Read about the incredible life and struggle of civil rights activist Irom Sharmila whose hunger strike against the controversial AFSPA in Manipur continues even after 13 years of self-sacrifice and hardships! Having refused food and water for more than 500 weeks, she has been called “the world’s longest hunger striker“. Here we touch upon her early years, her love for poetry, her transformation into an activist, and try to understand the making of a legend.
It began in the November of 2000. It began as a movement against senseless violence, a reaction to the loss of innocent lives, a protest against an unjust law. It has been over 13 years since and one determined woman is still awaiting deliverance. It is not everyone who can demonstrate such relentless courage of conviction and determination in the face of intense pressure and intimidation. Perhaps that’s the reason why Irom Chanu Sharmila is dubbed ‘The Iron Lady of Manipur’. Over the years, Sharmila has become a symbol for championing the cause of human rights. What started as a small step has now become a landmark struggle and a movement of iconic resistance.
Growing up in Manipur, Sharmila loved the land of her birth and was entranced by the stories of Gods and Goddesses, kings and queens, as related to her by her grandmother. Like most people of Manipur, Sharmila grew up with a strong loyalty to the land. Right from an early age, Sharmila was passionate about defending the causes that she deeply cared about. She actively espoused social issues during her college days and participated in rallies to protest against violation of civil rights. Sharmila was also part communities such as the All-Manipur Students’ Union for Sightless, Centre for Organization Research and Education, Human Rights Alert among others. People close to Sharmila talk about her passion for journalism and literature right from an early age.
But it was the incident at Malom that triggered Irom Sharmila to take a drastic step. In November 2000, 10 civilians were killed in a shooting allegedly perpetrated by the Assam Rifles, which is part of the Indian Paramilitary forces. Among the victims were a 62 year old woman and an 18 year old boy. The incident which became known as the Malom Massacre outraged the 28 year old Sharmila to such an extent that she announced a fast unto death, unless the AFSPA was revoked. Incidentally, the shooting took place on a Thursday, a day that Sharmila usually observed a fast. She simply continued with her fast indefinitely. This declaration from Sharmila brought the contentious Act under the glare of national and international media, springing Irom Sharmila into the spotlight.
Just three days after her protest, Sharmila was arrested for “attempt to commit suicide” which is considered an offence under the Indian Penal Code. She was later transferred to judicial custody, where her deteriorating health condition caused the authorities to force feed her through nasogastric intubation, in other words, feed her through a tube attached to her nose. Sharmila has been regularly arrested and released ever since she began her hunger strike. But nothing seems to deter Sharmila from her goal.
Sharmila’s Continued Activism, Her Fight For Human Rights
It has been 13 years since Sharmila waged her protest against the Malom Massacre, but despite her multiple pleas, the government has been reluctant to act on the matter. Some political factions have assured Sharmila of repealing the armed forces special power from places where the army is not required, while others have suggested modifications to the Act that provides great impunity to the army personnel. Despite these pledges, nothing concrete has come to fruition as yet. But that hasn’t discouraged Sharmila in the least. In 2006, she travelled to Delhi to pay tribute to her idol, Mahatma Gandhi. While in the capital, she staged a protest demonstration at Jantar Mantar where she was joined by students and human rights activists. The event failed to garner media attention and just a few days later she was re-arrested on her return from Delhi for attempting suicide through her hunger strike.
Sharmila has continually written to the Prime Minister and Home Minister seeking their intervention in the matter. She won the support of Nobel Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, who promised to take up Sharmila’s cause at the UN Human Right’s Council. In 2011, she wrote a heartfelt letter to Anna Hazare, who had captured the nation’s attention in his fight against corruption. In her letter, she extended an invitation to the Gandhian to visit her in Imphal. Sharmila was successful in securing Anna’s support for her cause.
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What is AFSPA?
The armed force special power act was passed in 1958 by the parliament. It comprises of six sections in which it grants special powers to the armed forces in ‘disturbed areas’. In recent times, however, the act has come under severe scrutiny and faced criticism from many quarters. The U.N too has questioned the validity and constitutionality of the AFSPA and termed it as “dated and colonial-era law that breach contemporary international human rights standard.” The U.N has urged India to revoke the act.
Laws are meant to protect people against crimes, violence and injustice, but in case of AFSPA, the very essence of the act seems to go against the principles of law. A redressal would certainly be in order, sooner rather than later.
The Poet and Her Muse
Apart from her commendable commitment for championing social causes, Sharmila is also a talented poet. She has written over 100 poems in Bengali. Few of her works such as Birth and Fragrance of Peace have been translated to English. Birth is an ambitious poem of 1000 lines which captures a gamut of life experiences including her childhood, her views about society and her take on things she has witnessed and experienced. Sharmila completed this poem within a span of six weeks.
Loneliness and memories is Sharmila’s muse and death is a recurring theme in her poetry, much in contrast to her personal love of life. Sharmila is like a child in many ways and that is reflected in her writings too. Through her writings, Sharmila has showed the world that although she may be physically restrained and held captive in solitary confinement, her imagination cannot be shackled.
International Attention and Honours
Her historic protest has not only garnered international attention but has also won Sharmila many awards and honours. In 2012, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the North East Network. Sharmila is also the recipient of Gwangju Prize for Human Rights which includes a $125,000 prize money. She donated this money to the victims of human rights violation in Manipur. Additionally, Sharmila has also been honoured with the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize, Sarva Gunah Sampannah Award for Peace and Harmony and Adivasi Ratna Award. In 2010, Sharmila won a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission. She has refused to accept any award until her demand of repealing AFSPA is fulfilled, which she probably considers to be the best reward for her struggle.
In 2009 Deepti Priya Mehrotra presented a moving portrait of the Iron Lady in her book Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur. The book traces the journey of Sharmila with a detailed backdrop of the history of Manipur.
Perhaps Sharmila’s life has not been free of controversy. But can we ever expect anybody’s to be? Especially someone who is constantly in the public glare? In 2011, Sharmila’s personal life came under the scanner and received a good deal of attention, when she confessed her feelings for Desmond Coutinho, a 48-year old writer and activist. Her supporters who have exalted Sharmila and put her on a pedestal found it hard to reconcile to this personal aspect of the activist. However, none of this has diminished her dedication to her cause, and she braves on steadfastly.
One often wonders about the intriguing and self-sacrificing nature of activists. What gives them the courage to stand firmly by the causes they believe in, or give up so much of their life for the well-being of others? Irom Sharmila has always maintained that her struggle is spiritual. Perhaps that’s where she draws her strength from. Her unrelenting efforts and unflagging steely resolve, has made Sharmila an icon and an inspiration.
Her struggle may be ongoing, but that does not mean success has been elusive. The mere fact that modification of AFSPA is now being discussed in party meetings and among political leaders is a testament to her achievement. Sharmila has single handedly managed to create enormous awareness about a cause that she deeply believes in. She has sought and secured the support of activists and human rights organizations across the world. In October 2013, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) ordered the state government to lift restrictions imposed on access to Sharmila. All these are suggestive of the progress she has made. Sharmila has fought a long and hard battle for the preservation of civil rights and the time to savour victory, we hope, is not far away.