My bounden duty
I had written about her two years ago. Now two years later I again want to write about her valor, go meet her if possible and just see her once. Because that is all I can do. When a journalist from Tehelka went to her in 2006, she simply said, “I am normal. I am normal. How should I explain? It is not a punishment. No, I am not inflicting myself with pain. It is just 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.”
Yesterday Irom Sharmila or “Menghaobi”, the fair one as the people of Manipur call her, completed 11 years of fasting, not having eaten or drunk anything since 2000. To mark the completion of her 11-year old crusade and also in solidarity with her struggle, day-long fasts, sit-in protest demonstrations, rallies and public meetings were held in different parts of the country.
For eleven years now, she has been forcibly kept alive by a drip thrust down her nose by the Indian State. For eleven years, nothing solid has entered her body; not a drop of water has touched her lips. She has stopped combing her hair. She cleans her teeth with dry cotton and her lips with dry spirit so she would not sully her fast. Her body is wasted inside. Her menstrual cycles have stopped. Yet she is resolute. Whenever she can, she removes the tube from her nose. It is her bounden duty, she says, to make her voice heard in “the most reasonable and peaceful way”.
Youngest daughter of a grade four worker in a veterinary hospital in Imphal, Sharmila was always a solitary child, 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, her elder brother, 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.” “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.”
Her Satyagraha was not an intellectual construct. It was a deep response, an inner call to the violence she saw around her. On November 2, 2000 the enraged battalion gunned 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. “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, AFSPA*. So I decided to fast.”
Her demand is to repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 from the regions of India’s north east where AFSPA has been imposed. 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. 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.
As Sharmila enters the twelfth 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. 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.
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 is responsible for doing nothing… If she dies, each one of you journalists is responsible because you did not do your duty…”
As Shoma Chaudhary, Tehelka had put it –
“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.”