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Sharmila: A New Journey, After 16 Years

by Cover Story of September Edition, NET Bureau, James Khangenbam & Dhiraj Kumar Sarma | Published: Thursday, October 13, 2016

October 10: She is an embodiment of woman power in the Northeast. Looking at her face, it is difficult to gauge the amount of determination and perseverance that the “Iron Lady of Manipur” possesses. On the day when Irom Sharmila Chanu was packing her bags from Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) Hospital in Imphal to a new destination, Northeast Today caught up with her for an exclusive interview. During a candid conversation, Sharmila spoke her heart out on various aspects and her personal life. Here is the story about the woman who continues to provide food for thought for millions of people across the globe.

In 2000, when a young ladystarted her fast against the ‘draconian’ Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), not many people imagined that it would last so long. Irom Sharmila, who was then a member of the local human rights group, made up her mind to carry forward her mission against the Army Act in the backdrop of Malom Massacre, in which 10 innocent civilians were gunned down by the Assam Rifles. After the incident, she has been sacrificing her personal life for the greater good of the society.

Sixteen years of fasting for a single cause and yet the democratic set-up turned down her appeal every time. Across the globe, recognition and admiration are pouring in for her and she is still going strong with her sole motive of appealing the government to remove the AFSPA. But when she had decided to quit her fast and join politics instead in pursuit of the same goal, there is a distasteful reaction from the people of Manipur.

There are apprehensions surrounding the landmark decision. Birendra (name changed), a self-employed youth from Imphal, said, “I do not know… she is saying that she wants to marry a guy from abroad. She is also saying that she wants to join politics. I am a bit confused on the recent development. Don’t really know what would be its outcome.”

And opinions are equally divided. Ravi Koijam, a bank-er, said, “It is her independent decision and we should respect her decision. She is also a human being and we cannot impose our ideas on her. For the past 16 years, she had sacrificed for a good cause and when her voice is not heard she would definitely opt for a change. Sixteen years is a long time.”

My fast was turning out to be a supreme sacrifice. I don’t want to end up my struggle with only people remembering me or erecting statues of me without achieving the goal.

Desmond Coutinho is a heart patient and he is currently undergoing treatment after a heart attack on July 17, 2016. He underwent a serious heart treatment in 2001, where he had to undergo a bypass surgery in all the four chambers of his heart. So, I am a little worried about his health condition rather than anything else.

Sharmila is an icon, a symbol of courage in fighting the ‘draconian Army Act’, which empowers the Indian Army to shoot and kill anybody even on the ground of suspicion of being a militant. During the years of her fast, there have been debates on AFSPA even as the Central and state governments stood adamant on the controversial Act. The ‘disturbed area’ tag of Manipur is still intact and the debate on imposing AFSPA in a disturb area has no impact on the Central government.

The Iron Lady gave up her fast on August 9 this year with a prior announcement on July 16. In an exclusive tit-a-tat with the Northeast Today, Sharmila affirmed that she had made the right decision. Here are the excerpts from the interview:

NET: First thing first: Why have you decided to quit fasting? And from when did you start thinking about it? Any specific reason or incident behind?

Sharmila: I want to be successful in my struggle during my lifetime. I had started feeling like a living martyr and people also started idolising me. I wanted to awaken self-realisation among the people of Manipur, a trouble-torn state, since the past few decades. My fast was turning out to be a supreme sacrifice. I don’t want to end up my struggle with only people remembering me or erecting statues of me without achieving the goal.

NET: The people of Manipur are polarised over your decision. A section of people from your state are upset with your decision to join politics. Do you have anything to say?

Sharmila: Why would people protest if the democratic set-up delivered properly? The democratic voice in Manipur is getting subdued. People should stand against muscle and money power often used by the politician with less determination in the electoral politics. I strongly feel if the head of the state takes a stand against AFSPA, there is a possibility of revoking the draconian Act from the state. I want to restore power given to the common people in a democracy.

NET: Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has offered to field you as chief ministerial candidate. Are you considering any offer from any party?

Sharmila: I would love to be an independent candidate. I do not want to join any party. Political parties have their own agenda. I also wish to take my own decisions and free from any influence. I want the people, instead of a political party, to support me as the chief ministerial candidate.

I actually want the public to give the mandate. If I become the head of the state, I can expose the sentiment of the people. Even when we are not heard of, we could start non-cooperation movements, subsequently to give an integral touch of the nation. The Centre will act and we could be heard. They will try to sync with us and that is where we can negotiate.

NET: Even after 16 years of struggle against the ‘draconian’ military law, you failed to move the people in the power corridor. Now, under the same democratic set-up, how will you achieve your goal?

Sharmila: I have apprehensions that even the civil society organizations of our state have fallen prey to money power. I feel everyone in Manipur should unite to save the democracy. The state government also lacks vision for development of the state. So, it’s high time for us to take a stand.

Like me, the people of Manipur are also being trapped. I want to bring change to the society with new aspirations and strategy. The people of Manipur have been suffering like me and we need to break the shackles. The politics must lie in the hands of the people.

NET: A stand against AFSPA has been a major uniting force with you becoming an icon for that. Don’t you think that your decision will break the semblance of unity in the region?

Sharmila: My democratic protest has failed to deliver justice; however, I’m craving for its remedy. For democratic protests to be fruitful, people need democratic governance, which is lacking in the state. The Centre has also its colonial approach towards the Northeastern region. The growing decay in the democratic set-ups will curtail the rights people in the region. I am more inclined to protecting democracy for a more humane approach towards everything.

North East Forum for International Solidarity has invited me for a mass campaign against AFSPA at the national level. I would definitely love to be a part of the initiative. They asked me a suitable time which I have not decided.

Besides, I am participating in the Global Youth Peace Festival which is scheduled to be held at Chandigarh from September 27. I think it is a good platform and I was also informed that representatives from 20 different countries are participating in the peace festival. I will be speaking during the function.

NET: There were reports that you want to settle down along with working for the people.  What are your immediate plans? Are you getting married soon?

Sharmila: I have not communicated with him (Desmond) for long. The last time I wrote a letter to him was long ago. However, recently there was a slight communication from one of his best friends who lives in London. His friend sent me a message through Red Cross Society Manipur Branch and I replied. They know my current situation.

Desmond Coutinho is a heart patient and he is currently undergoing treatment after a heart attack on July 17, 2016. He underwent a serious heart treatment in 2001, where he had to undergo a bypass surgery in all the four chambers of his heart. So, I am a little worried about his health condition rather than anything else.

NET: How do you feel after returning to ‘normal’ life? How are you adapting at the moment?

Sharmila: I feel like I am growing up with new experiences in life, like an individual growing up from youthfulness to maturity. I am adapting and trying to be in tune with the society. I have to grow old with the given social environment. At the personal level it could be term as a hard time.

NET: Would you please share with us the latest poem that you have written?

Sharmila: I have not written poems for a long time. The poem I wrote in 2008 for students and youth titled Paomen has 538 lines. I had always wished that I would read out the poem to the students over a cup of tea. Another poem with 1010 lines, which I wrote on the social issue and painted the global bindings, was translated and published. At the moment, I would like to recall these two poems.

Sharmila met her mother at the hospital and cried when she heard the news that her brother was not allowed meeting her. Youth of the state are also supporting the Facebook campaign hailing Sharmila’s decision. While leaving JNIMS Hospital, she was assisted by volunteers who cook for her. Sharmila divulged that she wants to stay at an ashram at Langol in the Imphal West and she would like to go to Ukhrul to meet her supporter and others in her new endeavor.

The Breaking News

It was a historic moment as the anti-AFSPA crusader Irom Chanu Sharmila finally broke her fast in front of the media at JNIMS Hospital campus. Although the decision invited criticism from several corners, it was a very emotional moment for Sharmila, who didn’t consume a single morsel of food or drop of water through her mouth for 16 years, as the dab of honey was enough to bring tears to her eyes.

Once the quintessential press conference was over, Sharmila reportedly went to the residence of former director health Keisamthong Laishom Leirak. However, not pleased with her decision to break her fast, the locals of Keisamthong denied her entry. From there she asked the police team to escort her to Shamu Makhong at Kwairamband. Unfortunately, women there also objected her presence at the area.

Having rejected from several places where she went after being released from judicial custody, Sharmila had to return to JNIMS security ward. Finally she was taken back to her old room at JNIMS Hospital. Later Indian Red Cross Society, (IRCS) Manipur gave her shelter.

“I will accept the offer (from Red Cross) happily. I would like to thank the society for their kindness and willingness to help me after I was turned back from many places,” Sharmila said.

Voice of dissent

Leaders of Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign) dissolved the citizen conglomerate, but vowed to continue the fight against the draconian AFSPA. After announcing the dissolution of the Lup, leaders of the organization pulled down one of the banners carrying Sharmila’s photo at its office located at Porompat, Imphal East to mark end of the organization.

Talking to reporters, Momon said, the Lup was formed to support Sharmila in her struggle to get AFSPA repealed. “Since Sharmila has decided to enter electoral politics, we can no longer support her political aspiration as our organization is an apolitical one. Therefore, we are dissolving the Lup”, Momon said.

Some members of thr Joint Committee on the Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS) also voiced their concern over Sharmila joining politics. “We are a little perplexed as Sharmila made her decision to join politics. We are not happy with her decision. She should have carried forward her mission against the draconian Army Act,” said one of the members of JCILPS strictly under the condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, Arambam Robita Leima, a mother of two girls, launched her fast-unto-death in Imphal West district demanding repeal of AFSPA and for implementation of ILP system in the state. Robita said she has deep regards for Irom Sharmila and now wanted to continue her fight against AFSPA.

Support for Sharmila

Despite widespread “dismay” at her decision to contest the election and get married, Sharmila is confident that something positive would come out of her decision to break the fast and contest the election. She had announced that she would fight Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh at his home turf of Thoubal constituency in Thoubal district. Support for Sharmila has poured in from different sections of the society.

Social activist turned politician, Medha Patkar, invited Sharmila to join her in her ‘People’s movement’ against state repression, and apathy of the world. In a letter addressed to Sharmila, Patkar said, “I congratulate her on her decision to seek a new path, a new strategy to take forwards the struggle against AFSPA.” Actress Renuka Shahane appealed to Irom Sharmila to stay with her in Mumbai. “If you have no place that is willing to accept you please stay with me in Mumbai, it will be an honour,” Shahane said.

In Retrospect

Although Sharmila’s decision to end her fast surprised many, time and again, she said she didn’t simply want to be a martyr. Those who have criticized her must know that after all she is a also human being and she has the liberty to lead a personal life. So instead of criticizing her, they should follow the path created by the Iron Lady to fulfill her aspirations.

It needs a lot of grit and determination to sit on a hunger strike for 16 long years and that too almost remaining in isolation. The courageous lady deserves respect and appreciation for her bold stand. Therefore, she should be gracefully allowed to enter into her private life.

Moreover, Sharmila’s stand on AFSPA has remained the same. She wants to battle it out by contesting in the upcoming Manipur elections. What is the harm in it? This is clearly just a change in the strategy. This political discourse needs to be looked at from a different perspectives. For this, Sharmila must be given time and space. And more than anything else, she needs affection of the people at this crucial juncture.

As Babloo Loitangbam, a human right activist of Manipur, puts it, “Sharmila has grown too big in the hearts of the people of Manipur. Even if she continues for two years, three years, five years… perhaps things are not going to change and therefore, she is not giving up the struggle. But, she is changing the technique of carrying forward this struggle.”

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