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Fast among equals

On 2 November 2000, Assam Rifles personnel killed 10 people at village Malom near Tulihal Airport, Imphal. That day also marked the beginning of a record-breaking fast by Irom Sharmila Chanu, then 27. Rahul Karmakar reports.

delhi Updated: Jun 19, 2011 01:36 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times

On 2 November 2000, Assam Rifles personnel killed 10 people at village Malom near Tulihal Airport, Imphal. That day also marked the beginning of a record-breaking fast by Irom Sharmila Chanu, then 27.

Very few people thought Sharmila, an undergraduate daughter of a fourth grade veterinary department employee named I Nanda, had it in her to carry on fasting. But force-feeding through a nasal tube notwithstanding, she hasn’t only proved them wrong; she intends to carry on until she achieves her goal — get the “draconian” Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1968 scrapped.

The Act gives armed forces personnel the license to kill.

Now the face of the anti-AFSPA movement, Sharmila shows no signs of cracking. Officials say “she is made of tough fibre.” Yoga helps fast long-term; it has helped Sharmila. Baba Ramdev, the made-by-television yoga guru, perhaps couldn’t prove that.

An allergic-to-TV woman from Manipur has, for the 11th year in a row.

Until 2 November 2000, Irom Sharmila was fanatic about chagem-pomba, an elaborate difficult-to-cook curry containing a medley of leafy vegetables, fermented soybean, herbs, dried fish and rice.

But she hasn’t eaten it since the Malom massacre.

Technically, officials in Imphal say, Sharmila isn’t going hungry. “She is probably getting the healthiest and most balanced of diet in India,” says one of the doctors who attend to her at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS). But force-feeding, rights activists say, doesn’t take away the bite from Sharmila’s fast-unto-death.

Left on her own, Sharmila will not touch a grain or a drop of water. Her rigidity is evident from her re-arrests every time the court frees her. She refuses to eat in freedom, and the government puts her back in the JNIMS ward after booking her under Section 309 IPC for attempt to commit suicide.

“Her fasting is a crime. The government has taking this step (force-feeding Sharmila) to save her life. Her obstinacy is unfortunate even after we removed AFSPA from seven assembly constituencies of Imphal Valley in 2004,” says Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh.

It takes at least 40 persons — 12 nurses, five JNIMS doctors, three policewomen in civves and two medical supervisors from Imphal Jail besides a ring of policemen outside the ward — to ensure she gets her periodic injection of nutrients through a Nyles feeding tube.

“We tweak the nutrient dosage if she loses or gains weight (maintained at 51 kg),” says T. Joy Singh, head of medicine. “We check her blood, stool and urine regularly and conduct ECG to check her heartbeat. She usually cooperates, but can be tough to handle during one of her mood swings.”

The change of mood often makes Sharmila pull out her nasal tube; she is then put on intravenous glucose drip. “That’s also the time for doctors and prison officials to talk her into accepting the tube again, since IV drips can complicate things if persisted for more than two days,” Singh says.

Apart from the ‘doctored diet’, Singh attributes her healthy frame to four hours of yoga and walking (escorted) in the corridor around her 8X12 ft ward with a toilet attached. Superintendent of police (prisons) Themthing Ngashangva is impressed by her yoga skills, good enough for “even television gurus”. He recalls how one of the policewomen — one is always at the bed beside Sharmila’s — saw her doing a 180º leg stretch and pushups on two fingers.

“Maintaining her nutrition and other requirements such as toiletries, books and newspapers costs us Rs 8,000-10,000 a month,” says Ngashangva. “We reimburse a pharmacy for the food supplements every month, and we ensure there’s enough stock of her ingredients for her liquid diet even during difficult times.” Politically and ethnically-charged but landlocked Manipur often experiences highway blockades leading to shortage of essentials.

Sharmila’s elder brother Irom Singhajit, 53, admits to having tried to talk her out of fasting.

“I believe one can achieve one’s goal without giving up food, but she has always been an anam kanba (Meitei word meaning an obstinate person who will do anything s/he believes in). Besides, she was used to fasting every Thursday without even water,” he says. Famous fasters

(With Anupam Trivedi)

Fasting Fast-Facts
Before you decide to fast in support of whatever cause takes your fancy, it would be a good idea to understand how sustained starvation would affect your body.

A healthy adult can last for 30 days on water alone without experiencing signs of starvation. Without water, it’s difficult to last more than three days — sometimes less, depending on the how warm it is — as the kidneys get affected.

Fasting with water — and without the crutches of honey and electrolytes — for more than three days is safe as it just lowers weight and slows the metabolic rate.

Day 1: No effect except for a little lethargy. The glucose stored in liver provides energy to help vital organs such as the brain and the heart to function.

Days 2-7: Protein in muscles starts breaking down to release energy. Water intake is essential to maintain kidney function.

Day 7-15: Symptoms of vomiting, anxiety, weak pulse, low blood pressure, low urine output and/or unconsciousness may appear. In such cases, the nourishment needs to be given using a saline drip that contains sodium chloride (salt) and/or glucose and sterile water to replace fluid loss. It can help a person survive for several months without food.

Days 16-25: Fat reserves break down to keep the heart and brain going. The level of alertness steadily drops.

Day 25: The metabolic rate drops considerably to help conserve energy. The person may slip in and out of consciousness.

Day 30 onwards: More than 75% of body reserves are exhausted. Toxins accumulated in body start affecting the kidneys. The person looks emaciated.

Day 30 onwards: Immunity plummets, increasing susceptibility to infections.Fall in haemoglobin — which carries oxygen to the organs — increases risk of multi-organ damage, which can lead to death.

Nigamananda’s diet

February 19, 2011: Swami Nigamanda, 36, begins fast.

April 27, 2011: Forcibly admitted to local hospital as his glucose and minerals are abysmally low.

April 30, 2011: Shifted to a Doon Hospital in Dehradun. He weighs 45 kg.

May 2, 2011: He slips into coma and is shifted to Jollygrant Himalayan Institute Hospital, where he is immediately given saline and nutrients intravenously. Apart glucose and a saline solution to maintain his body’s electrolyte balance, he was given proteins to prevent his muscles from atrophying.

Blood, urine and stool are tested every day to measure his health parameters.

June 13, 2011: Dies of septicaemia caused by acute infection triggered by starvation-induced immunity breakdown and multi-organ failure.

His weight is 42 kg.

Irom’s diet

Nov 2, 2000: Irom Sharmila, 38, starts fast.

Nov 11, 2000: Put on a saline drip after she collapses.

November 21, 2000 onwards: Thrice a day, nutrients containing adequate amounts of calcium, fats, carbohydrate and vitamins are mixed with water are force-fed to her through the Nyles nasal tube, which runs through the oesophagus and into the stomach. The dosage is determined by her blood, urine and stool tests results and her weight, which is 51 kg.

10am: Cerelac (15 scoops) + Sucate suspension (3 tbsp) + Camplex syrup

2pm: Nutrocal DM (25 scoops) + Sucate (3 tsp)+Appy juice (60 ml)

9pm: Nutrocal DM (30 scoops)+Sucate (3 tsp)+Adcal (2 tsp)+Apply juice (60 ml)

(Sucate: to prevent stomach and intestinal infections; Camplex: Vitamin B; Nutrocal: Cerelac-like food supplement; Adcal: calcium)

First Published: Jun 18, 2011 23:18 IST