Release, Re-arrest, Repeat. This Has Been Irom Sharmila’s Life For 15 Years

File picture of Irom Sharmila. Credit: PTI

File picture of Irom Sharmila. Credit: PTI

It’s an annual ritual and is done for this year. Irom Sharmila was re-arrested late yesterday night on the charge of attempt to commit suicide, two days after her release from jail. The release came when her health condition began deteriorating alarmingly following the cessation of nose feeding by which she has been kept alive in all of the 15 years and more she has been on hunger strike.

In the 15 years of her life in jail, she has been released and re-arrested 15 times just so that the law against detention without trial for more than a year is dodged. If this scenario wasn’t so tragic, it would actually have been funny.

Sharmila, who has pledged not to eat until the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is repealed from Manipur, is in custody not so much because she has committed any cognisable felony, but to keep her from dying of voluntary starvation.

Can her hunger strike be interpreted as an attempt to take her own life? Sharmila certainly does not think so. She has always maintained she loves life and if, as alleged, she is suicidal, many means to end her life have never been far from her – electrocution and hanging being the closest and simplest at hand.

The irony is unique. She is refusing food, even if this were to mean death, all for the love of life and to protect its dignity. How can her supposed crime deserving arrest be defined in legal terms? Indeed, Sharmila’s resistance, because it is so unique, has been raising enigmatic questions like this that defy easy answers. The law’s inability to find a satisfactory answer to such questions cannot have been playing out more dramatically than this annual ritual of release and re-arrest Sharmila has been compelled to go through all these years.

Disturbing thought

It is a disturbing thought that this ritual can be predicted to continue on till such a time as the AFSPA is repealed or Sharmila dies of old age. From the look of things on the ground, the latter seems more likely at this moment. One can only hope that the Indian state’s outlook to draconian laws with very definite colonial vintage, such as the AFSPA and the sedition law, changes sooner.

Sometimes, when the answer to a question becomes impossibly elusive, the way out may actually be to change the question instead. The fact is, if Sharmila is given freedom today, she will certainly die, for the iron-willed woman is not about to give up what she loves to call her Gandhian struggle.

In the present case too, in two days of her release, her health condition began showing signs of trauma and distress, prompting government doctors who were attending her to recommend re-arrest and resumption of nose feeding. After 15 years of this artificially fed diet, doctors are not sure of the condition of her immune system, and are fearful a little neglect can lead her health to plummet to a point of no return.

Arresting her in this sense is actually about saving her from certain death. What the situation therefore demands may be a law that does not incriminate the arrested person. Sharmila has said it so many times that she has not transgressed any law and therefore does not want to be treated as an outlaw.

Nobody will dispute she does have a point there. The colonial legacy of policing being what it is in India, there is always a sense of criminality associated with anybody arrested by the police. Those who have been campaigning for Sharmila’s freedom too must see things from this vantage. What every well-wisher wants and should want is Sharmila free but alive as well, but till such a time, her custody should be seen as a benign overture, even by these campaigners.

It will help if the provision of the Indian Penal Code by which she is detained is also reformed to actually say and mean goodwill custody, as for instance by making it signify hospitalisation rather than arrest.

In the meantime, it is more than evident, and with a renewed sense of urgency in the present times in the face of the JNU crisis, that draconian laws such as the AFSPA must go for they have no place in a democracy. Ways also must be found to democratically settle the insurrections which caused these laws to be conceived of in the first place. Looked at another way, the very continuance of these laws is evidence not only of the authoritarian lobby of the Indian state, but also the failure of its liberals to find democratic answers to radical dissents and challenges to the state.