iron in the soul
Young, stoic and
dogged, Irom Sharmila has been on a fast-unto-death since November, 2000.
She wants the repressive Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act repealed. The
Act gives draconian powers to the security forces and has repeatedly been
used with brazen brutality in the Northeast. For five years, she has been
imprisoned and force-fed by the State for her ‘crime’. Filmmaker
Kavita Joshi spoke to her in the hospital room in Imphal,
An eye: piercing, intent.
A nose, covered by a swatch of medical tape, as a yellow tube forces its
way in. Lips, stretched tight as if in pain. A woman sits against a bare
wall, huddled under a blanket, tightly hugging herself. This is my first
impression of Irom Sharmila as I walk to her hospital bed. She is incarcerated
at the security ward of JN Hospital in Imphal, Manipur, in custody of
the Central Jail, Sajiwa. It takes her immense effort to speak, but she
tries her best. “How can I explain? This is not a punishment. It
is my bounden duty at my best level.”
Fight: Sharmila in her hospital room Photos by Kavita
Irom Sharmila has not eaten for over five years now. For this, she has
been locked up in jail by the government under very dubious charges and
is being forcibly nose fed. Since November 2000, Sharmila has been on
a fast-unto-death, demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special
Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA). AFSPA is a law that can come into force in any
part of India declared as “disturbed”. The act allows anyone
of any rank in the army or a paramilitary force under its operational
command to shoot, arrest or search without warrant; and to kill on suspicion
alone. Furthermore, there is little scope for judicial remedy. The whole
of Sharmila’s state — Manipur — has continuously been
under this law since 1980 (with minor exceptions in recent times).
It’s been five years since that day which changed her life. November
2, 2000 was just another Thursday. Till, that is, a convoy of Assam Rifles
was bombed by insurgents near Malom in Manipur. In retaliation the men
in uniform went berserk: 10 civilians were shot dead. You could say that
neither the killings nor the brutal combing operation that followed were
new to the people. Manipur had been ravaged by umpteen number of such
incidents in the past. But for Sharmila, Malom was the proverbial straw
that broke the camel’s back. “There was no means to stop further
violations by the armed forces,” she says. She began her epic fast.
From then to now, Sharmila’s frail body has become a battlefield.
Within days of her fast, she was arrested on charges of ‘attempted
suicide’ and put in jail. She refused bail; she refused to break
her fast. For five years now, she has been in custody, being forcibly
nose-fed. Time and again, the courts have — rightly — released
her. But she resumes her fast and is invariably re-arrested each time.
In the five years that
she hasn’t eaten, Sharmila’s body has begun to get damaged
severely. She lives with the nagging pain of a tube thrust into her nose.
She is 35 but has become feeble and looks older. What’s more, for
five years, Sharmila has not seen her ageing mother. In her mother’s
own words, “I am weak-hearted. If I see her, I will cry. I do not
want to erode her determination, so I have resolved not to meet Sharmila
till she reaches her goal.”
of Manipur: Outside Assam Rifles HQ, Imphal, after Manorama’s
rape and murder, 2004
with the nagging pain of a tube thrust into her nose. What’s
more, for five years, Sharmila has not seen her ageing mother
In times that are inured to violence, Sharmila’s protest is remarkable
for its insistence upon the Gandhian ideals of ahimsa (non-violence) and
satyagraha (insistence upon truth). And though her protest is ignored
every day in the world’s largest democracy, Sharmila is resolute
— “Unless and until they remove the AFSPA, I shall never stop
my fasting.” In a rare interview, shot for the film Untitled: 3
Narratives — On Women and Conflict in Manipur, she unravels her
heart, slowly, like a stream of amazing struggle and hope amidst intense
Why did you start upon this fast?
For the sake of my motherland. Unless and until they remove the Armed
Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958, I shall never stop my fasting.
Could you tell me something about the incident that sparked this
off for you?
I had gone there (to Malom) to attend a meeting. The meeting was towards
planning a peace rally that would be held in a few days.
I was very shocked to see the dead bodies on the front pages of the newspapers.
That strengthened me to step on this very threshold of death. Because
there was no other means to stop further violations by the armed forces
against innocent people.
I thought then, that the peace rally would be meaningless for me. Unless
I were to do something to change the situation .
But why choose this particular method? Why a fast unto death?
It is the only means I have. Because hunger strike is based on spirituality.
What about the effect this has on you, your health, your body?
That doesn’t matter. We are all mortal.
Are you certain that this is really the best way? To inflict this
upon your body?
It is not an ‘infliction’. This is not a punishment. I think
this is my bounden duty.
How does your
family react to your fast?
the State may think so, I am in no mood for suicide. In any case,
if I were a suicide-monger, how could we talk like this? I have
no other choice but fasting’
My mother knows everything about my decision. Although she is illiterate,
and very simple, she has the courage to let me do my bounden duty.
When did you last meet your mother?
About five years ago. There is an understanding between us. That she will
meet me only after I have fulfilled my mission.
It must be very hard on both of you…
Not very hard… (pauses). Because, how shall I explain it, we all
come here with a task to do. And we come here alone.
Just why are you in custody? Why exactly?
It is not my will. But the State insists it (the hunger strike) is unlawful.
But the government is saying that your fast-unto- death is attempted
suicide, which is an offence…
Although they may think so, I am in no mood for suicide. In any case,
if I were a suicide-monger, how could we communicate like this, you and
I? My fasting is a means, as I have no other.
How long are you prepared to go on like this?
I don’t know. Though I do have hope. My stand is for the sake of
truth, and I believe truth succeeds eventually. God gives me courage.
That is why I am still alive through these artificial means. (Indicates
the tube going into her nose.)
How do you spend your day in the hospital?
A lot of the time I practice yoga. It helps me keep my body and mind healthy.
(She points to the tube again.) It is circumstances that make things natural.
Though this (tugs the tube) is unusual, it is natural to me.
What do you miss the most?
The people. As I am a prisoner here (in hospital), everyone is restricted
from meeting me without permission. So I miss people a lot.
If you had one wish that was yours for the asking, what would
My wish? We must have the right to self determination as rational beings.
Do you think the AFSPA will be repealed? Will you get what you
are fighting for?
I realise my task is a tough one. But I must endure. I must be patient.
That happy day will come some day. If I’m still alive. Until then,
I must be patient. (My time was over, and my crew and I were preparing
to leave, when Sharmila stopped us.) Will you help me? I would like to
read about the life-history of Nelson Mandela. I have no idea about his
life. Will you send me a book about him? It is full of restrictions here.
Make sure you address it to the security ward. If not, I may not recieve
(We sent Sharmila, the book from Delhi. Her friends tell us that it has