Harsh Mander


As she licked honey from a fingertip, she could not hold back her tears. It was the first time in 16 years that any food or water had entered Irom Sharmila’s mouth. This tiny dab of honey ended the most extraordinary non-violent battle against injustice that India has seen in the last half-century.


The premise of Gandhi’s satyagraha is to resist oppression by causing suffering not to one’s oppressor, but to oneself.


No one has chosen to voluntarily suffer as much and as long as Irom Sharmila in the pursuit of what she describes as “non-violence with love”, an instrument of battle she learnt from her “idol”, Gandhi. Gandhi believed, as does Irom Sharmila, that if one chose to suffer, this act of non-violence with love would awaken the conscience of the oppressor, and ultimately spur a change of heart.


The suffering that Sharmila chose to impose on herself was to refuse even a morsel of food or a drop of water for 16 long years. She continued to live only because the police and doctors force-fed her through a plastic tube. Her body organs degenerated irreversibly; her menstrual periods halted. The tube through which she was forcefully fed was continuously painful. To add to her suffering, the law of the land criminalised her protest as “attempted suicide”. She was incarcerated in a high security hospital ward in Imphal. The maximum penalty for the crime of attempting suicide is imprisonment for one year. Each year when she completed her solitary incarceration, she was released and immediately re-arrested.


The greater part of these 16 years she spent alone. In a rare interview, she admitted that what she missed most desperately was simply being with people. I met her once at the hospital ward and this is what she said to me. She missed talking to people other than her police guards and nurses, she missed friends, she missed being with someone she had come to love. She did not meet her mother even once these 16 years: Her pact with her unlettered mother was that they would see each other only after she achieved her political goal.


She chose to endure all of this as an act of political resistance through non-violent self-suffering that is unparalleled in the world. Her resolve was that she would not eat or drink until the government of India withdrew the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 from the state of Manipur, which she believed had enabled men in uniform to rape, abduct and kill civilians with impunity. The law was enacted in 1958 with the official objective of enabling Indian security forces to more effectively quell armed rebellion in Nagaland. The law permits security personnel to fire at and even kill civilians, and arrest, enter and search any premises without warrant. It was extended to Manipur in 1980. The impunity which the law extends to the men in khaki and olive green has indeed resulted in a long and shameful trail of extra-judicial killings (which continue even today), forced disappearances, rape, torture and extortion.


On November 1 2000, the paramilitary Assam Rifles gunned down 10 innocent civilians awaiting a bus in the town Malom in the Manipur valley. These included a teenage boy and an old woman. The gruesome pictures of their bodies riddled with bullets filled the next day’s newspapers. Among those who saw these was Sharmila, then a 28-year-old rights activist, journalist and poet. The Assam Rifles claimed that its soldiers were defending themselves from a bomb attack on their convoy, and the civilians were killed in cross-fire. The incensed people in the valley were unconvinced, and demanded an independent magisterial enquiry. This was not allowed because the Assam Rifles was protected by their right to open fire under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Sharmila then made a quiet resolve that she must fight to free her people from the oppression of this law. She would use her own body as her weapon. There was no other way for her. She took the blessings of her mother and quietly began her fast on November 4, 2000.


Sixteen years later, the law persists, unchanged. There is little evidence that this indomitable young woman’s extraordinary, even superhuman, self-imposed suffering has touched any hearts in India’s political establishment. The government of India appointed in 2004 a commission headed by a former Supreme Court judge, Jeevan Reddy, to enquire whether the law needed to be amended or repealed in order to conform to the government’s obligations to human rights. The commission in 2005 recommended repeal of the law (even as it suggested that many of its provisions be incorporated in other laws). But successive governments of India chose to not act in accordance even with the commission’s conservative counsel.


Sharmila, ever since she launched on her epic fast, became a symbol of resistance and courage for the people of the troubled valley. Since 2008, every day some seven to 10 women fasted from sunrise to sundown in solidarity with Sharmila. I met the silver-haired matrons who ran this protest in a tent in Imphal city. They rarely returned home to their children and grandchildren, and slept in the tent. They felt a larger purpose in organising this unbroken chain of solidarity with their heroine Sharmila, and her struggle for peace and justice in their homeland.


Today many of these women feel profoundly let down by Sharmila’s decision to withdraw her 16 year-old fast. I hope desperately that they relent and open their hearts to accept the decision of their heroine to fight against AFSPA through the ballot instead of fasting. To recognise that although Sharmila is one of the tallest living Indians for her voluntary choice of incredible self-suffering of 16 years, she is still human. That she has not let them down; it is the political and security establishments, but ultimately the people of India, who have let down Irom Sharmila


From her lonely hospital ward, she wrote: Free my feet from the shackles/ Like bangles made of thorn/ Confined inside a narrow room/ My fault lies in being incarcerated Like a bird…Let us celebrate that Sharmila can at last taste food again, and quench her thirst with water which pours down her throat. That she walks free at last. But remember that the battle she fought for the people of Manipur for a peace founded on justice and the dignity of democratic freedoms is still to be won. May we stand with her and the people of Manipur in that battle. Let Irom Sharmila’s suffering not be in vain.


(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Sixteen years of solitude’)

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