Her free-flowing curly hair and a tube stuck in the nose for force-feeding is the lasting image of Irom Sharmila and symbols of her 16-year hunger strike, possibly the longest in the world.
The 44-year-old has not eaten, combed her hair or even looked in the mirror since November 5, 2000, three days after she allegedly saw a group of army men kill 10 people at a bus stop in Malom near her home in Manipur.
She also vowed to stay away from her home and mother till a controversial law that shields troops from prosecution and gives them sweeping powers to search, enter property and shoot on sight was scrapped.
Released from judicial custody early this year, the 44-year-old is yet to meet her mother.
On Tuesday, the “Iron Lady of Manipur” declared she was ending her fast and would contest assembly polls in 2017 as an independent candidate. She also plans to marry. She is in a relationship with Desmond Coutinho, a Goan-British activist.
Her hunger strike made her a global figure but Sharmila, the youngest of the nine siblings, is a loner. She wanted to be a doctor but gave up when she realised she didn’t have the “brains” for it.
An average student, she couldn’t clear her Class 12 but took up a six-month course in journalism and also learnt stenography for a year.
Her father was a big influence. “He was very strict in handling his children but always fair – I think I am like my father that way,’’ she told a national daily. “…sometimes he would give me a lift to the school on his cycle, and he would tell me many stories on the way.”
In the last 16 years, she has been one of the biggest stories from the country’s Northeast. Almost immediately after she began her fast she was arrested for attempting suicide, leading Amnesty International to call her a “prisoner of conscience”.
She has been confined to a hospital ward in Imphal, the state capital, and force-fed through a nasal drip. Court appearances are a regular affair.
Her struggle won international recognition with several awards coming her way but being a public figure has come at a price.
Coutinho was attacked by some women activists in December 2014 for “diverting” Sharmila’s attention from the campaign. She told a Kolkata-based newspaper a few years ago that “the man I love is waiting for me impatiently” but her supporters were struggling to come to terms with the relationship.
“He is of Goan origin but a British citizen. That is why they are against the relationship,” Sharmila said.
Some of her aides say the decision to call off the fast might have been influenced by her boyfriend. She told a court, where she appeared on Tuesday in an attempt to suicide case, that she would like to marry.
Coming days will tell us the direction Sharmila’s struggle and personal life will take.
With agency inputs