Ten years ago, insurgents ambushed an Assam Rifles convoy in the northeastern state of Manipur, India. The Assam Rifles, a paramilitary organisation, in retaliation shot dead ten civilians who were waiting for a bus around eight kilometres from the capital Imphal. This incident would have been lost among the thousands of other acts of violence in a state that has witnessed six decades of armed conflict, had it not been for a frail, 28-year-old woman. On November 4, 2000, three days after the day of the shooting Irom Sharmila Chanu embarked on an indefinite fasting protest. Her demand was that the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, which she believed to be the root cause of the never-ending cycle of violence and rights violations, should be repealed. AFSPA gives India’s armed forces sweeping powers, such as the authority to shoot, even kill, on suspicion alone. It was imposed in Manipur in 1980.
| Irom Sharmila
Artwork by Musrat Reazi
Ten years later, Sharmila has changed considerably – from a shy girl who preferred books over people, to a world-famous icon respected for her resolve and perseverance. The 38-year-old poet’s journey has been an arduous and life-changing experience, not just for her, but also for her family and especially for her third brother Singhajit.
‘When Sharmila started her fast, there were so many rumours doing the rounds – one was that her boyfriend was killed in the Malom incident and that was why she was doing it [fasting]. People also said that since we were poor, she was doing it for money. Another story was that she is abnormal, mentally unsound,’ Singhajit recalls. He was then working as an agricultural officer with Citizen’s Volunteer Training Centre (CVTC), a local NGO. ‘When Sharmila took up the fasting protest and these rumours started, I was very hurt. I knew my sister and I decided to stand by her. I resigned my job and since then, I have focused on helping my sister and taking her campaign forward.’
Fifty-two year old Singhajit is now the managing trustee of the Just Peace Foundation that was formed with the USD 125,000 that Sharmila received when she was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights by the Gwangju Asian Human Rights Folk School, a South Korean human-rights body. It was Singhajit who went to receive the award on her behalf. He also coordinates meetings between Sharmila and the media as well as visitors, which require special permission and clearance from the government.
Sharmila has consistently refused to break her fast and refused bail; she has been re-arrested without fail after every release (she can be held in custody for attempted suicide only one year at a time) and force-fed through a tube inserted in her nose. In 2006, when Sharmila took her protest secretly to New Delhi, Singhajit accompanied her leaving behind his wife, Shanti and their three children. ‘My daughter was going to appear for her matriculation exams in a few months. Unlike other parents running around for their children’s tuitions and study for this crucial examination, I was in Delhi. For me, Sharmila was more important than anything else,’ says Singhajit. In March 2007, when Sharmila returned to Manipur, she was promptly arrested and placed under police surveillance once again.
Singhajit and his family have had their own struggles over the last ten years of Sharmila’s fight for justice. ‘I had my separate land and house. I had to sell it to meet my family expenses. Now I am staying in this small house in a corner of my father’s land,’ he says. Unable to pay the school fees, he had to transfer his two sons from a prestigious private school to a local charity school. ‘I was a simple farmer. Now, I am involved in human-rights and conflict. When I think about it, I am amazed at the change. If Sharmila hadn’t undertaken her fast or continued it for so long with such determination, I would have remained a simple agricultural officer. I would not have been aware of human-rights nor would it have affected me. Now, I think it is my personal duty to respond to the human-rights violations in the state,’ he adds.
Singhajit’s wife, Shanti, has shouldered the responsibility of taking care of the household and the children for the last ten years, and has had to take up odd jobs to make ends meet. She also relies on her own extended family for financial support. ‘Ever since Sharmila started fasting, my husband has left everything to me,’ says Shanti. Recalling her own relation with Sharmila, she says that she calls her ‘Iche’ (sister) and not ‘Inamma’ (sister-in-law). ‘I never thought she would do this,’ she adds.
Like the other Manipuri women under the impact of the armed conflict situation, Sharmila’s protest has transformed the women in her family from wives and mothers to vigilante Meira Paibis. ‘I spent my days looking after my children and the house; I never felt that there was reason for me to go out,’ says Shanti. ‘Our locality is also relatively peaceful and even though we heard about killings and protests in other areas, we would say, “How sad!” And go back to our daily lives. When Sharmila started her fast, we were propelled into activism.’
The first few weeks after Sharmila started her fast, Shanti says, were tumultuous. The police would come to their house to arrest the male members. The women would spend the nights on vigil sleeping on the approach roads to their house and the locality, covering themselves with straw to fight the winter chill. ‘Before Sharmila embarked on her fasting protest, we had never participated in such Meira Paibi vigilantism or social activism. Now, we are always at the forefront,” says Shanti.
“Many times the police brought Sharmila to our house and tried to leave her forcibly with us; but, respecting her wish, we refused. We had to be ever alert to protect our men as well as to ensure that Sharmila’s stance is guarded,’ Shanti adds.
| Irom Sharmila
Photo credit: ndtv.com
Though the Meira Paibi (literally ‘torch-bearing women’) started as a movement of Manipuri women to check the widespread alcoholism of the male population, it evolved into a grassroots human rights movement during the 1980s when they engaged in campaigns against human rights violations, such as arbitrary detention, extra-judicial killings, and torture the security forces inflicted on the people of the state as part of their counter-insurgency measures.
Today, Shanti is a member of the Panchayat. ‘Everyone urged me to stand for the Panchayat elections and I too felt that this would be a good way to serve the people. This is a huge step that I had not even thought about earlier. But our experience during the last ten years has taught us a lot about protests, vigilantism and social activism. It has paved the way to this moment,’ she said.
‘My daily prayer is always the same: please don’t let anything happen to Sharmila. Please grant her wish and repeal AFSPA. My own worries are two-fold: one part for Sharmila and the other for her brother, my husband (Singhajit). If anything should happen to her, I know that my husband will do something drastic, even kill himself. How can I think of fine clothes or riches in this condition?’ Shanti adds.
Shanti has just visited a local pundit with Sharmila’s horoscope for prediction of any adversity that might take its toll on Sharmila. ‘I must talk to my husband and get a puja done. But he spends his days and nights running around and garnering support for Sharmila. It is a huge task just to get a moment with him to discuss such matters,’ she says.
Bijenti, Sharmila’s sister, voices the same sentiment as Shanti about how she was thrown into politics after Sharmila began her fast. ‘All I knew about people’s protests and police actions were from the stories in the newspaper and from my colleagues. After Sharmila’s decision, we started taking part in public meetings and heard speakers talk about the conflict. In a way, our knowledge has broadened a lot.’
Of Sharmila, Bijenti says, ‘She was always a quiet child. Each of us was involved in our own daily routines and so, we didn’t know that the social unrest was affecting her young mind so much that she would take such a decision. She used to go out on her cycle. We thought she was taking embroidery lessons, but now, after reading her interviews and her own writings, we realize that all the skills she had acquired during those days must have been in preparation for this task she has taken upon herself. She was learning yoga and shorthand, and was working with blind children and with human-rights organizations. We are proud that she has swept us all into her wake.’
Despite the hardships, Sharmila’s family stands firmly behind her. ‘Whenever I get a chance to speak to her, I always tell her to fight till the end,’ says Bijenti.In support of her daughter’s stand, Sharmila’s mother, Irom Shakhi, has refused to see her daughter. Ten years ago, they promised not to see each other until Sharmila achieves her goal. Bijenti refused to marry for a long time (she married recently, in her forties). Sharmila’s 12-year-old niece, Jenny, saw Sharmila getting arrested. Jenny is adamant that she will continue her aunt’s fast should anything happen to Sharmila.
For the last ten years, the family has not joined in any festivities, including weddings. ‘We haven’t gone to my paternal house for the annual ningol chakkouba,’ say Sharmila’s sisters-in-law Shanti and Mema. Ningol Chakkouba held every November is the largest festival for the Meitei women when they are given a grand feast and gifts by their brothers. Sharmila’s brothers have not called their sisters for the feast in support of Sharmila’s stand. Irom Raghumani, 57-year-old and a field assistant in the state Veterinary Department, is Sharmila’s elder brother who looks forward to her coming home triumphant. ‘If she gives up her struggle midway, I would call her weak,’ he says.
There has been a growing recognition of Sharmila’s democratic campaign against AFSPA in the form of awards including the Sarva Gunah Sampannah Award for Peace and Harmony handed by Guwahati-based Signature Training Centre; the Rabindranath Tagore Award, 2010 handed by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM); and the Mayilamma Award, 2009 handed by the Mayilamma Foundation based in Kerala. In 2005, the North East Network, a Guwahati-based women’s organisation, had also nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize.
‘Many years ago,’ says Bijenti, ‘we heard people say that a huge war would break out in the year 2000. That was the year Sharmila started her protest. Perhaps, this is the war they foretold. Now, people are talking about another apocalypse in 2012. Let us wait and see what it is.’