Individuals and groups, some reluctantly, are starting to express their backing for Sharmila’s decision as public debate over her fast and Manipur’s future rages on.

Irom Sharmila. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Irom Sharmila. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Imphal: The policewoman posted in front of Sharmila’s room complained, “I became like Irom Sharmila while guarding her. We have aged together, she and I.” A sad smile accompanied the statement as she monitored the length of time each person, in a stream of visitors, spent talking to Sharmila, in the hospital room that has been the ‘home’ and prison of modern Manipur’s most iconic figure for over a decade.

It has been three days since Irom Sharmila Chanu broke her nearly 16-year long fast – that’s more than 5,500 torturous days of being force-fed, and disconnected from friends, family and the world outside. Her struggle was for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 – a law enforced in Jammu & Kashmir and the northeastern states, including Manipur. The Act gives the army sweeping powers to act against not just the underground armed groups fighting the Indian government in these states but anyone thought to be posing a threat to “public order”.

A couple of female supporters hovered around the room – sorting out the rows of books, greeting cards, postcards and assorted papers stacked on an empty bed next to hers. In between rushes of conversations with her visitors, Sharmila, dressed in a green woollen phanek and a white top, gave directions – which item to keep, which to discard.

Some hospital staff members – some in the white nurse’s uniform, others with stethoscopes around their necks – pushed aside the curtain a bit and asked, “Sharmila, have you started packing already?” and watched as she moved around the room, picking up a book here, glancing through a letter there. “Tie up your hair, we cannot see your face,” they teased. Sharmila shook her head and smiled back, “It has been like this always.”

The walls in the small room of the government hospital bore tell-tale signs of neglect – the plaster greenish and brown in places due to water seepage, buffed up or broken in other areas. On a table near the window, a number of 5-litre mineral water bottles had been cut below the neck and made into flowerpots – Devil’s Ivy, a kind of money-plant, crept across a section of the room. Chrysanthemums, a rubber plant and a few others – there were some more ‘flowerpots’ outside, on the terrace. “I had planted a banyan tree in this pot. It died and instead this rubber plant grew in its place. Possibly the seed came with a bird dropping,” Sharmila excitedly showed me the plant. In a little iron Godrej cupboard, she has kept the empty packets of the flower seeds that she planted.

For the duration of her stay, it has been her ritual to take a walk and look at her plants every morning. However, the day after she broke her fast, she did not go to see her beloved plants. “Somehow I had no inclination,” she said. After her release on Tuesday, Sharmila went to a few places expecting to shelter there for the night or a few days. However, when a few locals turned her away, she had to come back to the same hospital room where she was a “prisoner of conscience” for over 15 years.

A few female supporters stayed with her through that night and the following days. Outside the guarded iron grill at the end of the corridor, dozens of reporters, camerapersons and representatives from political parties stood waiting for their turn – some trying to woo an exclusive report from Sharmila, others to secure her nod for a party ticket.

A couple of police officers carefully noted down the time, names, occupation and phone numbers of those allowed in. Sharmila is still a prisoner of sorts. For 15 years and more, visitors required permission from the jail authorities, the state home department and the Ministry of Home Affairs to meet her; the lengthy process became more and more complicated as the years went by and her fame and support for her grew. Now one needs permission from the medical superintendent. As it was before Sharmila broke her fast, the police treated the local visitors, including media persons, with more suspicion than visitors coming from outside the state.

The police officer in charge paced back and forth. “She has not started eating properly. Her body will be weak. So many people have been coming in since morning and she is speaking endlessly … she will collapse. Please understand that,” he requested of each person who came into Sharmila’s room.

Holding one press conference to address everyone proved unlikely as many journalists only planned to stay a short while. Most of the group, comprised mostly national or international journalists who had parachuted in for the historic event and had booked flights for the next day, wanted an exclusive. With a local journalist in tow as a fixer or arranger, these reporters negotiated with the organisers for early entry saying, “I have a flight to catch.” This series of interviews continued till late in the evening on the first day. Sharmila said the same thing over and over again –  I wanted a change of strategy. I will still fight against AFSPA.

What happens now

As Manipur’s inhabitants struggled to understand and come to terms with Sharmila’s decision to abandon her fast, there has been continuous discussion in the newspapers, on TV and on social media. Using media sources as well as personal visits, political parties invited Sharmila to join them, with some even offering her the chief ministerial candidate’s post.  “Please speak to our sir,” a member of a political party said as  handed over the phone to Sharmila. However, the team’s persuasion seemed to have little effect on her – the “sir” probably being a higher-up based in Delhi. Sharmila, seated on her hospital bed, told whomsoever was on the phone that she prefers to fight as an independent candidate. In between rummaging around her belongings and the visits, she sent out messages to people she wished to speak to or seek advice from.

People from various quarters, both national and international, from the hill districts of Manipur and including Manipur’s branch of the Indian Red Cross Society, used personal contacts and social media, offering to host Sharmila and let her stay with them. 

“We are ready for her stay. But it will take time. Sharmila’s is the first case in medical history. After fasting so many years, taking food as a normal person will be tough. We will approach the hospital authorities when she is fit enough and ready for coming to us,” Y. Mohen Singh, secretary of the IRCS, Manipur Branch said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“I might move from one place to another. It makes a wiser decision. That way, I can build up a wider support base,” she said. In all probability Sharmila will be lodged at the same JNIMS hospital room till August 23 when she is scheduled to make another court appearance. Since she first started her fast, Sharmila has been held in police custody on charges of attempting to commit suicide. For the past 15 years, each year she would be released just before the completion of one year in custody, and then re-arrested a few days later when she invariably refused to stop her hunger-strike. On August 9, 2016 she agreed to stop fasting and was granted bail by the chief judicial magistrate of Imphal West on furnishing a bond of Rs 10,000. Three hours after that, she broke her fast.

At present, members of her small group of supporters-cum-chaperones take turns to stay by her side day and night. The doctors drop in once in a while to make sure she is taking at least some liquid. By the second day of breaking her fast, Sharmila’s diet had expanded to include bananas, rice gruel and oats, besides liquid intake.

The disturbed water of public opinion too has calmed down a little by now. Individuals and groups have started publicly expressing respect for Sharmila’s decision, no matter how shocking and ineffective her decision to join politics may seem.

A common goal but different approaches

Eight Meira Paibi mothers, all with the Sharmila Kanba Lup (SAKAL) came to visit her on Thursday morning and had a long discussion with her. “We communicated, cleared our misunderstandings and came to an agreement on a common goal but different approaches,” said Sharmila.

A few hours after the meeting, SAKAL, also known as the Save Sharmila Campaign, called a press conference at its camp, situated on the outskirts of JNIMS, and announced their decision to dissolve the group which was formed to support Sharmila’s own campaign in December 2008.

Ima Soibam Momon Leima, who had functioned as the SAKAL convenor, told the media, “We have been continuing our support of Sharmila. This decision of hers to enter politics has made us very confused. We met her today and asked her if her decision is final. And she stood by her decision. But as Meira Paibi and politics cannot go hand in hand, from today we are dissolving this group known as SAKAL. SAKAL was formed for the sake of Sharmila, and now with her new decision, there is no need for the existence of SAKAL. In her long struggle, as mothers, we respect her. We are very grateful to her and appreciate her. But in this new step, she and us, we are not in sync … But if she should want to go back from her politics stand, she is our child, we will go together, and support her.”

The group of Meira Paibi women, many of them leaders of their individual Meira Paibi organisations, have camped in a small shed since December 10, 2008, supporting Sharmila’s campaign with relay hunger strikes of their own. Sharmila herself used to stay with them during her annual release.

Meira Paibi women tearing down posters marking end of Save Sharmila Campaign. Credit: Thingnam Anjulika Samom

Meira Paibi women removing posters marking the end of the Save Sharmila Campaign. Credit: Thingnam Anjulika Samom

Sharmila is not the only one

There were multiple events within a three kilometre radius of JNIMS. <embers from a few NGOs came together at the Manipur Press Club in Imphal West district for a “Consultation on AFSPA and United Nations on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” and lawyers spoke about the meaning of specific sections of AFSPA while conflict widows tearfully narrated the ordeals they experienced under the Act.

In another hall of the same building, Manipur’s titular king, Sanajaoba, who was attending a discussion on the Instrument of Accession (IOA), termed Sharmila’s decision to break her 16-year-old fast “a humiliating defeat for the Indian state and the government of Manipur.”

At the same meeting, Elangbom Johnson, president of the United Committee Manipur (UCM), said that people were a little aggrieved at Sharmila’s sudden decision to break her fast.  But he added that although Sharmila made her decision without consulting most of the people who have supported her over the years, her decision must be respected. The UCM is a valley-based apex body comprising various civil society organisations, student bodies and Meira Paibi groups.

At a market shed in Nongmeibung, about half a kilometre away from the royal palace where Manipur’s titular king lives, there was a public meeting regarding the demand for inclusion of the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribes list of India – a demand contested within the Meiteis themselves, as well as by many members of the Scheduled Tribe community in the state.

In many other sheds in markets and at bus stops, community halls and in Singjamei, Keishampat and other areas of Imphal West district, young students and aged women participated in relay hunger strikes in protest of the recent prosecution of Khomdram Ratan.  Ratan, who was the convenor of the Joint Committee of Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), who leads a movement to check immigration into the state from other parts of India as well as other countries, was declared “Wanted” on charges of being a member of the banned United National Liberation Front (UNLF) based on a photo posted on Facebook.

In the hills of Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Ukhrul districts, thousands of people – who are members of various civil society organisations and student bodies – came out to march against AFSPA, carrying placards that read:  ‘Repeal AFSPA’, ‘Indian Armies Leave Us Alone’, ‘AFSPA – License to kill the innocent public’, ‘AFSPA – Murderer of Human Rights’, and ‘AFSPA State-sponsored terrorism.’ It is clear that Sharmila is not alone and that there is a popular movement against AFSPA.

“The Meira Paibi started our struggle against AFSPA in 1980. After the 2000 Malom incident, Sharmila came and we carried forward the fight together. Even now, after Sharmila’s fast, we will work with the people and the civil society organisations for a joint effort to repeal this Black Law,” said 62-year old Ima Soibam Momon Leima, who is one of the 12 women who disrobed in front of Kangla gate to protest against the rape and killing of a young unmarried woman, Thangjam Manorama, by security forces on July 11, 2004, after she was picked up from her house.

Meanwhile social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have become a battlefield. Unending messages of support from well-wishers as well as criticism from trolls continue to pop up across social media. Friends call each other throughout the night, feeling the need to do something, yet unsure of what exactly to do to show support for Sharmila. Meetings are planned and activities are discussed.

The weather in Manipur has been unpredictable. The night drizzle and dark clouds of the morning suddenly lifting to harsh sunlight; the afternoon’s howling winds and rains catching you by surprise only to transform into a mellow evening. Ominous portents of stormy winds are blowing through the state at present. The withered leaves and weak stems will break in the squalls, but the sky will be a clearer blue after the shower.

Leika Yumnam, an indigenous rights activist, writes on Facebook, “ … What she needs more than anything else now is the support and advice from friends. It’s easy for us who are well fed to criticise, turn our backs on her [Sharmila] and mock her ‘frivolous’ statement of wanting to join electoral politics. But how many of us have taken the responsibility of telling her how electoral politics work? Zero! … It is highly unfortunate that AFSPA has reduced us to Gods and Demons. Either we are placed on a heavenly pedestal or buried like monsters. We have failed to see the humane side of each other, and this is the core reason why we have always failed to achieve a collective ground to fight against AFSPA.”