Famously known as the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’, Irom Sharmila is a civil rights activist, political activist, and a poet who began a hunger strike on November 2, 2000, when the security forces killed 10 people in Imphal. She was on a customary Thursday fast and never went off it in protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), an act which guaranteed impunity for such criminal acts. In the decades that have gone by since the Act was passed in 1958, thousands of people have been killed, with the most recent count being 1,528+.
She realised that in the last two years, the youth of Manipur had developed many other concerns like the Inner Line Permit issue and were not so focused on AFSPA. Continuing to fast without any sign of the state relenting and in the light of waning interest by the public would be pointless. And a fast like this can only be sustained with the conviction that comes with public support. In an announcement that took many by surprise, Sharmila said she will end her fast on 9th August, 2016, get married and contest the upcoming assembly elections in Manipur as an independent candidate.
Denied the opportunity to talk to friends or political comrades, shut up alone in a hospital room for nearly 16 years with only her minders for company, Sharmila’s fast was always about more than abstinence from food– it was also simultaneously the story of India’s longest serving political prisoner. What is manifested is the Indian state’s colonial attitude towards the Northeast and the degree of its arrogance. In any other part of the country, had someone been fasting for 16 years, they would have got much more attention from the state.
Sharmila’s decision to break her fast was a blot on Indian democracy as a whole. Why?
To start with, some sort of an outrage at her imprisonment was expected to take place considering the motive she upholded. Also, the struggle for the repeal of a draconian law like AFSPA and an end to militarization was no lighter burden to be left to the people of Manipur and Kashmir alone. At the meeting in Manipur Bhawan in Delhi, there was no crowd of supporters, no media presence.
After 16 long years of hard struggle, “I am fed up” was the frank reply of this top woman icon of India. What is beautiful though, is that in spite of all that she faced in the last many years, she remains relentless in her pursuit of justice. What was seeked earlier through the means of fast is now aimed at by her own political party, People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). The party is doing well so far and recently pointed out at the creation of seven new districts. Clearly, not all who wander in politics get astray!
About the Author:
Aastha Khanna (Dept. of English and Cultural Studies, PU Campus)