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. “Â “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.
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.
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.