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The lonely case of Irom Sharmila

For a few days now, I have been thinking of Irom Sharmila. The din over her ending a 16-year hungry strike has abated, the media has moved on to their next target and Sharmila is somewhere in Manipur holed up, perhaps, in the solitary confines of a room.  Right now, she has yet to find a place called home because the people of Manipur have literally disowned her.

In 2000, just 28 years old then, Sharmila embarked on a lone fight to remove an archaic law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in this remote north-eastern state of India, Manipur. She started the hunger strike after a massacre in a small village called Malom in the outskirts of the state where Indian army force Assam Rifles reportedly killed 10 people including some teenagers who were going for tuition after class. The AFSPA (1958) covers many areas of north-east Indian and Kashmir and gives security forces powers to search and shoot on sight. Many have criticised the Act as a “licence to kill”.  And organisations such as Amnesty International, which has dubbed Sharmila a ‘prisoner of conscience’ has said the Act “has provided impunity for perpetrators of grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, rape, torture and other ill-treatment, and excessive use of force”.

In these 16 years, Sharmila has been force fed through a nasal tube by a team of doctors and nurses and held by a law that views suicide as illegal. Home has been the special ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in the capital Imphal where she spent most of her time locked in custody and guarded by a team. Along Gandhian principles, her non-violent protest put the spotlight on AFSPA.

I have never met Irom Sharmila but like many others belonging to that region, I have taken pride whenever the people and the world spoke about her relentless fight to end an Act which has now so famously been termed as ‘draconian’.

Now that she has chosen to end her hunger strike and take another form of protest, reports coming in about some people’s dissension to her decision are appalling. No one is willing to provide her shelter, even her own family have disowned her. Her mother, reportedly, is disappointed that she chose to veer from her promise to return home only when AFPSA was repealed. It seems to me her mother is over ambitious and wants her daughter to be the sacrificial lamb. Her sentiments go against the very emotions that are integral to mothers.

Why have people suddenly turned against her? How many in the past have joined her protest? Why are they not respecting her right to live life the way she wants? Do we have a moral right to impose on her our anger because she has become a public figure but on her own accord? These are disturbing questions that to me reflect a parochial mindset and it is all the more disturbing because they seem to stem from a majority in a land that as writer Rahul Bhattacharya so correctly describes, is “removed from the Indian growth story that aspiration is not even visible on its streets”.

If Sharmila, as the people of Manipur say, has betrayed their cause, why don’t they carry on from where she has left. Why not allow her the deserved break after 16 years and further her cause en masse? Is her cause not large enough for people to take up?

A moving picture of Sharmila tasting a dab of honey as she broke her fast on August 9 amid a clamouring media comes to mind. Her decision now to join politics is riddled with public debates but let’s hope this too does not leave her with a bitter taste.

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