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Demanding an End to AFSPA: Irom Sharmila Believes in the Power of Struggle

Irom Sharmila says she doesn’t want to die. She wants to live like anyone else, she wants to fly like a bird with a message of peace and humanity across the seven seas. But she says she cannot live with dignity under the AFSPA.

Irom Sharmila in a file photo. PTI

Irom Sharmila in a file photo. PTI

November 2, 2010

We are in Imphal to extend solidarity to Irom Sharmila in her ten-year-old fast against the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in her home state, Manipur, which she loves dearly. People have gathered in Imphal from across Manipur and distant parts of India. The Imas are holding a sit-in every evening, as they have done for many months now; there are discussions and performances, and a musical band is to sing songs that tell us about Manipur under the AFSPA and Sharmila’s struggle to end the imposition of the lawless law.

Those of us who have come from distant places want to meet Sharmila in person to tell her that we are with her in this struggle. But the first set of people who go to see her are denied permission. The concert is cancelled — it seems the state does not want people to gather. We are all disappointed especially about not being able to meet Sharmila.

Credit: Uma Chakravarti

All that her mother manages to do for Sharmila is prepare a shampoo, made of specially picked herbs every week, with which Sharmila washes her beautiful curly hair. Credit: Uma Chakravarti

Then, Vrinda Grover tells us we aren’t using the best legal channels to see Sharmila and that we should try for a court order that allows us to meet her officially. We meet Sharmila’s mother at their home. She gazes at us stoically as we begin a conversation with her through Babloo Longoitham who is accompanying us. Behind us hangs an image, a collage prepared by an artist, in which Gandhiji is blessing Sharmila.

Sharmila’s mother tells us that in Manipur they have done all they could to draw attention to Sharmila’s fast and that there has been no response. Now, she tells us, we must take over and carry Sharmila’s message from Manipur to the powerful in Delhi. She looks tired and sad. Earlier we were told that Sharmila’s mother had not seen her since she began her fast and was detained for it. This is because she feels that she will cry when she sees her and doesn’t want to weaken her daughter’s resolve, who will feel sad to see her crying. All that she manages to do for Sharmila is prepare a shampoo, made of specially picked herbs every week, with which Sharmila washes her beautiful curly hair. She looks even more sad when she tells us, “One day I was listening to the radio and I heard an important man say, ‘we will never lift the AFSPA’. I felt very bad. I thought to myself, that means my daughter will never eat.”

I will never forget her words, a mother’s sorrow at her daughter’s terrible ordeal that the state deliberately ignores. So I write this piece to assuage some of the guilt I felt then and continue to feel now about Sharmila’s unique ordeal.

We move the court the next day, our last day in Imphal, in a desperate bid to meet Sharmila. And we get the order/permission to meet her by 11 am. But it is not to be yet. That’s not how the state works. The people on duty are not available; one of them has gone home because his mother is ill. At least that’s what we are told. We continue to get the chain of command to move but the permission letter doesn’t reach the relevant officer by 5.30 pm. We fail to se her that day as well.

Deeply disappointed we join the women’s sit-in. There are candles lit at dusk and everyone sits in silence. What is there to say?

Then we slip off and go to the nearby hospital where Sharmila, who is formally not a prisoner, is housed as a prisoner because no one may meet her. Since it is a hospital and we cannot be stopped from entering it, we get to the ward gates beyond which Sharmila’s room lies. Clandestinely she comes to the gates, we whisper words of solidarity, touch her hands in a gesture of affectionate respect and move away as silently as we came.

When we return to Delhi and make a desperate attempt to see Sonia Gandhi, who, we were told in Imphal, is to visit Manipur in a few days to inaugurate a new women’s market. We want to urge her to go and meet Sharmila, listen to her poetry and wise words, and then use her power over the party she heads to turn the debate on the AFSPA in the direction of Jeevan Reddy’s recommendation — to end the regime of the AFSPA. We couldn’t reach Gandhi but drop off our letter to her, enclosed in a book of Sharmila’s poems. Whether the message reached her or was dumped in a waste basket along her chain of command we do not know. She went to Imphal, inaugurated the women’s market and returned without seeing Sharmila.

We returned to our everyday lives. Sharmila continued to fast and be force fed, alone. Babloo Longoitham and 1,500 women prepared a dossier of encounter killings cases submitted to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court picked six of these 1,500 or so cases to be investigated by the Santosh Hedge Committee. The committee came back with its report — all six cases were ‘false’ encounters, a term we in India have coined to refer to the cold-blooded, extra-judicial killings of citizens. They were made possible under the regime of impunity that is the AFSPA. And yet the AFSPA stays.

March 28, 2016

At a citizens’ meeting to discuss public issues — sedition, the onslaught against the universities, the ongoing repression by the state against adivasis and defenders of the rule of law, against people who write about Bastar, or seek to bring news of violations into the public domain — we receive a message from Irom Sharmila that she would like to meet feminists in Delhi during the two days that she is in the city for a court case that was likely to be closed in this round of hearings. It was likely to be the last time Sharmila would be in Delhi, until the AFSPA is lifted, when we could all celebrate together.

Sharmila’s message reminds us that we had all but forgotten about her own unique struggle to challenge the impunity that lies at the heart of the AFSPA regime, a blatant act to subvert the rule of law and the right to justice to which every citizen of the country is entitled. A few of us — Vrinda Grover, Kalyanai Menon Sen, Shabnam Hashmi, Suneeta Dhar, Mary John, Deepa (from Sama) and I — decide to meet Sharmila the end of the meeting. This is my account, a personalised one, of our meeting with Sharmila.

Irom Sharmila writes a message on the writers hand. Credit: Uma Chakravarti

Irom Sharmila writes a message on the writers hand. Credit: Uma Chakravarti

Sharmila is in a private room undergoing one of the rituals of her daily life when she is fed through a nasal tube, which is now the marker of all of her images in public. Then she returns to her room, a couple of rooms down the corridor from where she was taken for this new ritual the Government of India has created to keep her from drawing attention to the political cause for which she is fasting — an end to the AFSPA. For about 15 minutes Kalyani, Deepa and I are alone with her. I try to open the conversation by recalling that I had met her briefly in Imphal in 2010. I tell her about meeting her mother because the state was effectively preventing us from meeting her in person. Just as I mention her mother Sharmila, who is sitting on her bed with us seated around her, suddenly stretches her legs forward in a gesture that recalls a yoga exercise — which she obviously follows to keep her physical system active — and begins to recount an extraordinary experience she had recently. As she bends forward to touch her toes in her routine moves she feels/sees her mother on one side of her and her aged 90-year-old grandmother on the other side. She feels their presence and the force of their feelings for her — the love they felt for her and the blessings they gave her which is part of the strength that she holds within herself to carry on what she set herself to do all those years ago. This mystical, deeply spiritual experience, she feels, is a message to her. And, perhaps, it is the support of these two women in her family that has made Sharmila turn to women at this point in her life to send her message out.

Soon, the others, who were coming to meet Sharmila, arrive. Sharmila gradually opens us up to the things she has been thinking about in her state of ‘imprisonment’ — she herself uses the analogy of being a prisoner, which she is, because normally no one except her brother meets her on a regular basis — and she lets us know that she is an ordinary woman, and that she was a girl, who didn’t even pass Class 12,  when she started her hunger strike. Yet some extraordinary guiding light her has kept her going. She says that even though she has not let water or food pass through her lips she has not been ill at all. To her these are signs that she is on this earth for a special reason. The democracy that the country claims it follows is hollow — its governance too is hollow as it has no substance, a shell with nothing inside it. And yet her extraordinary struggle — in which she has turned her frail body, the only thing she truly possesses, into an instrument, a means by which she can send a message out to the government that our democracy is hollow, that she as a Manipuri cannot live with dignity in a state that is ruled by the AFSPA — is all but erased from public consciousness.

When she talks about the oppressions she faces, that drove her to resist through a fast, like Gandhiji, she says that while Gandhiji was supported by millions of people and led his people to independence, she is left to struggle all alone.

Sharmila says doesn’t want to die (as she told the magistrate that morning), she wants to live like anyone else, she wants to fly like a bird with a message of peace and humanity across the seven seas. But she says she cannot live with dignity under the AFSPA. As she softly, haltingly, speaks, because she has to choose her words with care, I hear her accounts of tiredness, isolation and distress where she is cut off from the world. This is a burden we must carry because we have left her to struggle alone, in a frail body, against an oppressive state. If the Government of India has displayed an inhuman genius in finding a way to stifle her voice by simply force feeding her, shutting her up in a hospital room-turned prison where she exists but does not live, we too must carry the guilt of settling into a state of mindless (though harmful) shutting off from our everyday lives, even when we say that we do care — about her, the AFSPA and the mockery of the rule of law and the consequent impunity that the state enjoys everyday. She does not say any of this but I feel some of this in her words of appeal — she too wants to live.

What is the way out of this impasse the state has forced upon her and all of us? Sharmila believes, strongly believes, that if there is a worldwide appeal opposing the AFSPA led by women, and others too, and an appeal to the government to repeal the Act they will be forced to lift it (because governments seem to care about international opinion). Then Sharmila could fly like a bird, resting on many tree-tops, to spread the message of peace across the world. In a sense, this appeal to the government, one which thousands of women would sign and which Sharmila believes would work, can lead to a moment of shame for the Indian government. We reply that while we can definitely initiate such an appeal the government was unlikely to respond. But would she accept our appeal to her to end her fast then? With extraordinary emotion, she says, “Never!” In the emphatic ‘Never’ we can see that for her it will be tantamount to turning her long years of struggle to dust, to accepting a life without dignity for herself and for her people. This is not what she wants.

It is a moment of shame for us because we are beginning the struggle with accepting failure even before we have started — we do not believe in the power of struggle to achieve the goals we set ourselves. We then understand that we have to believe in what she does and so we promise her that we will start such a campaign. And take it forward.

In all the time we spend with Sharmila, there are many light, even hopeful moments. She wants us to sing and while we pass the request the first time, she comes back to it before we say goodbye. And so we sing the only song we all know—Tu zinda hai — not too out of tune. But as we sing, the verses take on a peculiar resonance —Tu zinda hai tu zindagi ki jeet par yaqin kar — especially in non-believers like us, and the ‘agar kahin hai swarg to utar laa zameen par’ in Sharmila. She has often referred to hell on earth which a hollow democracy has put upon us and heaven as something achievable. It is a moving closing moment.

But then Sharmila suddenly grabs my hand, and turning my palm up, picks up a pen and writes a message on it. In it she says she is really hopeful at that moment because strong dedicated women activists are with her who have promised to send out an appeal to end the AFSPA regime which will lead to an end to the law that is above the law.

Sharmila believes in the power of struggle. What do we believe in?

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