Irom Chanu Sharmila – The Iron Lady Of Manipur: 13 Years On, Her Activism Continues To Be A Legend

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A tube is attached to her nose, from where a calculated dose of food is inserted into her stomach forcefully, in order to keep her breathing and her vital organs alive. Despite her frail structure, which has developed from this condition, Irom Chanu Sharmila continues to be a tough nut for the 13th successive year. The reason she is on fast is her demand that the Indian government should repeal the draconian law that accords the armed forces absolute power in troubled areas.

Her picturesque state Manipur, with most friendly people and rain forests rich in timber and herbs, could have been a picture of peace if not for the simmering conflict between indigenous people and the government. Like all other places that witness separatist insurgency, in which case the government tries to overpower the locals with generous use of force and laws to support it, Manipur has been the hotbed of conflicts since the last five decades, with peace being an intermittently occurring phenomenon. Draconian laws have been revoked in Manipur ever since.

The incident that made Irom Chanu Sharmila both a legend and a victim of the government’s conspiracies occurred just before the new millennium completed a year. On November 2, 2000, armed forces killed 10 innocent civilians who were waiting for a bus in Malon, a town close to the capital city of Imphal.

Sharmila, also known as Mengoubi (a fair girl), was onto her regular fasting routine when the news trickled in. She used to go on a day-long fast every Thursday. But that Thursday was going to be historical. Protesting the killings, she continued her fast into the next day, the day after and many days following November 2. Her vital signs deteriorated and the news that she was fasting to force the government to revoke AFSPA (Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act). She was admitted to hospital and a nasogastric intubation was forced down her windpipe to keep her breathing, while under arrest.

Sensing trouble with the growing support to Irom Sharmila, the government charged her with ‘attempted suicide’ and ensured her days were split between hospital and legal institutions. But what had to happen transpired like droplets of water trickling into a solid rock. With her silence, resilience and consistent efforts, the frail woman had made a dent, and a solid one at that. This poetess with shy eyes and silken skin had turned into a political activist, a human rights activist and also a fighter for civil rights.

And when she completed 500 weeks of continuous fasting, Sharmila even overtook Mahatma Gandhi, the undisputed protagonist of the Indian National Movement and the global icon who stood for peace and non-violence, with her fasting credits. All of 41 years of age, she has been fasting for over 13 years of her life! But her struggle has never been daunted, affected or lost sheen and grit in the absence of food. She has been consistently writing letters to the Indian government and international agencies to press for the revoking of AFSPA, which gives the army absolute power, which has mostly been misused to silence the voices that are demanding a separate state.

AFSPA, the legal provision that has turned Armed forces (read Assam Rifles) from messiah to maniac, was framed before India became independent. The British had created this act to discourage the citizens of the country from participating in the famous Quit India Movement. But that was way back in 1942.

The act was modified a bit in 1958 and amended in 1972, in order to accommodate six sections that accord absolute power to the army, in areas of civil disobedience. Thus was born the monster, which only created mayhem. Armed forces, in order to ‘discipline’ the citizens who were into activism, used it to snuff out lives indiscriminately, anywhere and everywhere.

Having seen the bloodshed and the temporariness of life, Sharmila decided somebody had to take the lead. And she did. Much to the relief of the people of Manipur, the news travelled far and wide, and national and international organisations began to meet up with her. Her story has become a glowing reference to peaceful activism, globally. Awards soon followed – both from within the country and outside India. There is even a play written on her life that continues to touch the audience throughout the country.

It is a noteworthy fact that Manipur shares its border with Myanmar from where comes another story of political resilience in the form of another soft-looking yet tough woman leaderAung San Suu Kyi.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s in the DNA of the people in this region. They are not the ones to accept a raw deal, be it from the government or the armed forces.

Image: Indiatimes
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