Sunday, January 2, 2011

Iron Lady from Manipur - 10 years of hunger strike

‘I don’t want to be a martyr’

Tête à tête

Illustration: Ashoke Mullick

Sharmila is in her hospital ward, a thin plastic tube attached to one of her nostrils. And she is talking about — of all things — food. “As a child, I loved eating. After finishing my own meal, I used to eat off others’ plates. My mother often scolded me for this,” says Irom Sharmila Chanu. “It is an irony that my struggle is related to food — though it’s about not eating.”

A little over 10 years ago Sharmila — often described as Manipur’s iron lady — vowed not to eat till the Indian government repealed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958. The law, in force in the northeast and in Jammu and Kashmir, gives sweeping powers to the army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. Sharmila hasn’t touched food since then — but is being force-fed by the government. (to know more click -

and read -Terrorism: A Rational Point of View - page 30)

“I want to be free,” says Sharmila, sitting up in her bed in a ward for undertrials needing medical attention at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, barely 800 metres from her house. Her mother, Irom Shakhi Devi, is at home, listening to the radio, hoping to hear news of the law being repealed.

In these 10 years, the mother and daughter have met only once. Shakhi Devi says she has kept away for she fears she may end up eroding Sharmila’s determination if they meet. Two years ago, when her mother was admitted to the same hospital after an asthma attack, Sharmila visited her at midnight. The ailing mother told Sharmila that she would live to see her eat one day — and they hugged each other and cried.

In and around Manipur, Sharmila, 38, is seen as a symbol of resistance. She has been arrested, released and rearrested but has refused to give up the fast that she took up immediately after the Malom massacre of November 2, 2000, in which 10 people were killed by security forces on the outskirts of the capital Imphal. “The night before I began to fast I bought two packets of cakes from a local bakery and ate all of them to fill my stomach. Then I vowed not to eat ever again. I surrendered myself to God.”

Before she went on a hunger strike, Sharmila, who wrote columns in a local newspaper and worked in a non governmental organisation, had often joined demonstrations when protests spilled out on the streets, mostly revolving around army actions against civilians. But the Malom massacre stirred her so much that she said she’d fast to death.

A day later, the cops charged her with attempt to suicide and put her in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail. Two and a half months later, she was shifted to the hospital, where she is nose-fed thrice every day — at 10 am, 2 pm and 9 pm.

“I don’t feel hungry. The liquid diet keeps my stomach full,” she adds. The plastic tube through which she is fed is hanging close to her neck, but doesn’t hurt her, she says. “It has become a part of my body now.”

Sharmila, who speaks haltingly in English, is in a mood to talk. The youngest of nine siblings, she says she grew up as a lonely child. She loved spending time in the kitchen garden, picking up vegetables and eating them raw. She raised chickens, sold their eggs and donated the money to a local blind school. Never academically inclined, she joined a vocational course for shorthand, typing and journalism after school.

She was close to her brother, Irom Singhajit, who was 14 years older. With their parents busy running their grocery shop, he took care of her. Their mother’s breast milk had dried up when Sharmila was born, so Singhajit would take his little sister to other mothers in the neighbourhood who breastfed her. In exchange, he did their household work.

Even today, Singhajit is by her side. He left his job as an agricultural officer at an NGO to garner support for his sister’s struggle. “He is like a guardian to me,” she says.

Sharmila stresses that she inherited her willpower from her grandmother, Irom Tonsija Devi. Tonsija Devi, who died in 2007, was a part of the 1939 Nupi Lan movement — a war women waged against the export of rice by the then king, Maharaja Churachand, and the British government. “My grandmother was illiterate but she had great knowledge of politics and economics,” says Sharmila as she pulls a brown blanket — a gift from a nurse in the hospital — close to her.

There are several other gifts in her room — a wind chime, presented by a filmmaker who directed a short film on her, a red and white Assamesegamcha, a gift from a photographer, and a statue of Meera Bai, given to her by another nurse.

Despite her frail body, Sharmila looks cheerful. She practises yoga and spends time writing poetry. Last month. Zubaan published 12 of her poems in a volume called Fragrance of Peace.

Books lie heaped on an iron cot in the room. I’d heard that reading was her favourite pastime and ask her if she would like me to send her a book. “No. I am fed up of reading,” she replies.

I can spot a Khushwant Singh, a Khalil Gibran and a Chetan Bhagat in the pile of books. “Most of these books have been gifted to me by my lover,” she says. This is the first I’ve heard of a man in her life. I hesitate, but Sharmila is clearly keen to talk about him. A Britisher based in Kerala, he got to know about Sharmila after he read Burning Bright, a 2009 book on the Manipuri struggle written by Deepti Priya Mehrotra and published by Penguin. “He wrote me a letter after he read the book. We have been exchanging letters since then,” she says shyly.

They have not met. He is waiting for permission from the government to see her. She asks me to call him from my mobile phone and to tell him that she loves him. I do so, and he echoes her words. She won’t speak on the phone, and hides her face behind a book. Suddenly Sharmila looks like a teenager in love.

I hang up, and now Sharmila looks pale. She has covered her face with the book once again, but this time she is crying. “I miss him. I want them to grant him permission soon,” she says.

Permission, however, is not easily granted. I have had to run from pillar to post to be able to meet her. Writer and activist Mahasweta Devi has been denied permission. “They don’t let people see me, as if I am a criminal,” she says.

As I look around, a wooden statue of the two legendary lovers, Krishna and Radha, catches my attention. “These are gifts from him. He says he’s Lord Krishna, and I am his Radha,” says Sharmila, smiling and running her fingers through the curls of her hair.

Her Christmas gift from him was a Santa Claus cap and bells. The New Year gift — a calendar and a diary — is expected to arrive soon, she says. She, in turn, has written two poems for him. “But they are in Manipuri, and he cannot read them,” she rues.

These are new emotions for Sharmila, who had little interest in boys when she was growing up. But now she wants to get married. “My grandmother wanted to see me married. Even I want to get married. But only after my demand is fulfilled,” she says.

But is the government likely to withdraw the act from a state which is still battling insurgency? “I don’t want to be a martyr. I hope India will listen to my demand one day,” she says. “If the government can repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), why can’t they do so with AFSPA?” Sharmila, who was recently awarded South Korea’s Gwangju Human Rights Award and the Rabindranath Tagore Peace award by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, asks.

The struggle promises to be a long one. I get up to leave, but Sharmila stops me, asking me to once again call her lover (How do I refer to him in my copy, I’d asked her. “Call him my lover,” she’d replied). But this time I can’t get through. My last glimpse is of a face full of disappointment. And a tube attached to the nose. (January 2, 2011)

No comments:

Chronological order