Being Irom Sharmila: The icon who dared to be human and spoke of love
In Manipur, she was god. Until last week, when the activist decided to start eating, spoke of love, marriage, and a normal lifeUpdated: Aug 14, 2016 10:14 IST
For someone who wants to live life “like an ambitionless insect”, being god is tough. But becoming mortal is tougher.
“Look at my eyes,” says Irom Sharmila, as she sits, almost crouching, on her hospital ward bed. Her eyes are moist.
She pauses. Her face sinks deeper into the crevice between her knees which are covered by a phanek, a sarong-like traditional dress worn by women in Manipur’s Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley.
“I am 44 years old.” The words are spoken with intensity.
The emphasis on age could come from the realisation that the best part of her youth is over, eaten up by a marathon fast for a cause – the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958 that allegedly gives soldiers the license to kill.
On August 9, Irom Sharmila broke her 16-year-long fast with a trickle of honey. She grimaced, perhaps because her taste buds are not used to tasting food – indeed, to tasting anything at all.
“Nobody told me to start fasting then (November 2000),” says Sharmila. “And I dissuaded others from joining me because I knew how hard it can be on a woman with multiple responsibilities in a conflict-torn land. Why can’t they understand I have not deviated from the goal of getting AFSPA repealed?” Sharmila says.
Her change of strategy – to contest elections and acquire power to throw out the “draconian law” – has not gone down well with many rights activists. Members of the Sharmila Kanba Lup, a pressure group named after her, abused her for “abandoning the cause” as well as for wanting to marry her boyfriend, British-Indian Desmond Coutinho. The group was dissolved to erase Sharmila’s name.
Sharmila struggles to speak. When she does, her words are loaded with pain -- because she has been turned away by her own. She is back in the hospital ward that used to be her prison.
Apart from the removal of the Nyles feeding tube that made her the “Face of the anti-AFSPA movement” in Manipur, Northeast and Kashmir, nothing has changed for Sharmila. One still needs permission from the superintendent of Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) to meet her, police personnel check papers before letting anyone in and doctors monitor her health, though now they do so for the gradual switch from nasal feeding to oral intake.
It is a situation Sharmila probably perceived years ago, albeit in a different context, when she wrote the poem ‘Tonight’. It goes: “…Your poor girl is stirred at this hour/ This late night makes me so restless/ Cannot forget the world of captivity… Oh prison! You go, just vanish/ So cruel is the strength of the iron bars and chains/ They tear many a life untimely.”
In the poem, she compared herself to a bird that flaps the mind-wings but is asked what its ‘walkable legs’ are for.
Death of a poet
A dreary ward in a not-so-clean government hospital isn’t quite made for writing poetry. But circumstances rather than the setting inspired the steel-willed Sharmila to write ‘Rebirth’, a 1,010-line poem, in the spring of 2007. She published a seven-poem collection titled ‘Ima (Mother)’ next year.
Sharmila’s bid to be ‘reborn’ – as a normal human being from the iconic revolutionary – has annoyed the imas, the mothers, more than anyone else. Among them is her own mother, Irom Sakhi Devi, who is “neither happy nor sad” by Sharmila’s “unilateral” decision to end her fast.
Sitting in her home in Imphal’s Kongpal Kongkham locality, less than 2 km from the hospital ward where her daughter lives, 84-year-old Sakhi Devi says, “I am waiting for her to come back home victorious.” It is a reminder of Sharmila’s vow 16 years ago – never to go home until AFSPA is withdrawn from Manipur.
The mother yearns to be on the loom – a feature in many Meitei households – with Sharmila, the youngest of her nine children. But she is angry that Sharmila did not seek her blessings before deciding to end her fast, unlike when she had decided to start her hunger strike.
“Our doors are open, but Sharmila is like a god to people who have been at the receiving end of fake encounters,” says her brother Irom Singhajit. It is as if their house – and six more of the extended Irom family – is not worthy of a ‘god’.
For Tokpam Somorendra, whose teenage son was one of the 10 victims of the Malom massacre in November 2000 (which was the trigger for Sharmila’s fast), Sharmila has a right to take her own decision. “But by choosing a political path, she has come down from the highest Himalayan peak to a hillock,” he says.
Sharmila insists she is no god, and never was. She never sought the Iron Lady tag either, nor the world record for the longest fast. She did not seek out any of the human rights awards she received.
“Only people with power try to be god and meddle with the life of ordinary people,” she wrote in the poem ‘Victorious Worm’.
And the pain of being unwanted takes over. “You don’t understand me; I am still the people’s person more than a private person. I am not irresponsible, not possessive,” she says.
Everything that she possessed – books, dresses, certificates, mementos – were given to a rights organisation long ago for safe-keeping. The objects that remain with her in the hospital ward, are gifts from Desmond – a wooden Radha-Krishna statue, diary, books and a laptop that she rarely uses today.
Will she write again, to overcome her loneliness? “Circumstances compelled me to write once, though I am no writer. Writing needs a creative mind. How can I create when my mind is full of anxiety?”
Simple and emotional
The first thing Sharmila did after the court released her was discard the Nyles nasal tube, her constant companion during the 16 years, into the dustbin. She had no intention of keeping it as a memento.
“I told you I am not materialist. I wanted to keep only my karma. I threw the pipe away; it was representative of the state power that imposes its authority on common people,” she says.
Singhajit, 58, recalls Sharmila as a simple, calm and shy (hence the name) girl who had very few friends. “She liked to be left alone, spending time reading and writing. She was not good in studies but she loved reading biographies. And unlike most of her friends, she abhorred cosmetics.”
Among all her siblings, Sharmila was closest to Singhajit. “She was born on a dark and stormy night,” remembers Singhajit. “She grew up on my shoulders, but I did not realise when the reclusive girl became an emotional woman with no worldly attachments.” A burst of emotion made her fast; another burst made her end it.
In between was love that almost made her quit fasting in 2011. Desmond wrote Sharmila a letter after reading ‘Burning Bright’, a 2009 book on the Manipuri struggle. They began exchanging letters and soon became soulmates, though they were continents apart. Desmond, then 48, reached Imphal in February 2011 and had to wait for a month to meet her.
Sharmila’s supporters almost manhandled Desmond, believing he was a government agent planted to weaken her and derail the anti-Afspa movement. Desmond had to fast for two days before he was allowed to meet her.
“Yes, he cares about me,” Sharmila says. “He is in Ireland.”
She pauses and the people’s Sharmila cuts in. “But my love is conditional. I cannot deviate from my first love – Manipur and her people. I will go away for love only if the people abandon me, or absolutely ignore me.”
She hasn’t heard from him for a long time. She hopes he will get in touch and understand her position.
Food for thought
Sharmila almost vomited the evening after she tasted honey to break her fast. The doctors said it was too early for her to eat anything beyond the combination of nutrients she used to get through the nasal pipe.
“A delicacy I want to have is chapon (rice broth),” she says, eyes lighting up. A pause and the people’s Sharmila cuts in again. “I don’t care about taste. I need food for the mind, and whatever gives strength to my body will do.”
Singhajit says she is a pure vegetarian, and was never finicky about food. “She took whatever was cooked for the family without any fuss,” he says.
The mention of chapon moves the mother. “I want to meet her but what is the use of going to her if it means crying together?” Sakhi Devi says.
Sharmila is perhaps destined to cry alone.
“The eyes are useless,” she wrote in one of her poems. But her eyes reveal everything, her entire story. It is just that few in Manipur want to read them.
- March 14, 1972: Sharmila is born to Irom Nanda and Irom Sakhi at Kongpal, Imphal East district
- November 2, 2000: Assam Rifles gun down 10 people, including a national bravery award winner, at Malom near Imphal
- November 5, 2000: Sharmila, then 28, begins her indefinite fast to protest the killings and demand withdrawal of Afspa
- November 8, 2000: Police arrest Sharmila on charges of attempt to suicide under section 309 of Indian Penal Code; a hospital ward becomes her prison, where she is force-fed nutrients through a nasal tube
- August 15, 2004: Manipur government withdraws Afspa from seven assembly seats straddling Imphal, partly because of Sharmila’s fast and partly because of the custodial death of an alleged woman militant
- November 20, 2004: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hands over Kangla Fort, the centre of Manipuri pride that Assam Rifles occupied since 1949, to the state government
- October 2-6, 2006: Sharmila takes her fast to New Delhi and demonstrates at Jantar Mantar before Delhi Police re-arrest her for attempted suicide
- 2007-2010:Sharmila gets several awards, including the Gwangju Prize for human rights, Lifetime Achievement Award by Asian Human Rights Commission and Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize
- March 2011: Personal life threatens to take over Sharmila’s public life after 48-year-old Desmond Coutinho, a British-Indian, meets her; the two had fallen in love through exchange of letters
- October 3, 2011: Sharmila Kanba Lup or Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign begins
- March 28, 2013: Amnesty International declares Sharmila a Prisoner of Conscience on a day an Imphal court rejects charges against her and orders her release
- July 8, 2016: SC says armed forces cannot use excessive force even in Afspa areas
- July 26, 2016: Sharmila announces she will end her fast and join politics
- Agust 9, 2016: Sharmila ends her 16-year hunger strike