1.Following the example of Mahatma Gandhi
On a March afternoon in 2013, Irom Sharmila, a 39-year-old activist who has been on a hunger strike since November 2000, appeared for a hearing before a judge. The court is housed in a white-and-blue-gray complex in Imphal, the capital of the northeast Indian state of Manipur — a mountainous, war-torn state of 2.6 million people bordering Burma.
Sharmila is protesting a controversial Indian law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which was instituted in Manipur in late 1980 after several Manipuri groups began an insurgency for independence from Indian rule. Political discontent has marred the state of Manipur since the former princely state was merged with India in 1949. Some saw the union as forced and flawed and would have preferred independence; even those who accepted being part of India felt slighted and politically and economically discriminated against by distant New Delhi.
Several other ethnic groups in the northeastern states of Nagaland, Assam, Tripura and Indian-controlled Kashmir were also fighting the Indian government, seeking independence, autonomy or statehood. The AFSPA provides impunity to Indian soldiers deployed to battle these insurgencies.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act: A brief history
The battle against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is a long, bitter one. Read more here on the law Sharmila has been protesting for over 13 years.
Sharmila has been in solitary confinement for about 13 years, in the security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, the biggest hospital in Imphal. Indian authorities have been charging her with attempting to commit suicide — a crime carrying a one-year prison sentence. She is released every year on the completion of her sentence, but she resumes her fast, refusing even liquids. As her health deteriorates, the police arrest her again for attempting to commit suicide and put her away in her hospital prison, where the doctors force-feed her a liquid diet.
Outside the Nehru hospital there is a modest bamboo hut, built by Sharmila’s supporters in 2008 as a site of protest and solidarity, where she spends her few annual days of freedom. A low wooden platform covers the floor of the hut and there is a framed poster of Sharmila on the reddish earth of the clearing. The stenciled poster, her most reproduced image, is familiar — Sharmila with cascading, uncombed hair, piercing black eyes, sunken cheeks, wide forehead and a plastic tube (used to force-feed her) hanging from her nose. A palpable sense of pain and defiance appears to scream out of its black-and-white lines.
In the courtroom that March afternoon, Judge Alek Muviah, a young man with a soft face and a crew cut, spoke respectfully to Sharmila, who sat in a chair placed in the witness box. He addressed her as “Eche,” or elder sister. A tall, thin woman, she wore flip-flops and a lavender sari, a white cotton shawl draped over her wiry frame. She spoke softly, smiled a vacant smile or remained silent. By comparison, her poster in the hut by the hospital seemed dated. A decade of hunger and isolation stood between her iconography and her person. She heard the judge speak and dictate her release order with a stoic expression. Her face was the lined face of a much older woman: Her wilting pale skin had the texture of rubber; her black, curly hair parted in the middle had thinned; her lips had little color. Her large black eyes, fierce in the poster, were liquid with injury and complaint. Judge Muviah ordered her release.
A few hours later, Sharmila stepped across the iron gate of the Nehru hospital. About 50 Manipuri women in multicolored phaneks and shawls followed her. Sharmila sat on a low wooden platform in the protest hut, reclining against a bamboo pole supporting its roof. Her supporters filled the camp, sitting in neat, close rows behind her. A battery of journalists circled Sharmila. She repeated that she would not break her fast till the law providing immunity to soldiers is repealed. Sharmila was aware of a distant world she was seeking to persuade. Her face strained with the struggle to find the exact words in English; they came haltingly in a measured, deliberate tone. “I will continue my hunger strike till the AFSPA is removed,” she said. “I am only protesting for the repeal of the AFSPA and following the example of Mahatma Gandhi.”
The visitors at Sharmila’s protest hut continued to swell. Her brother Singhajeet Singh, a slight man in his 50s with a graying crew cut, laid out rugs in the clearing to make more space. He wore a light blue shirt with a fraying collar, his face was weatherbeaten, his hands callused. Relatives, who rarely get to see her despite trying to apply for permission with multiple police and government offices, surrounded Sharmila. Half a day of freedom and the conversations with her supporters and her family seemed to bring color to Sharmila’s face. She browsed through photo albums recording the arc of her family’s life while she had been in detention. At a certain point, she took off the plastic tube attached to her nostril and held a niece in her arms.
“Our home is a 10-minute walk from here,” Singhajeet said. They grew up in Imphal, a few miles from the Nehru hospital, with three brothers and four sisters, born in a lower-middle-class family. Sharmila was a quiet girl who worked in the fields, helped in the kitchen and wrote some poetry. She seemed to have little interest in her studies and failed her high school examination twice before graduating in 1991. Two years before her graduation, her father had died of cancer. A few years later, an older brother she lived with died as well. Sharmila and her mother moved in with Singhajeet, who worked with an agriculture nonprofit. To supplement his modest income, she took a variety of short-term courses in typing, shorthand, tailoring and journalism. Sharmila worked at a school for the blind and a youth organization, which took her to towns and villages across Manipur.
An earthen jar had been placed in front of Sharmila’s framed poster in the clearing of the hut. On the second morning of her freedom, Ima Memtombi, a 65-year-old activist with the Meira Paibis, or The Women with Flaming Torches, a social and political movement of Manipuri women, squatted before the poster. She placed a few handfuls of rice, two bananas and a coconut on the plate covering the jar. She lit a few incense sticks, moved them in a circle around Sharmila’s face and placed them by the fruit and rice. Then she lit a candle and carefully positioned it amid her offerings. “Sharmila has come forward as the face of a lairenbi (a goddess) and devoted her life to save the young and the old of this land,” Memtombi explained.
2.The women who carry torches
In the late 1970s, Manipur was troubled with a sinking economy, an absence of work for a growing educated youth, an escapist turn toward alcoholism and a subsequent increase in domestic violence. Drug abuse was also growing as large quantities of illicit substances poured into the region from neighboring Burma. “We had to start the movement because drunken brawls leading to violent fights were common. A woman was killed and thrown into a river. People started talking about the need to ban these things, and women in violent homes agreed and we started out like that,” explained Thockchom Ramani, a frail 84-year-old housewife from Imphal, who is one of the founders of Meira Paibi.
Trouble often arrived at night, and the women activists would respond by stepping out carrying torches made by stuffing kerosene-soaked cloth into bamboo sticks and lighting it up. A torch is known as a “meira” in Meitilon, the language of Manipur; a woman carrying a torch is “paiba.” And thus the name: meira paibis. In the 1980s, as the insurgency in Manipur intensified and the Indian army was brought in to crush it, armed with the legal protections of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Meira Paibis took on the difficult role of trying to save young boys and men from military atrocities. “The army could not see a young boy without binding their hands and throwing them into the vehicle as if they were bags of paddy. In the beginning, we were wondering if the boys were guilty; we could not face the army at first,” Ramani said.
In the mid-1990s, when Sharmila was in her 20s and struggling to make a living, she was drawn toward the Meira Paibis. Memtombi remembered Sharmila from her visits to their meetings, before she commenced her fast. “She was this thin, tall and very fair girl, who came to our meetings throughout Imphal,” Memtombi recalled. “She always arrived on a bicycle, pedaling very fast.”
In the late 1990s, Babloo Loitongbam, a young lawyer from Imphal, who had trained at the University of Delhi, returned home and established a human rights and advocacy center, Human Rights Alert. In the fall of 2000, he was trying to conduct an independent inquiry into the human impact of the prolonged implementation of AFSPA. Loitongbam enlisted Justice Hosbet Suresh, a highly respected, liberal judge, who had produced some stellar reports on collective violence and human rights. In September of that year, he invited volunteers to help out with Justice Suresh’s report on AFSPA, which he described as a “people’s commission.”
Sharmila signed up. “She was yet another young person who would show up at our various discussions. At that time, she didn’t stand out, but when I look back, I remember that she never missed a day,” Loitongbam recalled. She spent a week in an orientation course, which explained the controversial law, how it empowers Indian soldiers to shoot anyone on suspicion of being a threat and to demolish property, and provides them with legal immunity from prosecution. Scores of cases of atrocities under the law were discussed. Afterward, Sharmila and other volunteers would compile dossiers of newspaper reports dealing with atrocities by the armed forces, visit families of the victims and prepare them to testify before Justice Suresh. By October 25, the judge had prepared an interim report. Loitongbam mailed it to India’s federal Home Ministry in New Delhi for comment, but never heard back.
3.”I will protest with my body”
Imphal is a city of about half a million people marred by neglect, militarization and insurgencies. Auto-rickshaws, the preferred mode of transportation, whip dust storms on half-built roads; a substantial number of commuters wear masks to work. Paona Bazaar, the city center and the largest market, is a cluster of single- or double-storied brick-and-cement buildings in varying states of decrepitude. Policemen and soldiers, armed with assault rifles and on edge, patrol the roads. Garish posters of cheaply produced movies in the Meitilon language stare from billboards and facades of rundown theaters. (Manipuri insurgent groups banned Bollywood movies and television programs from mainland India as cultural aggression. In hotels and homes, the cable television operators broadcast Korean channels. The rejection of Bollywood and acceptance of Korean kitsch is also rooted in the racial discrimination Manipuris and people from other northeastern Indian states face in Indian cities.)
The urban decrepitude of Imphal gives way to visions of semi-pastoral communities a few miles out of the city. Malom is a quiet hamlet of brick-and-timber houses with lush vegetable gardens, ringed by paddy fields and groves of bamboo, eucalyptus and teak, a few miles outside Imphal. As with many villages in embattled Kashmir, Malom is also the name of a massacre.
On November 2, 2000, Kamal Singh’s younger brother, Chandramani, a 17-year-old student whose family worked the fields and ran a small fish farm, walked half a mile down a narrow street from his house to catch a bus to Imphal. A political protest in a neighboring village had shut down the road, so he waited by the bus stop overlooking the expansive paddy fields. An hour later, his older brother, 27-year-old Robinson, rode out of their home with their aunt on a scooter and reached the bus stop, where Chandramani was waiting. Minutes after Robinson left home, Kamal, who is now a 37-year-old fish farmer, was talking to his mother and sisters on the veranda of their house. It was around 3:20 p.m. “We heard a loud blast towards the road and thought a bus tire had burst. Then we heard gunfire,” Kamal Singh said. “We realized a bomb had been exploded and the soldiers were shooting. And, scared, we ran inside.”
Soldiers from the Assam Rifles, an Indian paramilitary force, barged into the village, questioning and beating up villagers as they sought the whereabouts of the insurgents behind the bomb. After searching the houses, the soldiers marched the villagers to the adjacent rice paddies and forced them to sit there past midnight. “Some of my neighbors were crying. And then I heard the soldiers had killed 10 villagers after the bomb blast, including my aunt and my brothers Chandramani and Robinson,” Singh recalled. The military imposed a curfew for two days on Malom, its neighboring villages and the city of Imphal; the Singhs grieved without being allowed to collect the bodies of their dead from a hospital morgue in Imphal.
The next morning, Sharmila saw the bodies of the people killed in Malom in a newspaper. “It was terrible, shocking. I was very angry. I felt instead of going to rallies, I should try to do something myself. I thought, I will protest with my body, go on a hunger strike,” Sharmila recalled. She spoke to her mother. “Mother was quiet. She didn’t say anything, but then she blessed me.”
After the curfew was lifted, on November 5, Sharmila arrived on her bicycle at Loitongbam’s home. “I was in our living room with my wife and newborn daughter. Sharmila seemed tired. She spoke in a weak voice and said, “Brother, I am on a hunger strike against the killings in Malom. I am not going to eat or drink till the AFSPA Act is removed,” he recalled. She had eaten her last meal, a few pastries, with some friends at a bakery near her house the day before.
Loitongbam saw her decision as quixotic and suggested she should instead demand a judicial inquiry into the massacre. “I knew a hunger strike for a week or two wouldn’t lead to the removal of the law, but she refused to change her mind,” he said. Loitongbam spoke to several activists and her brother Singhajeet, and they agreed that if she was to continue her hunger strike, it better be made public.
On November 6, Sharmila sat on the veranda of a house in Malom, not far from the site of the massacre. A handwritten poster hung on a wall behind her announcing her protest and demand for the removal of the law protecting the armed forces. The local press reported Sharmila’s hunger strike and ran pictures of her. “People were surprised to see a lone young woman on hunger strike protesting against the military,” her brother said. The next morning, he offered her a toothbrush, but she refused, saying she would not even touch water.
A few hours later, the police arrested Sharmila and moved her to an Imphal prison, charging her with attempting to commit suicide — a crime punishable by a year in prison under Indian law. Doctors tried to give her saline drips and liquid food, but she refused. Two weeks into her fast, the doctors announced that her system was collapsing and she wouldn’t last more than a few days. “I thought she will do it for a week, 10 days maybe. I tried to convince her to break the fast, but she didn’t listen,” Singhajeet recalled.
Sharmila was moved to the Nehru hospital in Imphal, and admitted to the isolated, much-guarded Security Ward, reserved for prisoners requiring medical attention. Doctors talked about force-feeding her a liquid diet; several activists and supporters suggested she accept this. After long arguments in the hospital, Singhajeet persuaded her that to soldier on for her cause, she had to live, and to live she had to accept liquid food nasally. Force-feeding a protestor on a hunger strike has a long history, from suffragettes to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and has been the subject of major medical debate. The World Medical Association considers it torture. Nevertheless, Sharmila conceded. Doctors inserted a pipe through her nose to her stomach. “It was very painful. I was bleeding, but it was like being in a battle. I had to bear it,” she said.
After Sharmila began her fast, Singhajeet spent most of his time between the hospital and gathering support for his sister. Eventually, after failing to show up for work, he lost his job. He was responsible for three children, an ailing mother and Sharmila, and took up odd jobs — as a carpenter or a laborer, building a small house, to feed the family while pursuing his activism. His wife began weaving on a hand loom in their modest house and making incense sticks to supplement their diminished income.
Support for Sharmila was slowly growing within Manipur. In February 2004, in the fourth year of Sharmila’s hunger strike, The Telegraph (a Calcutta-based newspaper that has more detailed coverage of India’s northeast than the Delhi broadsheets) ran a headline about her seeking an elucidation of Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh’s position on the AFSPA: “Come clean on act, girl on fast tells Ibobi.”
On July 5, 2004, Sharmila entered the 45th month of her fast in her hospital prison in Imphal. Few outside Manipur had heard of the “girl on fast.” News from a tiny border state like Manipur is rare in New Delhi, unless something dramatic happens. A week later, on the night of July 11, 2004, troops from the Assam Rifles arrested a 32-year-old woman, Thangjam Manorama Devi, a suspected member of the insurgent group People’s Liberation Army, at her home in Imphal. Villagers found her bullet-ridden body, in the morning, about 4 kilometers from her house. The Assam Rifles claimed she was killed while trying to escape. Her family believed she was murdered after being raped and tortured. Massive protests broke out.
As word of Manorama Devi’s killing spread, a group of Meira Paibis, led by Thockchom Ramani, visited the morgue where her body was kept. Ramani and her friends saw that she had six bullet wounds, including on her genitals, gashes on her thighs and bruises on her breasts. Ramani and several women fainted upon seeing the body. They believed that Manorama had been raped and tortured before being killed. (Government forensics experts later confirmed the presence of semen on her clothes and body.) The women returned to their office and talked about a response. Shanti Devi, a Meira Paibi, suggested they protest naked at the gates of the imposing Kangla Palace, the home of the kings of Manipur, which housed some of the most sacred local temples but had been occupied by the military and converted into a camp for the Assam Rifles.
On July 15, three days after the alleged rape and killing of Manorama Devi, a dozen Meira Paibis arrived at the gates of Kangla Palace. They took off their clothes and stood naked outside the military camp with white cloth banners screaming in bold red letters, INDIAN ARMY RAPE US! INDIAN ARMY TAKE OUR FLESH!
“We saw the body and what they did to her — the bite marks, the bullets in her vagina — and that is how we found the courage to shed our own clothes in protest,” Ramani explained. This unorthodox mode of protest was a difficult decision for the traditional Meira Paibis. “At that time, we thought that even if we died, got raped or even if people laughed at us, we wouldn’t care. We went crying in front of the Kangla. Our tears washed our fear and shame.” Hundreds of protesters had gathered in the area and people broke down as they saw the elderly Meira Paibis challenging the might of the military with their bodies.
The images of the naked protest were broadcast on television throughout India and printed in newspapers and magazines across the country. Reports on Sharmila’s strike followed as the journalists visiting from New Delhi heard about her while covering the naked protest. Widespread public derision of governmental apathy and support for the brave women of Manipur led the Congress Party’s government to remove the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from an area of 20 square kilometers in Imphal city that August.
Further, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed a committee led by a retired Supreme Court judge, B. P. Jeevan Reddy, to review the controversial military law. The Reddy Committee submitted its report in June 2005 and called for a repeal of the AFSPA while suggesting a mechanism to allow the military to work in extraordinary situations. Partly scared of losing votes to the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party on the military’s legal immunity, and partly thwarted by stiff opposition by the Indian military, whose current and former commanders have been arguing that withdrawal of the AFSPA would impede their ability to function as a counterinsurgency force, Singh’s government did nothing.
“The army is too strong. When the Reddy Committee report was discussed by (the) Cabinet of Ministers (the prime minister and the federal ministers), the Defense Ministry and the army refused to accept any amendments,” explained Sanjoy Hazarika, one of the foremost analysts of northeast India’s politics, who was a member of the committee. “The prime minister never wanted to go out on a limb to repeal the law. They just let it be.”
Although the Indian military is under civilian control, its power and influence on public policy has been increasing. “The army makes operational arguments, but the political leadership has failed to assert that insurgencies are fundamentally political questions. Unpopular laws like the AFSPA defeat the very purpose of military presence,” said Srinath Raghavan, a leading military historian and senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. Raghavan, who served as an officer in the Indian army, believes that the Indian army’s opposition to the repeal of the AFSPA is essentially rooted in coziness with the culture of impunity the law has created. “Basic legal protections for soldiers in military operations are important, but the army wants the blanket impunity, which makes them answerable to nobody but its own chain of command.”
5.The Iron Lady of Manipur
By fall 2006, Sharmila’s sixth year of protest, Singhajeet and Loitongbam were becoming increasingly frustrated. “We thought the only way to refocus national attention on her struggle was to take Sharmila to Delhi,” Loitongbam recalled. The grim ritual of releasing her annually and rearresting her a few days later had set in. On an early October evening, after Sharmila was released from her hospital prison, Singhajeet arranged for her to stay in a private hospital for the night.
At dawn, Singhajeet, Loitongbam and two others drove her to the Imphal airport. A friendly doctor had assured them that she could bear the strain of a four-hour flight. Afraid of being stopped by the police at the airport, they had booked a ticket for Sharmila using the initials of her full name: I.S. Chanu (Irom Shamila Chanu). A man from the local intelligence office spotted them, but the arrival of a high-profile Congress politician from Delhi distracted the spook. Sharmila and her supporters landed in New Delhi in the afternoon and drove straight from the airport to Rajghat, the Gandhi memorial in central Delhi, where he was cremated. Rajghat is a sprawling, manicured Mughal-style garden and the memorial is a black marble platform with Gandhi’s last words, “Hey Ram!” inscribed on it. Sharmila circled the Gandhi memorial, sprinkling flowers in homage to India’s founding father. The next morning, Sharmila was in the Delhi newspapers; television channels constantly replayed her homage at the Gandhi memorial.
After her tribute to Gandhi, Sharmila and her supporters moved to Jantar Mantar, the “protest street” of New Delhi, adjacent to the eponymous medieval astronomical observatory and the Indian parliament. When the unheard and the ignored of India travel to Delhi, they travel to Jantar Mantar. When Sharmila, Singhajeet and Loitongbam arrived, some Tibetan activists were dismantling a tent. They borrowed the tent and Sharmila continued her fast. Hundreds of students, activists, scholars and journalists arrived in solidarity. Television networks parked their vans nearby; reporters hovered around her. Ibobi Singh, the Congress Party’s chief minister of Manipur, appeared at Jantar Mantar and sought to persuade her to break her fast. A few years earlier, Singh had offered Sharmila a position as the member of the state Women’s Commission if she agreed to break her fast. As she had earlier, Sharmila insisted on the removal of the military laws first.
Two days later, around midnight, as Sharmila was turning paler and weaker, the Delhi Police raided Jantar Mantar, arrested her and moved her to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the country’s premier hospital, a few miles away. Doctors were ordered to force-feed her nasally again; her death could bring about a crisis and global criticism. “We all appeal to Irom Sharmila to call off her fast,” said Somnath Chatterjee, then speaker of the House of Representatives of the Indian parliament. “I will eat the moment the AFSPA is repealed,” she replied.
Five months later, in March 2007, Sharmila willingly returned to Manipur to continue her protest, where she was again confined to her hospital prison.
Sharmila’s five months in two Delhi hospitals had implanted her firmly in the national imagination, and newspapers had a new name for her: The Iron Lady of Manipur. Along the way, she had found an unexpected champion in the Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who happened to be in the city while Sharmila was in a Delhi hospital. A day after her late meeting with Sharmila, a moved and enraged Ebadi told a gathering of journalists, “If Sharmila dies, the Parliament is directly responsible. If she dies, the courts and the judiciary are responsible, the military is responsible…. If she dies, the executive, the prime minister and the president are responsible for doing nothing.”
To this day, Sharmila’s ordeal continues and the military laws remain on the books. On the second evening of her freedom in the roadside camp in March, as the visitors thinned, when asked how she coped, she replied, “They charge me with attempting to kill myself, but I am keen to live. Every day, I walk across the corridor of my ward for a few hours and practice yoga. I wash my clothes instead of giving them to the hospital laundry. It is good exercise.” She seemed shy as she spoke; her words in English came slowly, haltingly. Her eyes remained fixed on the floral patterns of the rug she sat on, her index finger tracing their designs. She always kept the window of her hospital room open and grew flowers in a few pots she had placed on a table by the window. “The flowers are my friends. I don’t know their names in English,” she said, smiling.
And she reads. “Many people send me books, but especially one particular person. He brings me a lot of P.G. Wodehouse. I love Wodehouse,” she said. The “particular person” is Desmond Coutinho, a 50-year-old Tanzanian-born British citizen, whose family came from Goa in India, and who began writing her letters in 2009 after reading about her. Coutinho, about whom little is known and who has been described as an activist, visited her a few times and professed his love for her, which she has reciprocated. Sharmila expressed her desire to marry Countinho, who lives in England, and return to an ordinary life after her demand is accepted. “I don’t know when he would be able to visit me again,” she said. In that moment, the absurdity of the criminal charge of seeking to take her life was the most obvious.
The debate on the AFSPA in India is at an impasse, and little movement is expected till the national elections and the subsequent formation of a new federal government in the summer of 2014. The ruling Congress Party is expected to lose power and the prospects of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, led by the controversial chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, are stronger. An India led by the chauvinistic Modi is unlikely to repeal the AFSPA.
Yet, Sharmila said she is “hopeful the Indian government will one day repeal that draconian law.” She hoped to see it happen while her mother was still alive. Her mother has refused to meet her till she won, fearing their meeting might weaken Sharmila’s resolve. “I worry about her, not about myself. She has asthma. She had a cataract surgery two years ago and I went to see her in the hospital. We met after so many years. She had grown very old and weak, but she blessed me,” says Sharmila. There is very little of the ideologue or theoretician about her. Her decision is a moral one, her expectations based on human decency.
The next afternoon, before the police arrived at the protest hut and drove her off to her hospital prison, Sharmila spoke of a recent dream. “I don’t miss food anymore, but I remember it. The taste. I often dream of food and fruit. At home, I ate everything we cooked, but sagyam pomba, a vegetable curry, was my favorite. I recently ate it in my dream. Maybe that is a sign, a blessing of the gods,” she said.
Read more here — http://america.aljazeera.com/features/2014/3/the-longest-fast.html