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Lady on a mission

Manipur?s Irom Sharmila Chanu added yet another week to her six-year-two-month long hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Act (1958), reports Soma Wadhwa.

india Updated: Jan 13, 2007 01:48 IST

Yet again, hatred and horror unleashed in the Northeast found space in our national dailies. Yet again, the region’s troubles grabbed our attention only when violence ran amok, killing 69 in Assam this week.

And Manipur’s Irom Sharmila Chanu added yet another week to her six-year-two-month long hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Act (1958) that empowers the army to kill on suspicion in many parts of the Northeast. She has refused to give up on her belief that not guns but peaceful protest will make the nation engage with the Northeast’s plight.

Somewhat stubbornly, one would think. Considering that in the over four months that she’s been in the Capital to bring her cause closer home to the powers that be, Sharmila has seen more hospitals than hope.

Bundled under blankets, head full of tousled curls buried into the pillow, she looks no more than a silent heap on a steel cot. Till she ups a face that is so fragile it seems it will break if she opens her mouth. But when she does, what she shatters are doubts about the strength of her purpose. “I’ll fight for justice till however long it takes,” she pauses, adjusts the nose-feed tube dangling over her mouth. “With the only things I have, my conscience, my willpower.”

She’s had a “very activist type of mind from a young age”, her brother Singhajit says. A mind that was stupefied when security forces gunned down 10 innocents on the suspicion of being insurgents at a bus stand in Malom near Imphal in November 2000. Among those killed was a 62-year-old woman.

Sharmila was 28 then; she’s 34 now, and she hasn’t tasted food or water since.

There have been attempts to force feed her. She has resisted. Embarrassed officials have made false promises to stop her fasting. She’s seen through them. She’s been put in and out of jail for attempting suicide “maybe eight or nine times”. She’s stopped counting. All she has cared about is that the Act be repealed.

But not even the gun-toting constables who hang listlessly around her know why she’s fasting. The hospital’s staff doesn’t know enough to direct visitors to her room. Only “intellectuals and activists” have found time to look in on her. The same media and ministers, who rushed to a fasting Mamata Banerjee recently, have shown little, if at all any, interest in her.

And Sharmila shuts her eyes, but not before a tear has already escaped: “I don’t like to hear all this news. I don’t like hypocrisy.” The Quran, Bible and Bhagavad Gita, strewn between the folds of her blanket, help her concentrate on what needs to be done without being distracted by the world. She knows she’s been able to win over many to her cause: a Mirabai statue and a painting are gifts that she’s received from strangers in these last months. Also, Manipur is full of supporters.

“I don’t know what will happen. I know what I have to do,” mutters Sharmila, her throat drying. You barely hear her, but you can’t but listen.

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First Published: Jan 13, 2007 01:48 IST