Irom Sharmila: shunned by Manipur, but still undaunted

Freedom for the Iron Lady of Manipur is bittersweet

WrittenBy:Deepanjana Pal
Date:
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On August 9, at around 4.25pm, the moment finally came — the Iron Lady of Manipur broke down. The woman who has smiled and held her composure through 16 years without food or water, while living in virtually solitary confinement in a hospital room, spent her first day of freedom in tears.

When she came out of the courtroom after getting bail on August 9, Irom Sharmila sat at a table with a swarm of microphones in front of her. Behind her, stood a phalanx of khaki uniforms and a few white coats. Cameras and phones were all trained on her. She smiled at first, but when a little bit of honey was put on the palm of her hand, the good cheer crumpled out of her face. It was evident from the way she fidgeted, from the tears, that there was nothing comfortable or triumphant about this moment. But Sharmila took a deep breath, wiped her face and held up the hand that had honey, so that the camera could see it. After a few seconds stretched out of shape by anticipation, a soft whimper slipped out of her lips and her head rolled back, as though she was in physical pain. She dropped her neck, the curly hair forming a veil around the weeping 44-year-old Sharmila. “Come on, Sharmila, have it, have it,” someone said. She looked up, perhaps in the direction of the voice. Her face was contorted in anguish. But she listened. She spooned the honey up on her index finger and still crying, she tasted it.

This was how Sharmila embraced freedom — without a smile or any trace of joy; with a photographer cawing, “Once more!”

The real trauma, however, was yet to come. Irom Sakhi Devi and Irom Singhajit, Sharmila’s mother and brother had already made clear that they didn’t support her decision to end the fast, and so there was no home for her with them. Sharmila’s family have seven houses between them in the Kongkham area of Imphal, but no one was willing to give the just-released Sharmila shelter. “They don’t believe in change,” Sharmila said sadly, when the press asked her about her family rejecting her. So she made her way to activist and former health director Thiyam Suresh’s home, but she wasn’t allowed into the neighbourhood. The wandering Sharmila was heckled again, in another part of Imphal. When Sharmila turned to the Iskcon temple for refuge, they too turned her away. Apparently because the temple didn’t want the “commotion” that the homeless Sharmila — rejected by her family and so many of her supporters — would bring with her.

Imphal Free Press wrote in its editorial, “The elderly ladies who once were seen accompanying her [Sharmila] every time she is released before being taken into custody again on the charge of attempt to commit suicide, were not only not there to give her company and show solidarity to her cause, but were actually hostile to her and disallowed her to take shelter amongst them or in localities they have a presence.”

Within a few hours of her release, the woman who has with such grace and determination campaigned against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA) for 16 years, returned to Imphal City police station, pleading for help.

Ultimately, Sharmila spent her first night as a free woman in the same room that had been her prison for the past 16 years. Having been turned away by everyone she’d approached, the only doors that were still open to her were those of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital (JNIMS).

“I’ve no taste of life in this stagnant society. It is so harsh. It is so harsh,” she said when she was back in JNIMS.

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A handful of women supporters remain by Sharmila’s side. Still, Sharmila is convinced that entering the murky swamp of Manipur’s electoral politics is the best way to continue her protest against AFSPA. “How do you know the exactness of the total absence of that backing?” she shot back sharply when she was asked whether running for elections seemed wise with so many in Imphal (at the very least) having rejected her. Pointing to those with her in her room in JNIMS, Sharmila said stubbornly, “They are all behind me.”

Unfortunately, “they” appear to be a heartbreakingly small number. When Sharmila came out of court having received bail, there were shouts from the public, castigating her for having betrayed Manipur. It’s not just disappointment that Sharmila has not continued sacrificing her life on behalf of all those who are protesting AFSPA in Manipur, but anger at her. How dare she choose to continue her struggle in a different way?

In local Manipuri media, the sense of discomfort at Sharmila’s decision is palpable. For instance, the website E-Pao has a slideshow with a caption that tells the viewer, Sharmila ended her fast on August 9. However, the photographs are not from that day. They’re old ones in which Sharmila is seen with the nasal feeding tube. It’s as though the website is choosing to remember her only in that past avatar, dismissing the present reality.

Sharmila isn’t on the home page of The Sangai Express, but there is an editorial on her most recent ordeal. Imphal Free Press and Pokhnapham have both put Sharmila on their home pages prominently, in addition to writing editorials on her ending her fast.

While the editorials and articles in The Sangai Express, Imphal Free Press and Pokhnapham all express dismay at how Sharmila has been treated upon release, there’s actually been more outrage at Sharmila’s treatment in national media (although the mob-like behaviour of its cameramen and photographers in particular, outside the court on the day Sharmila ended her fast, was far from becoming). Articles like these in Hindustan Times and NDTV don’t shy away from pointing fingers at those who have rejected Sharmila. It’s not in the home pages of Manipuri publications that we find out about Sharmila sitting in that hospital room and drinking Horlicks and honey, but in English mainstream media. Even while giving token space to those who are against Sharmila now, The Indian Express underlines the unfairness of Sharmila’s present situation in its report.

In contrast, the tone in the Manipuri media is markedly less sympathetic towards Sharmila. In The People’s Chronicle, which is the English version of Pokhnapham, the editorial points out just how difficult it will be for Sharmila to make an impact using the electoral system:

“The fear now is that with Sharmila ending her fast, will that fearful regime return? … For a moment, let’s pretend Sharmila wins an election, next what? Politics is also a game of numbers and however hard she shouts in the Assembly, it will be lost in the din. … Has she prepared for this or will she simply call it quits after she achieves her lone target [of getting elected]?”

There’s something particularly dismissive about that last sentence, but leaving that aside, there’s no acknowledgement in this editorial that Sharmila had not ‘prepared’ for her epic fast either. Her decision came out of the blue and without anything of a roadmap. Yet, against all odds, she did become a powerful force. So much so that The People’s Chronicle urges someone “replace” Sharmila by going on an indefinite hunger strike.

The Sangai Express, while reminding its readers that Sharmila “is also an individual, a living individual with her own mind and likes and dislikes”, wrote in its editorial:

“The question is whether the movement against AFSPA will get diluted now, for the fact stands that for 16 long years, Sharmila was the rallying point against the Army Act and this was primarily due to her fast, which was a protest against the said Act.”

This editorial is the only presence of Sharmila in the publications homepage. Inside, there is one article titled “Sharmila Ends Fast — What Next?”. It makes no mention of her being refused shelter or how Imphal reacted to her asking for refuge after coming out of the hospital.

Imphal Free Press‘s editorial is longer and more considered. It doesn’t ignore the treatment Sharmila has received since her release and describes it as “hurtful”. However, while analysing the sudden change in the relationship between Sharmila and her supporters, Imphal Free Press places the responsibility upon the activist, criticising her for being arrogant:

“From the mental collage that we managed to put together from newspaper reports as well as murmurs in the streets, though the distance between Sharmila and her supporters has been growing over the months, it was her immediate and unilateral decision to end her fast which has caused this atmosphere of bitterness. …  

Our guess is, the seeming near total severance of relationship now had also a lot to do with, if we may put it so, pride and prejudice. Pride on the part of Sharmila and prejudice on the part of her followers. Sharmila’s pride made her to take her momentous decision of ending her fast taking none of her family or supporters into confidence, much less consult them. This is not about seeking permission, but of placing trust in fellow travellers. …

But at least on the crucial decision to end her fast, she ought to have taken at least those in the same movement into confidence. Imagine a wife finding out her husband’s decision to change career from the newspaper, or a father discovering his daughter is engaged from the local television. The hurts which would have been caused by such undermining of relationships, in Sharmila’s case akin to one of guardian-ward, is only to be expected and understandable.”

Incidentally, Sharmila says she did want to consult with “representatives”.

In a nutshell, according to both the media and her supporters, Sharmila owes more to Manipur. More than 16 years of her life, more than her determination to continue fighting despite the Indian government’s unwavering stand on AFSPA. Her supporters seem to have taken for granted that Sharmila would be their symbol of resistance. She’s not allowed to change the unspoken terms of agreement between her and them. This is particularly twisted because when Sharmila first started her fast, she wasn’t taken seriously by many of those who later became her champions and now claim she’s betrayed the Manipuri cause. No one thought one woman could hold out the way Sharmila has. It was only when the days turned into months and then years that Sharmila gathered the following that she enjoyed until recently. Even though they’ve changed their stances, she’s not allowed to do the same.

There’s a sense of ownership over Sharmila and what she’s come to symbolise. Rather than accepting her as a leader, it seems Manipur — or Imphal at the very least — would like her to be led. She should just be the face of the resistance and the one who bears its brunt, but without actually having any agency. That Sharmila has been accused of being brainwashed into stopping her fast by groups like Sharmila Kanba Lup is darkly ironic. The same woman they celebrated for her resoluteness and strength is now one who apparently has no will against the central government or has been reduced to a lovesick figure.

Fittingly the Iron Lady of Manipur has resisted that pigeonholing. She remains determined to fight the elections with other independent candidates. “I’ve imposed one condition on entering my personal life. If the masses ignore my new strategy and abandon or insult me, I’ll begin a new chapter of my life,” she said.

It’s worth noting that none of the English editions of the Manipuri publications have mentioned this stand of hers. Is it because with her statement, Sharmila puts part of the responsibility of how her future pans out upon Manipur? Even as she takes charge of her life, Sharmila is placing her faith in her followers. Unfortunately, as a woman who wants to live for her beliefs rather than court slow death, Sharmila seems to command far less attention from the Manipuri press and that in turn could affect the public following she gathers.

When Sharmila told the press last night that she would “go away” if she’s rejected by people, a journalist immediately asked where she’d go. Evidently, he hoped she’d confess that she had plans of joining her British partner, Desmond Coutinho. “It’s so unfortunate,” Sharmila replied, “your mindsets are so unfortunate.”

Perhaps one day Irom Sharmila will tell us just how bitter freedom tastes, even when it’s in a lick of honey.

With video inputs from Sunzu Bachaspatimayum.

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