Determined, yet strangely vulnerable, Irom Sharmila says ending her 16-year fast and entering politics has empowered her.

There is an unmistakable otherworldliness in Irom Chanu Sharmila’s dark and deep eyes. She is shy and aloof, that is, until she is confronted with an issue she holds dear. And when she is thus provoked, she fires up. She engages, drops her guard and permits us a glimpse into her world. Sharmila may be a very private person, but she is far from secretive.

Sharmila, now 44, has weathered 16 years of unimaginable privation as a hunger striker. Like a lonely long-distance runner, she never wavered in conviction and remained indomitable regardless of who was following.

And this spirit defines her even today as she and her motley team of a dozen volunteers prepare to jump into politics and face the giants in the game in the state Assembly elections barely four months away. She may be inexperienced in this arena, but she remains fearless. She and her party are likely to be drubbed, but that does not worry her. “We will prepare for the next election if this one does not yield results,” is her nonchalant answer.

Sharmila says she would have been quite happy to live an anonymous and very private life as she had been doing as a social activist before November 2000 transformed her. But looking back, she has no regrets: no regrets that her quiet life had been disrupted 16 years ago, and no regrets about her decision to end her hunger strike four months ago. It is only the uncertain road ahead that concerns her.

“I am here by choice. I feel I was always ordained for whatever I have done,” she says. “My mission has always been to end the misery and oppression of my people. As a hunger striker, this was my driving force and now, as a politician this goal has not changed,” she says looking me straight in the eye and leaning forward a little.

“I have zero knowledge of politics. However as a child, I do remember my father was a vocal and committed supporter of the Manipur People’s Party (MPP), and I remember how his political leanings influenced us.”

The MPP is a political party that grew out of a public agitation to grant full statehood for the then Union Territory of Manipur in the 1960s and 1970s. It was seen as a grassroots Manipur nationalist party and a somewhat anti-establishment one, providing a foil to the formidable Congress.

“It is possible that my father’s leaning towards grassroots politics and his need to resist injustice unconsciously entered, and now, lives in me.”

But this spirit remained dormant until the November 1, 2000 massacre of 10 innocent bystanders at a bus stop at Malom village by troops of the Assam Rifles, following a failed militant attack on one of their convoys. In protest, Sharmila decided to go on an indefinite hunger strike. For the next 16 years, she fought for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in the process winning several awards — national and international — some of them with a handsome monetary component, but she cared little for them. The money she won was managed by a trust in her name, which has, since the end of her hunger strike, been dissolved.

Sharmila is candid. She admits her limitations, including her education, which did not go beyond Class XII. Her father was a Grade-4 employee in the state veterinary department and her mother sold vegetables. They were nine siblings in all. To supplement their income the parents also ran a small general provision store.

Sharmila, in the room in the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal, where she spent 16 years on hunger strike. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar  | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

When she decided to undertake her epic hunger strike, she had a difficult time letting her mother know. “When I finally did, she initially did not approve, but when I insisted, with a hint of tears in her eyes, she blessed me to follow my heart,” says Sharmila.If her instinct guided her decision to plunge into a hunger strike, it also helped her make her mind up to end her fast. “I am pained by the divide between communities, in particular between the hills and the valley. My goal now is to bridge these divides, besides of course, fighting the AFSPA” she says.

Neither Sharmila, nor her colleagues in the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) are under any delusion that their party will sweep the forthcoming Manipur Legislative Assembly elections.

“Contrary to what people think, Sharmila has already brought about considerable change,” says Bowang Kho, who is sitting beside Sharmila. He is a member of the PRJA team and a Poumai Naga from the Senapati district. “The open-armed reception she has been receiving, especially in the hills, is heart-warming. In Ukhrul, it was overwhelming. These are very positive political messages for an ethnically fractured state like Manipur,” he adds.

“There is no such thing as a defeat in politics, we will fight on regardless of the outcome in the coming election,” says another PRJA leader, Najima Bibi Phundreimayum, a tireless social worker from Santhem Mamang Leikai, echoing the party’s sentiment.

“We have still not drafted the PRJA manifesto, but it will focus primarily on bridging the gap between people and government, streamlining policy implementation, and looking to economic sovereignty, besides the usual responsibilities of governance such as building roads and other infrastructure, generating employment and so on,” says the Harvard-educated Erendro Leichombam, part of the core leadership team of the party. “Of course, iche(elder sister) Sharmila’s battle for the repeal of the AFSPA will remain our party’s non-negotiable commitment.”

Sharmila listens to her colleagues with quiet approval. “After 16 years, my hunger strike was reaching a dead-end. It was not making the difference I had believed it would, and there was no sign it would. Changing our strategy appeared to be the most logical step forward. Ending my fast and entering politics has empowered me. It will also empower the people,” she says in the tone of a solemn political pledge.

She understands why her sudden decision to change course shocked and upset many of her former supporters, even her family. But all that is in the past and now everyone is reconciled to the new reality. With her family, the differences arose out of miscommunication. With her supporters, it was shock and surprise.

The most hurtful incident on the afternoon of her ending her fast on August 9 was when a band of her former women supporters, protested and prevented her from dismounting a police van in which she had arrived at the residence of a man who had offered her refuge in Keishamthong.

“I felt no fear, no shame, no hurt, no hate,” Sharmila says. “For some reason I was reminded of the suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of his own people. Suffering that made him love his people even more, willing even to make the ultimate sacrifice for them. I have no doubt that my sacrifices will also ultimately redeem my people,” she says in a soft yet serious tone. Reconciliation came a fortnight later when a community feast was organised for the purpose. Sharmila and her former supporters agreed to disagree on how to take their struggle against the AFSPA forward. Though she is not living with her family now, she has met and patched up differences with them, especially with her elder brother, Singhajit who too had joined her campaign during her hunger strike.

Sharmila gets a little defensive and almost retreats into herself when I ask if her relationship with Desmond Coutinho influenced her decisions. Coutinho, a British citizen of Indian origin, is one of the reasons for her drifting away from many of her former supporters. They suspect him to be a saboteur of the struggle, and of having a hand in Sharmila’s change of stance.

Sharmila leans back a little and coldly says, “He will remain in my life.”

When I assure her that I do not mean to pry but only want to know what the relationship may mean to her new mission, she opens up: “He had a heart attack recently, and now lives in Ireland in a seaside cottage, with few possessions, besides a motorboat that he loves. His spiritual presence has given me strength and stability. As with everybody else who has known love, Desmond brought colour to my life, giving it the texture and hue that makes it worthwhile,” she says with a tinge of nostalgia.

Does that mean she would leave Manipur to settle with him in Ireland? “No, that can never be. I cannot leave my people.” Then would Desmond move to Manipur? “I would very much like this to be the case.”

What if this too cannot happen? “Then I will take it that loneliness is my destiny and be content with his presence with me in spirit as it always has been.”

Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, Imphal Free Press, and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers.