Why does Irom Sharmila Chanu, 35, refuse to eat? What motivates her to continue the fast she began seven years ago on November 4, 2000? Vijaylakshmi Brara, Convenor, Manipur People's Union for Civil Liberties, explains, "Malom, near Imphal, witnessed the cold-blooded killing of innocent people by the 8th Assam Rifles on November 2, 2000. They shot 10 people sitting at the bus stop; at point-blank range, in the usual garb of encounter with insurgents. This sadistic action was taken 'lawfully' under the draconian law of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958. As soon as she heard of this, Irom Sharmila, an ordinary girl of Manipur, declared a fast unto death till this law is abolished."
Irom Sharmila said (during several interviews I had with her in Delhi between October 2006 and March 2007): "I want to be a symbol of justice. I will continue my fast until the AFSPA is withdrawn. It is my bounden duty... Journalists in Guwahati (Assam) call me a defiant lady. They are right. I am a defiant lady!"
Sharmila is the youngest of nine siblings. Her father, late Irom Nanda Singh, an employee in the government veterinary department, and mother, Irom Shakhi Devi, worked hard to educate all nine. The family grows paddy and vegetables near their home at the edge of Imphal. Quiet and observant as a child, Sharmila, was concerned about social and political issues, but disinterested in her textbooks. She was 19 by the time she finished senior secondary in 1992. After school, she attended courses in shorthand, tailoring, nature cure, and journalism, and began writing newspaper articles as well as poetry.
She worked with various Imphal-based civil society organizations. During October 2000, she joined Human Rights Alert (HRA) as an intern, to help conduct an Independent People's Commission of Inquiry (headed by Justice Suresh, former Judge of the Mumbai High Court) into the impact of AFSPA in Manipur. Sharmila accompanied Commission members when they recorded the testimonies of a large number of human rights victims, lawyers and experts.
A sensitive young woman imbued with traditional ethics of honesty, simple living and respect for life, Sharmila was shocked by the extent of human rights violations in her state. Working with HRA provided her with fresh insights and an analytical perspective.
When she heard of the Malom massacre, she was extremely disturbed. Ordinary people going about their daily business, these 10 villagers, ranging from 60-year-old L. Sana Devi to 17-year-old Chandramani Singh, had no connection with the insurgency being waged by several of the underground groups in the state. Yet, security forces shot them in broad daylight, with impunity, because they were protected by the AFSPA. (Imposed in part of Manipur since 1960, and the entire state since 1980, the AFSPA allows security personnel to shoot on the mere suspicion of the target belonging to an insurgent outfit. No action can be taken against the personnel, except with the permission of the central government.)
Apunba Lup, a network of 32 civil society organizations, has agitated against the AFSPA for many years. Meira Paibis - women's groups dotted across the length and breadth of Manipur - consistently struggle against the excesses committed under the Act. Ordinary citizens feel vulnerable in an environment ruled by guns. On the one side are insurgents - typically young, dissatisfied youngsters playing revolution; on the other side, security forces wreaking retribution upon a hapless population.
Sharmila unilaterally decided to go on a fast in protest. She told her mother, "Ima, I am going to do something for the whole nation. I want your blessings." Then she went to Malom and began a sit-in. Veteran grassroots leaders like Ima Mangol Devi, 80, and Ima Taruni Devi, 72, joined her. The media reported her hunger strike. Within days the police arrested Sharmila on charge of attempted suicide.
Thus began a continuing saga marked by arrest, judicial detention, release and re-arrests. Every year, she is sentenced to one year in prison. In detention, she is force-fed through a nasal tube, thus keeping her alive. She has not tasted a drop of water or a morsel of food for seven years. But she submits to force-feeding, because that is the only way her body can be kept alive, and she can sustain the struggle. As she said in 2005 to filmmaker Kavita Joshi, "My fasting is a means; I have no other." Joshi's film, 'On The Margins', brings out the background to Sharmila's struggle and has helped spread awareness on the issue.
So, is Sharmila a "habitual offender", or is she a 'satyagrahi' (soldier of civil disobedience) waging non-violent resistance? Worldwide, many people consider her a 'satyagrahi'. All the same, the government has turned a deaf ear to her core demand - withdrawal of the AFSPA. It set up the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee to examine AFSPA, but has ignored the Committee's report recommending immediate repeal of the Act.
Her long fast has drawn attention and built public opinion for her cause. Apart from local media, the national and international media have showcased her struggle. Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the UNESCO Commission on Human Rights, and thousands of civil society organizations have expressed solidarity. On May 18, 2007, she was presented the Gwangju Human Rights Award, the foremost award for human rights in South Asia. (Nobel Laureate Aung San Su Kyi, the pro-democracy Burmese leader, is a past recipient.) But the government did not permit Sharmila to go to Gwangju, Korea; her brother, Irom Singhjit, received the award on her behalf.
In October 2006, Sharmila escaped to Delhi, the day after her release from jail in Manipur. In Delhi, she paid homage at Mahatma Gandhi's memorial, Raj Ghat, and then sat on protest at Jantar Mantar. Scores of activists immediately joined her before the Delhi police arrested and kept her in arbitrary detention in hospital.
Back in Imphal since March 4, 2007, Sharmila is, once again, in solitary confinement at the JN Hospital run by Sajiwa Central Jail. Permission to meet her is not easily granted. When I met her in April, my companions and I were her first visitors in six weeks. In the interim, she had written a long poem of 1,010 lines, entitled 'Rebirth'.
Between September 13 and 17 this year, some 50 citizens sat on a solidarity hunger strike in the state capital. The action was coordinated by civil society organization based in Imphal and Mumbai. Solidarity fasts were also held in the USA, UK, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Although forcibly removed from the public eye, it seems Irom Sharmila cannot be easily removed from the public conscience. For she is the still, small voice miraculously alive in these harsh times... a voice impossible to ignore.
(Deepti Priya Mehrotra book on Irom Sharmila is to be published by Penguin in early 2008.)