I met Irom Sharmila in 2009 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, Imphal. Getting an appointment with Manipur’s ‘celebrity prisoner’ was not easy but after several phone calls, I finally got a clearance from the state home department only a few hours before I was to board a flight.
The order, however, came with a caveat: A police officer will be present during the interview session.
The 42-year-old ‘Iron Lady’ of Manipur, who began her fast in 2000 after witnessing the killing of 10 people by the army in Manipur, which is under the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), has been released by a court now. She was arrested on charges of attempted suicide and has been force-fed since then via a nasal drip several times a day.
One side of the ground floor of the hospital had been closed to the public to convert it into a jail-hospital. Sharmila’s room was spacious yet Spartan, with lots of sunlight streaming in. She spoke haltingly but with conviction.
“In this field of war, I am crying for peace,” she said, as she showed me her paintings. The interview (http://tinyurl.com/ktrfxfw) was a long one and in between the nurses came in to ‘feed’ her through the tube. They did their work efficiently and gently, as I stood at a distance watching the exercise.
There are many things I remember of the interview: Her quiet confidence and faith in what she was doing. 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.
To me, however, there is nothing dishonourable in opting for another path of struggle though she would have some physical limitations because of the continuous force-feeding.
What was equally interesting was the reaction of those who took care of her: Despite being government servants, they supported her cause.
Even the officer who accompanied me had similar views. Later, however, a senior police officer told me tersely: “If only you knew how much the state pays to keep her alive, you would have second thoughts about her ‘struggle’.” But voices like these are few far and between.
Her release underlines once again something that the state or the Centre has been unable — or at least pretended not — to grasp: Sharmila is not keen on taking her life (as the government suggests), she is making a political point which is to repeal the AFSPA.