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Irom Chanu’s Satyagraha – On A Political Fast For The Past 11 Years

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By Amritapa Basu:
“I am not important for this world,
just like a worm that can be crushed.”
Irom Sharmila Chanu
Anna Hazare fasted for four days and the nation stirred up into action to support his cause. Irom Sharmila Chanu has been fasting for the past 11 years and barely anyone knows about it. People (read opportunists) are hell-bent on changing the ‘anti-corruption movement’ into ‘anti-government movement’, transforming Jantar Mantar into a Tahrir Sqaure, but an actual ‘anti-government movement’ goes unnoticed. Why? Because Anna Hazare performed the stint in the heart of the capital city and Irom Sharmila has been struggling in a small room in Imphal. Intense media coverage and mass upsurge forced the government to agree to Anna Hazare’s proposals but it took four years for the media to come to know of Chanu’s unique struggle.

Irom Sharmila Chanu, also known as the Iron Lady of Manipur has been on an political fast since November 4, 2000 demanding the Government of India to withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) from Manipur and other areas of India’s north-east. An iconic legend in Manipur’s politics, her fast is perhaps the longest political protest of its kind in history and in any part of the world. Irom Sharmila Chanu has not eaten anything, or drunk a single drop of water since November, 2000. She has been forcibly kept alive by nasogastric tubation. She has not combed her hair, nor looked at the mirror and uses a dry cotton to clean her teeth. Her body is wasted inside, her menstrual cycles have stopped. She removes the nasogastric tube at the slightest opportunity available. BBC (Tuesday, 19 September 2006, 09:46 GMT) had carried a report on this marathon fast wherein it had mentioned the deteriorating condition of her health : “Doctors say her fasting is now having a direct impact on her body’s normal functioning – her bones have become brittle and she has developed other medical problems too. “ “It is not a punishment, but my bounden duty,” says Sharmila (Tehelka, 2006). Bounded duty towards the people of Manipur, the people of North-East, the people who are not considered to belong to the ‘mainland’ India.

According to a report by Harsh Dobhal, Sharmila, 28 then, had joined the anti-AFSPA movement barely two weeks before she began fasting. She was a volunteer in the workshops and discussions organized by the 3-member Indian People’s Inquiry Committee (IPIC) headed by Justice H Suresh which went around hearing tales of injustice and violence from the victims. During the IPIC investigations, she was particularly shaken by the testimony of a young girl who was raped by the security forces at Lamden village.

Sharmila and two other women volunteers had privately talked to the girl. On 1st November 2000, an insurgent group had bombed an army column which enraged them. ‘The 8th Assam Rifles retaliated by gunning down 10 innocent civilians at a bus-stand in Malom. The local papers published brutal pictures of the bodies the next day, including one of a 62-year old woman, Leisangbam Ibetomi, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner.’ – (Tehelka, 2006). This incident termed as the Malom Massacre. The army declared that the civilians were killed in an encounter with the insurgents who were about to bomb a parliamentary convoy. However, the locals had a different story to tell, which obviously went unheard. Malom Massacre was nothing new for the people in Manipur as they had witnessed similar cold-blooded killings before when the security forces would go berserk and kill ordinary people, Sharmila could not bear the sight of the blood spilled on the street. Sharmila observed her weekly fast on Thursdays since her childhood. She fasted on that fateful Thursday and “the same fast continues till date”, says her brother Irom Singhajit. She went to seek mother’s blessings on November, 4 ‘to do something for the people’ and returned to the site of blood-bath and declared her resolution to fast-unto-death till AFSPA is withdrawn. A Gandhian-follower, Sharmila says, “I was shocked to see the dead bodies. There was no means to stop further violations by the armed forces…. It (fast) is the most effective way because it is based on a spiritual fight… My fast is on behalf of the people of Manipur. This is not a personal battle, it is symbolic. It is a symbol of truth, love and peace”.

Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) has been termed ‘draconian’ by many, yet it continues to exist. Since it came into force in 1980, more than 25,000 people have been killed in Manipur alone — so reads the official figures. In 2009, Manipur’s Director General of Police, Mr Joy Kumar Singh, openly stated in an interview that his officers had killed more than 260 persons in 11 months, insisting they were all ‘terrorists’. The Tehelka report reads — ‘Rather than curb insurgent groups, it has engendered a seething resentment across the land, and fostered new militancies.

There were only four insurgent groups in Manipur, today there are 25 on the government’s own watch-list. This Act has practically given the military unprecedented powers to do their will as it prohibits any legal or judicial proceeding against any army personnel without the previous sanction of the Central Government. It has snatched away from the people the right to protest, the right to legal redress against atrocities or right of any lawful democratic activity. Ordinary innocent persons can be easily labeled as ‘terrorists’ and ‘suspects’ and taken into custody.

Democratic activists who report about the excesses by the Army or have demanded an end of the Army rule are picked up, tortured and killed. The North-Eastern States of India, the largest democracy of India, have been forced to live under an undeclared emergency or defacto military rule for past five decades. The area is literally being ruled by three governments: the state government, the insurgent government and the army of the state, and the common people are sandwiched in between. It has destroyed the lives of a generation of North-Eastern people by snatching away their freedom and creativity, curbed their prosperity and growth.

Within three days of her beginning her fast, the police arrested Sharmila Chanu on charges of ‘attempt to suicide’ which is punishable by 309 section of the Indian Penal Code. The administration began force-feeding her nasally and confined her to the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal. The offence of ‘attempt to suicide’ is bailable and the maximum sentence cannot exceed one year. She refused to break her fast or seek bail. As is the pattern, she is released by the court on completion of one year and is re-arrested with 2-3 days of her release under same charges.

This has become a yearly ritual and cycle continues. In 2006, after her release from ‘yearlong custody’ in October, her supporters literally smuggled her out of Imphal to Delhi by dodging the security personnel with the hope of making her ‘regional’ campaign into a ‘national’ one. She visited Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi at Rajghat and later told a journalist “I want to tell the people of India that if Mahatma Gandhi were alive today, he would have launched a movement against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. My appeal to the citizens of the country is to join the campaign against the army act,” (The Telegraph,October 05, 2006). In no time she was swooped by the police and shut in a ward of AIIMS with security personnel posted outside her door who would not allow anyone inside.

While Anna Hazare became the centre of media attention immediately or rather before he started the fast, and celebrities conveniently grabbed the opportunity to hog some more limelight and media sympathy, Irom Sharmila Chanu’s struggle came to light only in 2004 (four years later), when media covered the news of mothers and Manipuri women stripping themselves naked in front of Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal and held banners proclaiming “Come Indian Army, Rape Us” in protest of the brutal rape and murder of young woman activist Thangjam Manorama Devi by Assam Rifles personnel. Just because it is ‘not a part of mainland India’, women had to do a bare-all stint before catching the media eyeballs.

Manipuri women protesting against the Army in light of the numerous rape cases.

Sharmila does not seem to be edging anywhere close to her demand, but she surely has lost much in the interim. Keeping aside the health issues, it has been reported that her brother lost a government job because he chose to remain on her side, the family had to go bankrupt. Irom Sakhi’s (Sharmila’s mother) sacrifice stands tall among all else. She has never met her daughter since she blessed her on the momentous day when she undertook her fast. Irom Sakhi, with tears in her eyes told a correspondent: “It is just possible that my getting emotional on seeing her may weaken her resolve. And I do not want that my daughter lose in this battle, which is for the betterment of humanity.” (Tehelka, 2006)

Sharmila was nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize by a Guwahati-based woman’s organization and Science and Rationalists’ Association of India and Humanist Association demanded that Irom Sharmila Chanu again be nominated for 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. When she was awarded the Gwangju prize for Human Rights, 2007, she said “My struggle is not for the sake of fame or award.” (Wiki). Her resolution has also grabbed Amnesty’s attention and they have requested the Indian Government to repeal AFSPA.

[Visit: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA20/003/2010/en/94d77512-f06f-4a75-9178-4ee283bc1e6e/asa200032010en.html]

Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Laureate and human rights activist, has also supported Sharmila’s cause and said to a group of journalists : “If Sharmila dies, Parliament is directly responsible. If she dies, courts and judiciary are responsible, the military is responsible… If she dies, the executive, the PM and President are responsible for doing nothing… If she dies, each one of you journalists is responsible because you did not do your duty…”

And what does our government have to say about this? In response to the recommendations by the Jeevan Reddy Commission which was set up in 2004 after the Manorama protests, Pranab Mukherjee, then defence minister said that it is impossible to repeal the Act as the military cannot function without these powers. And thus we all choose to shut our eyes to the atrocities continuing in the North-East, in a part which does not belong to the Mainland India!

I would conclude with the lines from a report in Tehelka, 2006 — ‘Menghaobi, the people of Manipur call her, The Fair One. Youngest daughter of an illiterate Grade 1V worker in a veterinary hospital in Imphal, Irom was always a solitary child, the backbencher, the listener. Eight siblings had come before her. By the time she was born, her mother Irom Shakhi, 44, was dry.’ Her mother could not breast-feed her. Her brother would take her to “other mothers”, any mother he could find to suckle her. “Maybe this her service to all her mothers”, says Singhajit.

You must be to comment.
  1. Neha Bhandarkar

    This needs URGENT ATTENTION too.

  2. Cathy Nongthombam

    Anna’s 4 days fast and Irom Sharmila fast for 10 years……..!!!GOI paid heed to Anna ASAP…watz da difference he had dne frm Sharmila……..no offence… I support Anna’s cause though..still needs answer !!! n it will remain unanswered…..!!! still m askin….hoping 4 a reasonable answer

  3. Preeti

    Today India is in top five most powerful countries, but can we say that we are really powerful? If we look inside there are many problems and many issues which are continuously ignored by our government. I think government should solve the interior problems and there consequences and then grade the country in most powerful list.

    Documentary – “True Lies in Manipur” shows some facts of government negligence.

    To watch the documentary please visit – http://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/4030

  4. Shrayjaimishra

    THIS IS THE FACEBOOK PAGE OF IROM SHARMILLA CHANU AND HER CAUSE…..JOIN THIS AND SUPPORT HER…http://www.facebook.com/pages/Irom-Sharmila-Chanu/209789715715217?sk=page_getting_started

  5. Sudeshnabarat

    when we see that some group of people, or some part of our country get more justice, the other don’t, then a question arise!!!! Is truly our country a proper republican democratic, something else!!! When all indians support Anna & don’t know IROM SHARMILA, then shoul we not considered ourselves as true selfish

  6. Unknown

    What a tragic life. What all we give away of ourselves to be heard. What is the meaning to my existence when I cannot even fathom the pains faced by some my own fellow beings.

  7. Amritapa Basu

    The article does not mention this but for those interested – Irom Chanu was only 28 years old when she started on her fast.

  8. Ranjani

    Thank you, for bringing light about this issuewhich needed all time attention from both State and Central Government? But I, personally disagree in one point, “People (read opportunists) are hell-bent on changing the ‘anti-corruption movement’ into ‘anti-government movement’, transforming Jantar Mantar into a Tahrir Sqaure…………” Why do every one compare the fast that happened in Jantar Mantar to Tahrir Square? Even one of the famous News Channel mentioned so. Can’t any of you people find any difference between the two? Tahrir Square had riots, gun firing and army men rushing to the square killing any one and every one without mercy, DID YOU FIND ANY OF THESE THERE IN JANTAR MANTAR?

  9. Ruhi

    We are planning to flag of a massive online campaign to demand the repeal of AFSPA.
    http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/event.php?eid=114336035318220
    Visit the campaign page, read the details and confirm that you are attending by clicking “I’m attending”. This campaign will not just be limited to facebook. We plan to hold active discussions, contests, etc. all over the internet.If we get a large enough support, we will very soon take this protest to the streets. The time for change is NOW. Also, invite your friends. 

  10. arif korath

    evry crual heart ll take their change. . !! when they happen 2 hear diz, bt fatly our nation z fully blind.. ltz luk hw far they kan deny ol dese… v kan asssur d authorities r diggg theirt own grav…. ma heart was sttekd sen i cme n 2 tt…tz realy a cut throt attittude…v shud fear their eyes…
    i damly feel tt am a citizen of india…
    hey lord almighty.. pls keep her alive until dz wold endz….

  11. S.Kumar

    In my opinion after a long period of her fast a consideration should be given to her feeling, cause and health.

  12. Danish Khan

    Anna’s campaign got urgent attention just because its political links with other parties, its a politics driven campaign. although there have been many campaigns including hunger strikes got attention but this anna’a campaign is much more organized and supported by political parties.
    on the other hand irom sharmila is fighting and fasting for so long , her demands are very genuine, everyone knows that AFSPA is a draconian law and it should be revoked. but nobody is considering it. last year when stone pelting protests were sparked off after the death of tuffail matto there have been demands made to repeal the act in kashmir which led to appointment of interlocutors. But nothing has been done so far in response to demands of Irom sharmila. No doubt she is an iron lady and her campaign should get much needed attention.

  13. Desmond Coutinho

    I hope you will allow these more important corrections to stand. Most of the reports of her physical decline here attributed via the BBC to “Doctors” are utter fabrication. The most recent in the Hindustan of mid-June had the chief medical officer of JNIMS claiming in the same article that Sharmila is probably the best fed of all Indian Citizens its unpleasant no longer to be able to taste food but there is no medical reason for any decline in health for any of the strange terrible diseases reported about her. She personally confirmed this to me and I remain her only spokesman. These reports are nothing but death threats organized by Babloo Longtoibam the director of HRA and uncle of the DG of Imphal Police. He both investigates human rights abuses by the police and has the police at his beck and call. Slightly personal he had me arrested twice by his Uncle’s police commandoes and once interrogated with threat of violence by 3 SIB officers in order to prevent what he thought was our first meeting. But returning to the death threat by way of complications due to force feeding. Babloo reported this first on 22 September 2010 in the Hindu where he claimed her death was imminent and then gave a list of his Uncle’s police redeployment to combat the inevitable uprising. At that time he claimed medical reports were being sent daily to a deaf dumb and inactive Government in Delhi and that they should be held responsible for her death. Clearly since she was never in any risk I do not know what medical reports he is talking about probably the ones he would make up after his death. In the article of June in the Hindustan Times I think it is the Hindu no longer publishes Babloo’s lies, Dr T Joy Singh attributes Sharmila’s decline to her mood swings when she removes her feeding tube (which would cause death within a week maximum, preceded by coma and irrevocable internal damage within three days) and he relies on IV drip. Again a complete fabrication. Another false report by Babloo was that she began refusing all intubation from April 21 this was reported on April 26 by a visiting NESO group by which time she would have been in a coma. Another lie. The second form of death threat comes from her brother Irom Singhajit. Of course I would have one anything for her brother. Sharmila and I are betrothed to marry. She wears my thalli. I would have happily given him money respect whatever he wanted. He had looked after his sister for so long. But in recent years he sold out his sister for the power to swagger about with Babloo’s police commandoes and so he too can terrorize local women. She loves her brother and hopes he will awaken to the truth because she believes he is being poisoned by the local gangsters led by Babloo and his Uncle. On Babloo’s command Singhajit had AF(SP)A lifted from Imphal City limits many years back which gave that family their power base. They run the city now. It was purportedly done as a deal to have Sharmila end her fast but as Sharmila wants the restoration of the rule of law by the lifting of AF(SP)A everywhere she refused to go along with it. His current orders from Babloo are to threaten Sharmila with honor killing if she does not end her relationship with me. Many people including most journalists know the truth about what is actually going on for Sharmila. They never publish and usually my comments are blocked. But the truth is a weed and it will rise up. Finally though there are many FB pages called Irom Sharmila she has no official site there. I have left FB to manipuris who like hollow shams. They can feel they are supporting her without ever commenting on the murderous threats made by the gangsters who surround her and will not allow any independent free thinking person (non-manipuri) to visit her. I am attempting to arrange independent counsel for her this time with the Lawyerscollective of Delhi Mumbai Bangalore and J&K but they have begun ignoring my requests to pin down whether they will take the case of being her first independent legal counsel. They are the fourth set of lawyers we have tried to hire. Something is rotten in the State of Manipur and I have never read any journalistic piece that comes close to describing the satyagraha of Irom Sharmila. Let me end then inspired by her. With all my heart I thank the petty spiteful opposition of Babloo and his cronies. You have turned me into a romantic hero more eloquent than Lord Byron, sexier than Daniel Craig (he did have one plan to demonize me as an Indian Sex Spy I am hurt that he now thinks it ridiculous). He has shown the depth of Irom Sharmila not just a simple meitei schoolleaver but a boddhisaatva who shows goodwill to all and malice to none, who knows that confrontation politics will not transform Manipur. It must be through truth and reconciliation. And that means there can be no revenge. So Youth Ki Awaaz will the comment be published and will it stay.

  14. naveenkaushal

    ghar par rah kar rights nahi milte bahar niklna padhta hai aap log kya jaane ana ji ke bare mein ………………………………

  15. ajay

    @Naveen:-
    Jahan pe jakham hota hai…log wahin pe wahi pe malham lagte hai..

    Samjha nahin ki nahin.

  16. rajashekar

    This is a state of shame, We claim ourself to be biggest Democratic republic State in the world, we are practically making a mockery of democracy claiming so with such a horrific state of affirs in one of our states, this reminds me of Kmer Rouge, Shame our politicians who ward away from such serious
    sacial issues. If AnnaHazare has the country on his call let the voice of the great lady ” Irom Sharmila” the representative of the state be reverberated across the country through his fight so that our politicians wake to the issue. We salute the great “IROM SHARMILA”

  17. Manoj Poddar

    Are we “India” so weak that t cannot amicably settle and find a way to make sure that someone like Sharmila is no more dying for what seems as a rational cause. Are we so helpless that we cant make people of the region feel that they belong to India as much as people from the mainland india.

  18. Sh Bijoy

    Let us hope that Anna comes to Manipur. Manipur will resonate with Anna’s calls of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata ki Jai and Jai Hind. The national tri colour will make our beautiful land, Manipur even more beautiful. Once this happens, most of Manipur’s problems will get solved. It will be interesting to see the reaction of that section of Irom Sharmila supporters who are against the tri colour, Vande Mataram, Jai Hind and Bharat Mata ki Jai. Let us hope they will be mesmerized by Anna to chant with him and change their attitude and outlook & usher in a new era of peace and development in our beautiful state.

  19. Priyatam

    Hey guys i request you to please share this on u r social networking sites and also discuss about her with your friends and neighbors… so that we can do at least do some favor for her publishing her name..
    Lets make everyone aware about her…

  20. hetalkumar p.modi rajkot guj

    jay bharat muje aapke bare me fikkr hai muje aapke bare me jankari sandesh gujarati newz pepar se mili hai

  21. ananta kumar

    labour union,student union,NGO,religious fund, all must think on this mater

  22. NAZAR R

    salam to sharmila

  23. Anish Nair

    We are the world’s greatest bigots. We are fighting against the government like a revolutionary force, while we cannot support for our northeastern or kashmiri brothers and sisters, because the AFSPA does not affect us.

    We are fighting for the rights which we hesitate to honour our fellow northeastern and kashmiri indians. I applaud India and Indians for such display of apathy and double standards to their fellow citizens.

  24. Ashokbj

    All the best to sharmila, I’ll pray for your health and the fights your standing for.

    All the best god bless you… My respect for you is more then any one in this world….

    Regards
    Ashok

  25. Vivek

    Although afspa is unvoidable, its equally important for army.But this should be reconsidered and reformed..the people of north india nd jammu nd kashmir should get justice!!!!

  26. Mohini

    a big salute to you ma’am i really hope k log aapke sacrifice ko value de aur aap jin causes k liye khade hain unmein safalta mile
    i will pray for your health
    your people are very lucky to have you
    all the very BEST
    for me you are  a real IRON lady…… who is standing without any support and publicity
                               
                                                                                    

  27. Shyamal Sarcar

    India’s biggest democracy now for the interest of few wealthy. Big corruptions, looting of motherland’s wealth and to protect the corrupts big undemocratic Acts like AFSPA and many other such Acts to shut up the voice of protestors. Again I raise voice for Sharmila and against the undemocratic, fascist steps of Govt.

  28. tanush tyagi

    never lose a faith irom sharmila show this person what is a power of a common person as all milatary,pm and etc are beggars keep continuing “only the le mashale is the way to tell people about you

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biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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