'Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the struggle for peace in Manipur' by Deepti Priya Mehrotra
Penguin, 2009
'Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the struggle for peace in Manipur' by Deepti Priya Mehrotra Penguin, 2009

Reluctant heroine

Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange and is a Contributing Editor for Himal Southasian.

On 15 August 2009, a policeman was suspended in Dantewada in Chhattisgarh, the epicentre of one of the fiercest ongoing conflicts between India's Maoists, the armed vigilante group Salwa Judum and the security apparatus of the state. One might have been forgiven for concluding that the suspension was punishment for the rampant human-rights violations that had been taking place in the state. Instead, the action against the constable, Bimaram Poyam, proved to be a farcical demonstration of the fragility of Indian democracy. Evidently, the hapless official had fixed the national flag incorrectly, such that it unfurled upside-down during the Independence Day flag-hoisting ritual. An official inquiry was immediately ordered, and punishment meted out.

Contrast this with the 'fake encounter' of Sanjit, a former insurgent, on 23 July in Imphal. Crossfire in a crowded part of Imphal leaves a young pregnant woman named Rabina Devi dead. Minutes later, in another part of the city, police drag Sanjit into a pharmacy and shoot him in cold blood, later claiming that he was responsible for the earlier firing (see Himal Sept 2009, "Snapped").

Thereafter, it took ten days before a judicial inquiry was even ordered, and the policemen involved suspended. Yet this is but par for the course in Manipur, where a longstanding insurgency has meant that the already marginalised people suffer under draconian security legislation such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1948, the AFSPA. It is against this law – which allows security personnel operating in the so-called 'disturbed areas' to shoot and kill on sight on mere suspicion – that many campaigns have been launched over the past half-century. Indeed, by early winter, schools in the Imphal Valley that were shut down in protest of the 23 July killings had yet to re-open. But it is one quiet woman on an indefinite hunger strike who has truly succeeded in drawing attention to this forgotten corner of India.

Irom Chanu Sharmila, slight and curly haired, her eyes luminous and intense, is perhaps not typical heroine material. It is a complex turn of circumstance, then, that a book such as the new Burning Bright could run the risk of creating an icon out of an ordinary woman who is simply following her conscience. Indeed, by all accounts, the international recognition and awards Sharmila has received have not swayed her primary motivation. Often compared to Mohandas Gandhi due to her use of the fast as a strategy, her slow, measured tones, sometimes little more than a whisper, have proven more effective than fiery speeches. Also in common with Gandhi, it was Sharmila's abhorrence for violence that turned her into a fierce campaigner against militarisation.

On 2 November 2000, ten innocent civilians waiting at a bus stop in Malom, near Imphal, were gunned down in retaliation for a bomb blast outside of a nearby camp of the paramilitary Assam Rifles by unknown perpetrators. What is more, this act of violence was technically legal under the AFSPA, which provides impunity to security personnel to kill "in the line of duty". Outraged by the incident, 28-year-old Sharmila, who had up to that point been protesting civil-rights violations through the more common approaches of signing petitions and marching in protest rallies, decided to go on an indefinite fast, demanding the outright repeal of the AFSPA. In pursuit of this single demand, Sharmila has not voluntarily eaten since that day, nor allowed a drop of water down her throat. Charged with 'attempted suicide' – a criminal offence – for nine years now, she has been force-fed through a nasal tube, and practically imprisoned in a hospital, with minimal contact allowed with her family, friends or fellow activists. She says that it is not only her yoga, reading and writing of prose and poetry that has kept her indomitable spirit strong, but also her deep spirituality, which gives her act of defiance a moral edge.

Sovereign Kanglei
Delhi-based writer and researcher Deepti Priya Mehrotra, after getting to know Sharmila on the latter's first, momentous visit to the Indian capital in 2006, subsequently travelled to Imphal to understand the context of the campaign of the Iron Lady. Mehrotra provides a detailed backdrop of the history of Manipur, from the times of the first Meitei king and queen, Nongda Lairen Pakhangba and Leima Leisna, who established their capital in Kangla in the Imphal Valley during the first century AD. Ironically, that same Kangla Fort was, until 2004, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles. It was only following the public outcry  surrounding the 2004 rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel that the historic site was handed back to the people of the state. In the protests that followed the rape, the entrance to the Kangla Fort was immortalised on national and international television broadcasts by the infamous 'nude protest' by the imas (mothers) of Imphal, carrying banners with slogans like, Indian army rape us, drawing attention to the vulnerability of women to atrocities by security personnel.

The history of Kangleipak, the ancient name of Manipur, is that of a land sovereign for almost two millennia. As recounted to Sharmila by her grandmother Tonsija Devi, the stories of gods and goddesses, royalty and ordinary brave women and men, come alive through Mehrotra's intimate style. The reader is acquainted with a fiercely proud people who have long refused to bow to alien rule. Sharmila's love for the land of her birth is as unflinching as is her devotion to justice and truth.

"Victorious Worm", a poem published in 2007, reflects this passion for her homeland:

Since death hasn't visited me, I'm able to see
Kanglei, the mirror of my vision
On the new page of history
Written in red ink

In another poem, she writes:

I'll spread the fragrance of peace
From Kanglei, my birthplace
In the ages to come
It will spread all over the world

Although many of her poems speak of death, Sharmila clearly has no death wish. Her intense desire to live and work for just causes continues to define her existence. Inevitably, her determination, sometimes bordering on stubbornness, constitutes the backbone of Burning Bright. The author effectively conveys Sharmila's uncompromising stance, refusing to be taken in by the promises of politicians. For instance, despite failing health during her fast on the footpath near Jantar Mantar in Delhi in October 2006, she refused to be mollified by the release of the report by Justice Jeevan Reddy's official committee, which recommended the repeal of the AFSPA. It is also likely that she is equally unmoved by the current ministerial differences at the Centre – between the Home Ministry, which wants to reform the law, and the defence establishment, which does not. Instead, Sharmila says she is willing to call off her fast only after the law is actually repealed. Unfortunately, to concede this single vital point remains too risky a step for New Delhi, for legislation that ensures impunity for security personnel is integral to the use of military might to suppress dissent and rejection of rule by the Centre.

In mainstream India society largely lacking in ethical fibre, where wheeling and dealing under the guise of 'pragmatism' rule the roost, hagiography of the Burning Bright kind is perhaps inevitable. Seeking out saints, or even creating them, often serves to coalesce fragmented movements for social justice around a non-controversial fulcrum. However, the crucial role of social organisations, however ragtag, ad hoc or seething with contradictions they may be, must not be ignored in this quest for icons. Mehrotra gives short shrift, for instance, to the bubbling movements in Manipur that have consistently and energetically championed human rights and the right to self-determination, with a vigour bordering on the truly heroic. Most recently, the Apunba Lup, a coalition of major social organisations in the state, as well as the Sharmila Kanba Lup, a coalition of organisations in support of Sharmila, have done the hard work of keeping alive the issue of inhumane laws in the media, in the streets of Manipur and in the drawing rooms and Parliament halls of Delhi. Ultimately, it is social movements, rather than saints, that can give shape to idealism within the hurly-burly of politics.

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