Her Inalienable Right to be Human

At the end of 15 years, eight months and five days, during which Irom Chanu Sharmila did not allow a morsel of food or a sip of water to pass her lips, she has now freed herself to eat, drink, marry and, yes, run for elections.

Sharmila was 28 when she started her fast. She is 44 today. She has spent the intervening years under arrest for attempted suicide. She has repeatedly refuted this charge, saying she was only using the non-violent weapon she had inherited from Mahatma Gandhi, satyagraha, to protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which had allowed the army to shed so much innocent blood in Manipur. What else could she have done when, on her way to a peace rally on November 2, 2000, she saw the Assam Rifles gun down ten innocent people waiting at a bus-stop in Malom? The State might think this massacre was collateral damage in the army’s attempt to “keep the peace” in Manipur. Sharmila saw it as an intolerable infringement of human rights. Three days later, her mind made up to go on hunger strike, she touched her mother Irom Shakhi’s feet for blessings. The simple, illiterate woman, whose small provision store had helped keep her large family fed, gave her blessings and vowed not to set eyes on her daughter again till AFSPA had been repealed.

Not one of us, indeed not one in the entire world knows what it is like to be force-fed through a Ryles tube for 16 years. The skin turns to paper, menstruation stops, the memory of taste recedes. In addition to such physical ills, Sharmila suffered from loneliness, being denied permission to see people except on very rare occasions. Loneliness can drive people insane. But this tough woman kept her senses and spirit alive by writing poetry, doing yoga, reading Gandhi and Mandela and, in recent years, corresponding with the Indian-born man in London who loved her.

Across the road from the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences where Sharmila was confined, was a shack where the Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers) sat on relay fast in support of her cause. Once a year when she was released for a day, she would spend her time with them, being caressed, stroked and given courage for the coming twelve months of isolation. Perhaps among them sat some women from her village who had wet-nursed her as a baby when her mother’s breasts had run dry. Certainly there were many from the group of 30 matrons who had walked naked through Imphal to the Assam Rifles headquarters, shouting, "Indian Army, rape us too. We are all Manorama’s mothers", after Thangjam Manorama was raped and murdered on July 10, 2004, on suspicion that she was a member of an insurgent group, although no evidence had been found to support the claim.

Sharmila’s tragedy is that her unique individual action did not evoke a mass response from her people. It was easy then for the State to ignore her. No political leader from the Centre ever met her. In The Fair One, a play I wrote about her satyagraha, the protagonist, a complacent middle-class Delhi home-maker says, “We live in a cacophony of raised voices, a forest of raised fists. Where are her banners? Where are her supporters? If her protest is worth anything, she should be followed by throngs. What's the use of lying in a hospital bed with a tube in the nose, saying nothing?”

As it turns out, that’s the way her supporters want her to be. They want a living symbol even if it isn’t getting them the result they had hoped for. However, Sharmila now sees that, whatever a popular Manipuri folk tale says about the mother pebet’s victory against a fat cat that wants to eat her chicks, in real life the individual is powerless against the might of the State.

The path Sharmila once chose has led to a dead end. The future is uncertain. She has lost the support of the Meira Paibis. She cannot return to her mother whose vow not to see her till AFSPA is repealed remains firm. Nobody wants her amongst them, not even ISKON. Overnight Menghaobi, the fair one, has become the rejected one. And so she returns to the only home that will have her, the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, where she will relearn to eat and drink and where she will be granted her inalienable right to be human

Published On : 10-08-2016