Irom Sharmila, human rights activist from Manipur who has been on a fast for 16 years to press for the repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa), will break her fast on August 9 , says a news report. She will, the report added, also contest the 2017 state elections. Sharmila started her fast in the year 2000 after the security forces killed 10 innocent civilians at Malom, a village near Imphal.
I met Sharmila in 2009. I put in a request with the home department for permission since she was under arrest and there was no response for two weeks. Finally, I got in touch with her brother and one late afternoon, an SMS came: “Meeting tomorrow at 4 pm”. Next day, I took an early morning flight to Imphal.
Sitting in her room at the high-security ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, Sharmila (then 37) looked calm. Officially, she was in custody of the Central Jail, Sajiwa, Imphal. The room was big and well-ventilated, but to reach there you had to cross several gates and sign registers.
There were several hospital attendants to attend to her. The home ministry also sent a young police officer to keep a tab on our meeting. “We have been with her for so long and we understand and appreciate her cause. We look upon her as one of our own,” a nurse told me.
I asked her what her daily life was like: “It’s simple and boring. I am allowed to walk in the corridors but not out of those collapsible gates. The securitymen are timid; they don’t allow me outside. Recently, some people came in and warned me that I should stop the hunger strike. I don’t know who they were; they just wanted to break my spirit,” she said. She wrote poetry and did paintings in custody.
What did she want to achieve from this struggle (2009 was the 10th year of the hunger strike), I asked. “My struggle is for changing the state of Manipur. In this field of war, I am crying for peace. First, there must be justice for the people, who have suffered so much. Our government wants to weed out insurgents, but that’s impossible; they never try to communicate with the people. Insurgency will go only if the political trend changes from moneymaking to true devotion to welfare,” she replied.
I spent almost two hours with her and there are many things I remember of the interview: Her quiet confidence and faith in what she was doing. Not once did she raise her voice, even to drive home a point.
However, at the same time I had a feeling that the stress of continuing something like this for so many years was taking a toll on her.
Did she feel trapped by her own circumstances? I could not get myself to ask her this, but that nagging feeling stayed with me for years.
I think Sharmila has done the right thing by ending her fast. The flailed state of Manipur, where the only industry is insurgency, needs people like her to join politics and speak out against not only against Afspa but also the insidious network that exists among politicians, insurgents and the security forces.
There is nothing dishonourable in calling off the fast and opting for another path of struggle, even though I think she knows better than anyone that there would be some physical limitations because of the continuous force-feeding.