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Iron butterfly

A dreary ward in a filthy government hospital isn’t quite poetic. But circumstances rather than settings inspire the steel-willed Irom Sharmila Chanu. Rahul Karmakar & Sobhapati Samom report.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2009 23:13 IST

A dreary ward in a filthy government hospital isn’t quite poetic. But circumstances rather than settings inspire the steel-willed Irom Sharmila Chanu. It’s from this setting that she penned Rebirth, a 1,010-line poem, in the spring of 2007 and followed it up with a seven-poem collection titled Ima (Mother) the next year.

Back in custody after her release on the eve of International Women’s Day, Sharmila yearns to be reborn in an era in which her Ima, Manipur, is rid of the contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958 that ostensibly gives troops the license to kill at will. And she hopes that god — “even more powerful” than lawmakers in India — will someday see reason behind her silent crusade against the ‘draconian’ piece of legislation.

Called the Iron Lady of Manipur, the iconic Sharmila has already had her ‘rebirth’ as a revolutionary in 2000. On November 2 that year, soldiers of the 8 Assam Rifles gunned down 10 civilians at Malom village outside the capital, Imphal. The incident transformed Sharmila, one of many young human rights activists, into a woman of extraordinary grit. Her anti-AFSPA fast-unto-death from that day on is now the stuff of legends in Manipur and beyond.

Except for her frame, understandably frailer than when she started her indefinite fast, nothing much has changed about Sharmila. She looks older than her 35 years, but the eyes are as intent as before.

Meeting Sharmila is not easy, even for her family members. But once granted an appointment, getting her to talk isn’t difficult, though speaking takes much out of her. She insists that she cannot deviate from her chosen path. “The government says I have been committing the crime of attempted suicide, but I know I am battling bullets with a spiritual weapon — hunger.”

For Sharmila, getting arrested on charges of trying to take her own life by fasting, refusing bail and being released by the courts, have become routine. On a liquid diet forced through the nasal tube, Sharmila has refused to see even her mother in the Kongpal Kongkham locality, not far from the hospital where she is confined. Mother Shakhi Devi, too, has no intention of eroding the determination of the youngest of her nine children. “I know I will break down if I see her and it might prevent her from attaining her goal,” she says.

Sharmila’s elder brother, Irom Singhajit, admits that coping with the consequences of her satyagraha has been hard for the family that ekes out a living from growing paddy and vegetables on the outskirts of Imphal. “Our parents did their best to ensure all of us had decent education. Sharmila wasn’t too interested in her studies, but she had something about her.”

After passing her higher secondary at age 19, she tried mastering various vocations — from shorthand, tailoring and nature cure to journalism, which led her to writing poetry.

Despite the pessimism all around, Sharmila believes things will change. Wasn’t her fast a factor in the Manipur government lifting the Disturbed Area Act from Imphal municipal areas in August 2004? She wants to be around when the AFSPA, imposed in Manipur in 1980, is done away with. And she relies on pranayams and other yogic exercises to keep her fit enough for that day.