Person of the week

The Iron Lady of the Northeast

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A court calls for her immediate release. She will probably be rearrested and quickly forgotten, but her indefinite fast of nearly 14 years will go on
It has been nearly 14 years since Irom Sharmila from Manipur went on a hunger strike. In this period, no morsel of grain or a single drop of water has touched her lips. Her voice, as evidenced on the rare occasion a TV channel interviews her, is frail. Her body is now a wasted mess. And they say her menstrual cycles have long stopped.

Yet the single-largest insult to this superhuman effort is to not accord it its due recognition. Sharmila began her indefinite strike as a 28-year-old when 10 civilians were allegedly shot down by troops from the Assam Rifles in Malom, a town in the state. Her strike is against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the draconian act in Manipur and other parts of the Northeast that gives the Army the power to use force, arrest or shoot anyone on the mere suspicion that someone is about to commit or has committed an offence. The government will not admit it, but thousands of people from Manipur and other parts of the Northeast have been arrested and killed in extra-judicial killings under this Act. The Army is loathed in these parts and there is a strong resentment against the Indian state. But the government calls Sharmila’s strike an attempt to commit suicide. She has been slapped charges under IPC’s Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) and confined to a hospital room at Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, where she is force-fed through a tube.

A Sessions court in Manipur has now found the charges of attempt to commit suicide baseless and called for her immediate release. It is unlikely that she will be free for long. Over the years she has been released many times, only to be re-arrested.

Sharmila’s story wraps us all in a stifling blanket of guilt. The tube that juts from her nose is a constant reminder of how all of us, the government and the citizens, have failed her. There has been no mass protest to ensure her freedom or a greater debate on her demands. No reconciliatory measure by a leader or government to bring her fast to an end. She even sneaked into Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in 2006 in the hope that her protest in the Capital would yield better results. But save for the police that swooped down to arrest her, she and her demands were largely ignored.

It is remarkable how Sharmila has carried on this lonely and painful journey of 14 years. According to some reports, she has fallen in love with a man named Desmond Coutinho from Goa. But she is now too many things to too many people, from the symbol of Northeastern resentment to the saintly embodiment of a romantic’s insincere involvement with India’s marginalised.

AFSPA is likely to stay for a very long time. The same President when he was Defence Minister had rejected the withdrawal or dilution of the Act on the grounds that the Armed Forces needed such powers to function in disturbed areas. The Indian state and its Army will continue to be hated in Manipur. Sharmila will probably die at some point, either from the fast or naturally, and her objective of seeing the repeal of AFSPA will never be realised in her lifetime.

But the incredible spirit of Sharmila that has so far defied all human limitations of endurance and willpower will continue to serve her. There will perhaps never be a glass of orange juice to signal the end of her fast and the world at large may ignore her. But the Iron Lady will continue what is definitely one of the greatest acts of civil disobedience in the 21st century.