“In this society, it’s compulsory to protest. It is never a burden. However, we must keep our mind and body balanced,” said Irom Sharmila on January 5th, 2020 at Bengaluru’s Town Hall during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Irom Sharmila, often referred to as the “Iron Lady” is a civil rights and political activist, and poet from Manipur. She went on a nearly sixteen-year hunger strike for repelling Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA. When she called off the hunger strike, her supporters didn’t take it very well.
Irom Chanu Sharmila was an intern at the Human Rights Alert, a Human Rights group in Imphal. She helped document cases of abuse through interviews of women who had survived gang rapes, as well as of the parents and children of slain civilians. On 2nd November, 2000, a makeshift bomb exploded close to an army convoy when passing next to a bus stop in Malom, Imphal. The army reacted to the bomb with gunshots killing ten civilians. The brutality of the incident triggered her to take up a protest against AFSPA in a peaceful and non-violent way and that took the form of a hunger strike.
Irom Chanu Sharmila was an intern at the Human Rights Alert, a Human Rights group in Imphal. She helped document cases of abuse through interviews of women who had survived gang rapes, as well as of the parents and children of slain civilians.
She sat on a veranda near the spot of the killing and started her hunger strike. She said people came to watch her like it was a street play performance. She drew a huge crowd initially, but slowly the numbers thinned and disappeared. She was by herself before she knew it, and then the police arrested her for trying to kill herself.
Irom Sharmila was imprisoned under the now redundant Article 309 of the IPC, which allowed imprisonment of anyone who tried to kill themselves up to one year. For the term of her sentence, she was hospitalised at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, Imphal, where she was force-fed via a nose tube. She was the Indian Nobel Peace Prize, 2005 nominee for her hunger strike, and she’s also the world’s longest striker.
A Beacon of Hope
Irom Sharmila, at the end of one-year imprisonment, was released and she’d continue her hunger strike. The police would arrest her again, on the same grounds, and she’d be back in the hospital with a nose tube again being force-fed. This went on for nearly sixteen years before she gave up. She believed people would join her in this fight and stand by her as they stood with Gandhi during the freedom struggle. She was fighting the big fight for many, many people living in conflict zones with state legitimised violence by the armed forces. But people went home at the end of the day while she was still in a hospital bed by herself. The Iron Lady was not a human being anymore; she was a symbol, an icon, and a beacon of hope for her resilience.
Desmond Coutinho, a British Indian, read about a hunger strike in Manipur by Irom Sharmila. The story said that she loved to read, but she didn’t always have a book to read. So, he decided to send her letters with two book and he finally heard from her after three months. This was the beginning of a relationship that blossomed into a marriage and their twin daughters. But this relationship didn’t get the blessings from her family, friends, and supporters. Desmond, being an outsider, their relationship and courtship not being traditional, were some of the problems. And when Irom Sharmila decided to quit her fast, all hell broke loose.
The Fight For Democracy
Her supporters and friends called her names and she received a lot of flak for deciding to stop her hunger strike. This was further fueled as she decided to contest elections in Manipur and get married to Desmond Coutinho. But Irom Sharmila had made up her mind and was ready to embark on a new journey to fight AFSPA because the last sixteen years of her life had brought so little change.
Irom Sharmila, at the end of one-year imprisonment, was released and she’d continue her hunger strike. The police would arrest her again, on the same grounds, and she’d be back in the hospital with a nose tube again being force-fed. This went on for nearly sixteen years before she gave up.
She founded Manipur’s Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA), in 2016 and contested against former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh in Thoubal in the 2017 Manipur Assembly elections. She got 90 votes. On the day the Assembly election result was announced, Sharmila declared that she would never contest elections again. Soon after, she left Manipur and married Desmond Coutinho in Tamil Nadu on August 17, 2017 and hasn’t returned since.
“I was determined that it’s my life. And, nobody can force me to do anything I didn’t want to do. I am the master of my own destiny. I would make my own history. Others have no say in this. I took a bold step by going in for the hunger strike; I am glad that I decided to break it. I am still deciding my ‘life’,” said Sharmila in an interview when asked about the resistance against her quitting the fast and wanting a normal life.
Irom Sharmila fought for what she believed in, and her fight and forms of resistance changed after the hunger strike ended. Her fight began with resistance against AFSPA, but now she also fights patriarchy, structural sexism, and other forms of oppression. She’s fighting against systems that tried to control her and dictate her life. But the act of choosing what she wanted, was the first step towards liberation.
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