and Home Minister. She got no answer. If she had hijacked a plane, perhaps the State would have responded with quicker concession.
The humbling power of Sharmila’s story lies in her untutored beginnings. There is no rhetoric, no cliched heat of heroism
“We are in the middle of the battle now,” Singhajit had said in that hospital corridor. “We have to face trouble, we have to fight to the end even if it means my sister’s death. But if she had told me before she began, I would never have let her start on this fast. I would never have let her do this to her body. We had to learn so much first. How to talk; how to negotiate — we knew nothing. We were just poor people.”
But, in a sense, the humbling power of Sharmila’s story lies in her untutored beginnings. She is not a front for any large, coordinated political movement. And if you were looking for charismatic rhetoric or the clichéd heat of heroism, you would have been disappointed by the quiet woman in Room 57 in the New Private Ward of AIIMS in New Delhi. That 34-yearold’s satyagraha was not an intellectual construct. It was a deep human response to the cycle of death and violence she saw around her — almost a spiritual intuition. “I was shocked by the dead bodies of Malom on the front page,” Sharmila had said in her clear, halting voice. “I was on my way to a peace rally but I realised there was no means to stop further violations by the armed forces. So I decided to fast.”
On November 4, 2000, Sharmila had sought her mother, Irom Shakhi’s blessing. “You will win your goal,” Shakhi had said, then stoically turned away. Since then, though Sharmila has been incarcerated in Imphal within walking distance of her mother, the two have never met.
“What’s the use? I’m weak-hearted. If I see her, I will cry,” Shakhi says in a film on Sharmila made by Delhi-based filmmaker Kavita Joshi, tears streaming down her face. “I have decided that until her wish is fulfilled, I won’t meet her because that will weaken her resolve… If we don’t get food, how we toss and turn in bed, unable to sleep. With the little fluid they inject into her, how hard must her days and nights be… If this Act could just be removed even for five days, I would feed her rice water spoon by spoon. After that, even if she dies, we will be content, for my Sharmila will have fulfilled her wish.”
This brave, illiterate woman is the closest Sharmila comes to an intimation of god. It is the shrine from which she draws strength. Ask her how hard it is for her not to meet her mother and she says, “Not very hard,” and pauses. “Because, how shall I explain it, we all come here with a task to do. And we come here alone.”
For the rest, she practices four to five hours of yoga a day — self-taught — “to help maintain the balance between my body and mind”. Doctors will tell you Sharmila’s fast is a medical miracle. It is humbling to even approximate her condition. But Sharmila never concedes any bodily discomfort. “I am normal. I am normal,” she smiles. “I am not inflicting anything on my body. It is not a punishment. It is my bounden duty. I don’t know what lies in my future; that is God’s will. I have only learnt from my experience that punctuality, discipline and great enthusiasm can make you achieve a lot.” The words — easy to dismiss as uninspiring clichés — take on a heroic charge when she utters them.
For three long years later, nothing has changed. The trip to Delhi yielded nothing. As Sharmila enters the tenth year of her fast, she still lies incarcerated like some petty criminal in a filthy room in an Imphal hospital. The State allows her no casual visitors, except occasionally, her brother — even though there is no legal rationale for this. (Even Mahasweta Devi was not allowed to see her a few weeks ago.) She craves company and books – the biographies of Gandhi and Mandela; the illusion of a brotherhood. Yet, her great — almost inhuman — hope and optimism continues undiminished.
Ten years on, her fast is unparalleled in the history of political protest. If this will not make us pause, nothing will
But the brother’s frustration is as potent. The failure of the nation to recognise Irom Sharmila’s historic satyagraha is a symptom of every lethargy that is eroding the Northeast. She had already been fasting against AFSPA for four years when the Assam Rifles arrested Thangjam Manorama Devi, a 32-year-old woman, allegedly a member of the banned People’s Liberation Army. Her body was found dumped in Imphal a day later, marked with terrible signs of torture and rape. Manipur came to a spontaneous boil. Five days later, on July 15, 2004, pushing the boundaries of human expression, 30 ordinary women demonstrated naked in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla Fort. Ordinary mothers and grandmothers eking out a hard life. “Indian Army, rape us too”, they screamed. The State responded by jailing all of them for three months.
Every commission set up by the government since then has added to these injuries. The report of the Justice Upendra Commission, instituted after the Manorama killing, was never made public. In November 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee to review the AFSPA. Its recommendations came in a dangerously forked tongue. While it suggested the repeal of the AFSPA, it also suggested transfering its most draconian powers to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Every official response is marked with this determination to be uncreative. The then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee had rejected the withdrawal or significant dilution of the Act on the grounds that “it is not possible for the armed forces to function” in “disturbed areas” without such powers.
Curiously, it took Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi to raise proportionate heat on Irom Sharmila, on a trip to India in 2006. “If Sharmila dies, Parliament is directly responsible,” she thundered at a gathering of journalists. “If she dies, courts and judiciary are responsible, the military is responsible… If she dies, the executive, the PM and President are responsible for doing nothing… If she dies, each one of you journalists is responsible because you did not do your duty…”
Yet, three years later, nothing has changed. After the boundless, despairing anger of the ‘Manorama Mothers’, the government did roll back the AFSPA from some districts of Imphal city. But the viral has transmitted itself elsewhere. Today, the Manipur police commandoes have taken off where the army left off: the brutal provisions of AFSPA have become accepted State culture. There is a phrase for it: “the culture of impunity”. On July 23 this year, Sanjit, a young former insurgent was shot dead by the police in a crowded market, in broad daylight, in one of Imphal’s busiest markets. An innocent by-stander Rabina Devi, five months pregnant, caught a bullet in her head and fell down dead as well. Her two-year old son, Russell was with her. Several others were wounded.
But for an anonymous photographer who captured the sequence of Sanjit’s murder, both these deaths would have become just another statistic: two of the 265 killed this year. But the photographs – published in TEHELKA – offered damning proof. Manipur came to a boil again.
Four months later, people’s anger refuses to subside. With typical ham-handedness, Chief Minister Ibobi Singh first tried to brazen his way through. On the day of Sanjit’s murder, he claimed in the Assembly that his cops had shot an insurgent in a cross-fire. Later, confronted by TEHELKA’S story, he admitted he had been misled by his officers and was forced to set up a judicial enquiry. However, both he and Manipur DGP Joy Kumar continue to claim that TEHELKA’s story is a fabrication.
Still, hope sputters in small measure. Over the past few months, as protests have raged across the state, dozens of civil rights activists have been frivolously arrested under the draconian National Security Act. Among these was a reputed environmental activist, Jiten Yumnam. On November 23, an independent Citizens’ Fact Finding Team released a report called Democracy ‘Encountered’: Rights’ Violations in Manipur and made a presentation to the Central Home Ministry. A day later, Home Secretary Gopal Pillai informed KS Subramanian, a former IPS officer and a member of the fact-finding team, that the ministry had revoked detention under the NSA for ten people, including Jiten. In another tenuously hopeful sign, Home Minister P Chidambaram has said on record in another TEHELKA interview that he has recommended several amendments in AFSPA to make it more humane and accountable. These amendments are waiting Cabinet approval.
IN A COMPLEX world, often the solution to a problem lies in an inspired, unilateral act of leadership. An act that intuits the moral heart of a question and proceeds to do what is right — without precondition. Sharmila Irom’s epic fast is such an act. It reaffirms the idea of a just and civilized society. It refuses to be brutalized in the face of grave and relentless brutality. Her plea is simple: repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It is unworthy of the idea of the Indian State the founding fathers bequeathed us. It is anti-human.
It is true Manipur is a fractured and violent society today. But the solution to that can only lie in another inspired, unilateral act of leadership: this time on the part of the State. Eschew pragmatism, embrace the moral act: repeal AFSPA. There will be space beyond to untangle the rest.
But unfortunately, even as the entire country laces up to mark the first anniversary of Mumbai 26/11 – a horrific act of extreme violence and retaliation, we continue to be oblivious of the young woman who responded to extreme violence with extreme peace.
It is a parable for our times. If the story of Irom Sharmila does not make us pause, nothing will. It is a story of extraordinariness. Extraordinary will. Extraordinary simplicity. Extraordinary hope. It is impossible to get yourself heard in our busy age of information overload. But if the story of Irom Sharmila will not make us pause, nothing will.