ON OCTOBER 23, N. Rosibala made a wish at a memorial near her house at village Malom, near Imphal's Tulihal Airport. The same morning, led by an appeal from the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, the day's newspapers echoed her wish: a repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and an end to iconic activist Irom Sharmila's one decade long fast-unto-death.
Sharmila's protest against the "draconian Act" was triggered by an incident at Malom on November 2, 2000, when troops of the 8 Assam Rifles allegedly gunned down 10 farmers during a "counter-insurgency operation". Rosibala, 20, a first year student at Imphal College, was barely 10 then. The villagers got on with life after the massacre and paying floral tributes at the memorial became routine.
This to Rosibala made sense, not the refusal of a frail woman, separated from her village by 15 km, to eating since that day. "It took me a long time to realise a Sharmila isn't born every day, and that you have be selfless, courageous and full of conviction to do what she is doing," she says. "I thought she would give up after some time."
Rosibala wasn't alone. Almost everyone else in Manipur and beyond felt she could not sustain her fast. Sharmila, 38, proved them wrong with her willpower to become the face of Manipur's long-drawn movement for the scrapping of AFSPA, much before Kashmiri protestors began making a statement with stones. The AFSPA, human rights activist say, gives soldiers the licence to kill without facing prosecution.
Portrait of an activist
Born on March 14, 1972, Irom Sharmila is a rights activist, journalist and poet. She has been on a fast demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act since November 2, 2000.
The AFSPA act of 1958, rights activist claim, gives soldiers a licence to kill without facing prosecution.
But has Sharmila's belief in the Gandhian way of dissenting been effective in a state used to talking with the gun? Rights activists insist it has. They point to the withdrawal of AFSPA from the Imphal municipal areas after a mass uprising in 2004 against the alleged custodial rape and murder of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi. And the global support Sharmila has mobilised with her silent protest from her ‘prison cell' — a high-security ward in Imphal's Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital.
"Sharmila has perhaps single-handedly done for the global campaign against AFSPA what years of violence haven't," says Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of the Imphal-based Human Rights Alert. "That she makes the government more uncomfortable than the rebels is clear from her periodic arrests for attempts to commit suicide and the resultant force-feeding."
A pipe through the nose to keep her on a liquid diet has been Sharmila's constant companion in these 10 years. "The AFSPA is linked with this," she once said. "The Act goes, so does the pipe." The tube is likely to remain for some more time, with New Delhi not too keen on watering down or
scrapping the AFSPA.
According to rights groups, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, rape and arbitrary detention have been common since AFSPA was enforced 52 years ago. Every year, they claim, some 500 people have been killed without trial in Manipur.
The likes of Rosibala and 19-year-old Loitongbam Indira of Lairenjam Awang Leikai, want the killings to stop. "We want everyone involved to ensure lasting peace so that our lives can be more meaningful… and Sharmila can lead a normal life," says Indira. "She is getting the awards, but this will not solve the issue she is fighting for."
A gun-free Manipur is what the Just Peace Foundation (JPF) is aiming at with a festival of hope, justice and peace from November 2-6 to mark Sharmila's fast. The JPF had begun its 100-day countdown on July 25 with poster campaigns, street corner meetings and yes, congregations of poets keeping her proclivity for poetry in mind.
"The festival will comprise concerts and courtyard theatre besides a rally of rickshaw pullers," says Irom Singhajit, managing trustee of JPF and Sharmila's elder brother. Imphal's masked rickshaw pullers are a reminder of joblessness in militancy-mauled Manipur.
The onus, many believe, is also on the government to make ‘Sharmila's decade' memorable. "The least it can do is withdraw the AFSPA from Malom, where it all began," says Huidrom Rojit, who was in Class XI when the Malom massacre took place.