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Who is India's 'Iron Lady'?

Irom Sharmila has fasted for the past 14 years in protest against India's Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

Last updated: 25 Aug 2014 10:55
Minnie Vaid

Minnie Vaid is a print and television journalist, having worked at prestigious organisations such as the Times of India's Illustrated Weekly, India Today's Newstrack, Business India Television's Roots and Star Plus, and Mahindra's Mumbai Mantra.
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Irom Sharmila was released on August 20, only to be re-arrested two days later. [AP]

"Free at last.... no more permissions needed to talk to her, no more interviews in a court with a magistrate listening in, no more isolation; her fight continues even as she asks for 'peoples' support' for her cause. For tonight however, Irom Sharmila will be home with her mother, and that is joyous enough for all of us" 

This was my Facebook status, posted on August 20, hours after hearing the incredible news that a local sessions court had granted freedom to the frail 42-year-old human rights activist from India's northeastern state of Manipur who has been on a hunger strike for the last 14 years in protest against an "unjust" law.

Only, Irom Sharmila did not go home and did not meet her mother.

Instead, she lived up to her nickname of the "Iron lady" - reiterating that she would continue her fast till the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was repealed. She asked people to join her struggle to bring about a solution to the problem of the AFSPA, so that "everyone could eat, drink, and live together" and so that "future generations do not grow up in the darkness created by this law."

Al Jazeera Correspondent - India's silent war

Only when this goal is achieved will Irom Sharmila go back to her family home in Kongpal Kongkham Leikei in Imphal, capital of the state of Manipur, and break bread with her almost 80-year-old mother. The two have not seen each other since Sharmila began her epic fast in November 2000, in a mutual resolve to strengthen each other's willpower and fortitude.

For her larger family of well-wishers and supporters in her home state of Manipur and across the world, the most heart-warming part of her short walk to freedom from the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital jail ward to the small shack nearby, which is the headquarters of the Mothers' Forum to Save Sharmila, is the absence of the nasogastric tube attached to her nose, the most visible symbol of her 14 year struggle. This was the tube through which she was force-fed nutrients five times a day.

An emotional Sharmila addressed press conferences, had unfettered access to anyone who wanted to meet her - in contrast to the years of isolation that had been her lot for years - and visited the Ima Leikei (the Mothers' Market) where she was given a rapturous welcome.

It all lasted for precisely 40 hours. And then she was re-arrested by state policewomen, screaming and kicking and "shoved into the police van"; remanded to judicial custody for 15 days on the same charges that had been dismissed a mere two days earlier: "attempting to commit suicide". The official justification for the arrest was attempted suicide, said the deputy chief minister of the state, Gaikhangam Gangmei. He said Sharmila was detained in light of her deteriorating health.

Human Rights Alert Executive Director Babloo Loitongbam told me in a personal interview: "The AFSPA mindset is all-pervasive here, even the police treat everyone like a terrorist. They could have just asked her to enter the van politely, there was no need to treat her so shabbily. The government got scared by the huge response she evoked wherever she went".

Seeing the photographs of a frenzied Sharmila - her hair in disarray, sitting on the ground with several policewomen pulling at her - I post another Facebook status update, almost in tears:

"Irom Sharmila has committed no crime that she should be treated in this shameful manner. She is fighting in a peaceful, non-violent manner by fasting; subjecting only her own body, mind and soul to a physical and mental deprivation and isolation that none of us can fathom or empathise with. If the state cannot bother to engage with her in any kind of a dialogue - when they can do this with terrorists and insurgents--then they certainly have no right to treat her like this."

I first met Irom Sharmila in August 2011 at the Magistrate Court in Imphal East, where she is brought every fortnight and asked if she wants to continue her ongoing fast. Her answer is always a quiet, unequivocal yes. She is then transported back to her room in the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital jail ward.

She is possibly the world's longest hunger striker; Ripley's Believe it or Not featured her fast in its newspaper panel. She has won a clutch of awards, including the Gwangju prize for human rights and a nomination in 2005 for the Nobel Peace prize, yet my first and most lasting impression of Irom Sharmila was that of a shy, simple woman with an inflexible will.

She talked sparingly, repeatedly citing God's will and her own conscience as the main sources of the immense courage to live without food and water year after year.

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Sharmila insisted, however, that she doesn't miss anything and was content with her life and her surroundings; and that once the AFSPA is repealed, she would like to lead a normal life like other people, since she was also a social being.

As the interview ended, I asked her if she could ever foresee a time when she would be free, without the tube in her nose and she shrugged: "I surrender to God about my struggle and my future".

When Irom Sharmila began a "fast unto death" on November 4, 2000 to protest the brutal killing of 10 civilians at a Malom bus stand two days earlier and to demand the removal of all "black laws" in the state, she may not have realised she was founding the country's anti-AFSPA movement, and would become its most visible face of resistance as a political prisoner who is nevertheless ignored by successive governments at the state and federal levels, year after fasting year.

The AFSPA continues to exist in the seven northeastern states, Jammu, and Kashmir, allowing armed forces to enter the home of any person, to search and seize property without a warrant, to arrest and detain, torture, and even kill a person on grounds of mere suspicion, all with complete immunity.

Successive governments maintain the need for the AFSPA to counter insurgency in troubled areas. Inexplicably, no government representative from the state or capital has initiated any meaningful dialogue with Irom Sharmila in the 14 long years of her physical and intellectual isolation.

Various political parties have used the repeal of the AFSPA in election campaigns, ignoring those promises once elected. Intellectuals in her home state proudly proclaim: "She is Manipur's bright spot, she has put that peg on the wall where we can hang our hopes".

Her legion of fans across the country speaks of her willpower and determination with awe bordering on worship. Irom Sharmila does not need only admiration, she has now openly asked for on-the-ground, actual support in her struggle against the AFSPA; it may not be a cause that is dear to all or even understood by all, but as Martin Luther King said: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

If Sharmila is to lead a normal life, where there is love and laughter and food and freedom, she cannot be a martyr anymore. It is time that many others joined in equal measure, if not in quite the same manner.

In a tiny home in Kongpal Leikei, 80-year-old Shakhi Devi is still patiently waiting to see her daughter again, as she has been for the past 14 years.

Minnie Vaid is a print and television journalist, having worked at prestigious organisations such as the Times of India's Illustrated Weekly, India Today's Newstrack, Business India Television's Roots, and Star Plus, and Mahindra's Mumbai Mantra. Minnie's passion remains documentaries especially in rural India. She has recently turned author with her first book, A Doctor to Defend: the Binayak Sen story launched by Amartya Sen in January 2011. Her second book Ironirom: Two Journeys was released in Mumbai and Delhi in 2012 by Abhay Deol and Sharmila Tagore. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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