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‘My Conscience Keeps Me Going’: Irom Sharmila

Irom Sharmila spoke to The Wire about her struggle, what keeps her going and recent developments in the country.

Irom Sharmila. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Irom Sharmila. Credit: Akhil Kumar

New Delhi: Acquitted by a session’s court in Delhi on Wednesday in a case of attempted suicide from 2006, Manipur’s ‘iron lady’ Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for the past 15 years demanding that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act be repealed. The 44-year-old has been in custody for almost that entire time, released and rearrested almost immediately every year so that she can be fed through a nasal tube. She has been charged multiple times with section 309 of the IPC for attempting to commit suicide, kept in custody for 365 days (the maximum punishment under section 309), released for a few days, and then rearrested with fresh charges under the same section. She has stated time and again that she is not guilty of the charges against her, as hers is a peaceful protest and not an attempt to end her own life.

Sharmila started her strike in November 2000 after 10 civilians were gunned down by Assam Rifles soldiers at a bus stop in Malom, Imphal.

In Delhi for a two-day hearing, the activist spoke to The Wire in her room in Manipur House on the first day of her hearing, March 29. A policewoman waited outside as activists, students and friends visited her though the day, showing their support. No video recording was allowed.

Irom Sharmila and Kanhaiya Kumar. Source: Facebook

Irom Sharmila and Kanhaiya Kumar. Source: Facebook

Students from the JNU students’ union also visited Sharmila earlier on the same day to express their solidarity. According to a Facebook post by JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, Sharmila spoke to them about wanting to lead a normal life. “But the government does not want that,” she said to them. “That is why they aren’t removing black laws like AFSPA.”

Sharmila was positive about her day in court in her conversation with The Wire, and she has been proven right by the judgment that came in on March 30. “I told the defence counsel, this time let me speak and give my voice to the judge first. He agreed, so I gave my statement to the judge and spoke to my heart’s content. The judge, Harvinder Singh, listened to me patiently and with respect.”

But this case is not the centre of Sharmila’s struggle, and she wants to use her trip to Delhi to meet with the prime minister. “I really want to meet with him, irrespective of his mood. I want to influence him with my presence. I want to ask what kind of government this is, based on violence? What is their focus? The happiness index is declining in the country.”

“Human beings are all equal in the eyes of God,” she added. “The government need to make an effort to connect with discontented voices. Who is a terrorist? How do they come into being? As a society, we need to address the root causes of these issues. Using violence only represents a hollowness.”

Sharmila’s presence is calm and resolute, and perhaps explains how she has been able to keep up her fast for so long. “My conscience keeps me going,” Sharmila said. “People often want to know where my strength comes from – it is from my belief in a humanity where everyone lives with dignity, peace and love. Everyone should experience the wonders of life, we have to share these with each other.”

“I will go on with this struggle as long as AFSPA remains. I feel it is a mission from God. 1,528 fake encounter cases from Manipur are still pending in the Supreme Court.” Sharmila is pensive at times, even saying that her struggle has “matured”. But her hope hasn’t waned completely. “I’m still hoping for a victory, when I can finally celebrate with my life partner [referring to her fiancé Desmond Coutinho] and live a normal life again.

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