Back in November 2000 when Irom Sharmila decided to fast for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur, she did not get much response. Indeed, she did not move many hearts and minds in her state, let alone the government.
Babloo Loitongbam, a rights activist with whom Sharmila was associated then, didn’t take her seriously. But when she began the hunger strike and was detained, Loitongbam ran from pillar to post seeking support and tried to raise Sharmila’s cause at various levels.
Sharmila continued her fast. Equally, the state and central governments remained unshaken. Manipur in the 1990s and 2000s, particularly the Imphal Valley, witnessed several protests against AFSPA. This period also saw massive human right abuses by security forces.
Very little was known about Sharmila or her protest outside of Manipur. Year after year, there was no sign of AFSPA being removed or amended. Even the Manipur media had nothing new to write about her.
On the sixth year of her fast, during a routine release, Sharmila flew to Delhi. As expected, she got national media attention. She became an icon, won global fame for her steadfast resistance. Support and solidarity poured in from India and even outside. Sharmila came to be known as “Iron Lady” or “Icon of democracy”. She got many recognitions and awards.
She was arrested and a case was registered against her in Delhi for attempt to suicide. Sharmila was sent back to Imphal within a year, probably due to the massive national and international attention and civil society support. She was acquitted by a Delhi court in June this year.
Over the years, Sharmila has grown from an unassuming, shy young woman. I have closely interacted with her in Delhi. She is well informed and well read. In the years of fasting, she studied, contextualized, internalized and sharpened her thoughts.
In detention, she got newspapers and books to read. She also received letters and gifts and was in touch with her fans. In recent years, she was allowed visitors including media persons. In the meantime, Sharmila fell in love.
All this has made Sharmila, remade her, shaped her, re-shaped her. She has also become fiercely outspoken and opinionated. She would update herself about current affairs, particularly AFSPA, Manipur politics and more. She openly talks about love, about her fiancé, which she was unlikely to do 10 years ago.
Sharmila has said she was never consulted or updated about the court proceedings and cases. She told me she never gets to see or get a copy of the court proceedings. In a Delhi court, she stood her ground: she did not intend to kill herself but was protesting against AFSPA. She was ready to end her fast if AFSPA was repealed.
Last year, during one of her periodic releases, Sharmila moved around Imphal. People gathered to see her but not to Sharmila’s expectations. She said then: “I think these people turn up just to look at me, as if I am some alien. They seem to be surprised to see me.”
Her fast is an individual decision but Sharmila is a product of a collective psyche. In a land with a history of “women’s war” against colonial rule, Sharmila’s sub-conscious mind cannot be un-inspired and un-influenced. Her decision now, to end her hunger strike, too is a decision shaped by the twists and turns of events over all these years.
It cannot be said that Sharmila’s hunger strike has failed. AFSPA has been removed from seven municipal constituencies in the valley districts in Manipur. In recent years, violence has also come down considerably. Though it cannot be attributed to an individual, the collective voice comprises individuals such as this Iron Lady.
(Ninglun Hanghal is a journalist from Manipur. She can be reached on [email protected] The views expressed are personal.)