For Irom Sharmila, and Manipur, the End of a Fast Is the Start of a Tough Journey

“Let us walk together, change together,” Sharmila said on Tuesday. Manipur clearly aspires for change, yet this seems like an impossible task.

Irom Sharmila speaking to media after appearing before the CJM court in Imphal on Tuesday. Credit: Sobhapati Samom

Irom Sharmila speaking to media after appearing before the CJM court in Imphal on Tuesday. Credit: Sobhapati Samom

Imphal: The petite housewife in the witness box hurriedly smothered a nervous smile as the black-coated lawyer, probably infuriated by her see-saw replies, asked if she had any idea why she was in court that particular morning. When she gave yet another muffled answer, the exasperated lawyer requested that her statement be continued on another day.

Seated in a wooden chair between a policewoman in khaki and a media person, Irom Sharmila Chanu fidgeted as she waited for her turn to speak before the chief judicial magistrate (CJM) on August 23. Manipur’s famous “prisoner of conscience” is no stranger to the courtroom. For nearly 16 years now, at an interval of every 15 days or so, she has been replying to questions shot at her by the men and women in black robes, not only in Imphal but also in Delhi. The charge against her, under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), is that of attempting to commit suicide – a charge made when she started her marathon fast in November 2000.

All through the 15 year, nine months and five days of her fast, Sharmila had just one demand – repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958. The Act is seen as the cause behind the unchecked cases of extrajudicial killing and torture in Manipur.

A person charged with attempted suicide cannot be imprisoned for more than a year. Sharmila was regularly produced before the CJM every fortnight and the same questions were asked. When her prison term was about to complete a year, she was released. Sharmila continued her fast and the cycle of arrest and release started all over again.

As the petite housewife hurriedly scampered down from the witness seat, Sharmila strode over to her lawyer and they consulted in hushed whispers. When she was asked to comment on the charges against her, she replied confidently without hesitation, “I have never intended to fast till my death. Fasting was a strategy I used to protest against AFSPA. In fact now I have changed my mode of agitation.”

Changing strategy

Sharmila broke her fast on August 9 with a few drops of honey – three hours after she was released on bail by the CJM of Imphal after furnishing a personal recognisance bond of Rs 10,000. Since then she has slowly started consuming food – progressing from Horlicks, juice and cereals to fruits, khichri and chagempomba (her favourite dish of assorted vegetables and rice cooked with fermented soyabean). Chilli, a favourite and almost essential part of the Manipuri palate, is still not given.

Sharmila had ruffled more than a few feathers when she had announced politics as her new strategy. “Help me on the CM (chief minister) seat. I want to bring a change, a positive change in the land …” she had said after she was released on bail on August 9.

The decision has drawn flak from a section of the people – mostly civil society groups such as the Sharmila Kanba Lup, a group formed by Meira Paibi women vigilantes to support Sharmila’s campaign. Seeing Sharmila’s desire to join politics as a government conspiracy, the group, popularly known as SAKAL, has dissolved itself and withdrawn its support of her. Most apex civil society organisations which usually spearhead many of the mass movements in the state were also visibly absent from the euphoria of her newfound freedom

What became clear over the last fortnight, however, is the rise of a new crop of Sharmila supporters, mostly drawn from the younger generation and non-resident Manipuris. Almost an hour before Sharmila arrived at the court, a stream of men and women – both old and young – began to gather near the gate. Entrepreneurs, students and activists, among her new crop of supporters, have been meeting Sharmila during the last two weeks in her hospital room – bringing her food, talking to her, expressing support and doing things as mundane as helping her pack.

Well-wishers and curious onlookers crowd surround the door and take up as much space in the room as the lawyers and deponents. Outside the room and the building, dozens of young men and women carry placards that read, “I am with Eche against AFSPA”, “Justice will prevail” and “I support Sharmila”, carrying the hashtag “#sharmila4change.”

Irom Sharmila posing with her supporters at the court complex in Imphal on Tuesday. Credit: Sobhapati Samom

Irom Sharmila posing with her supporters at the court complex in Imphal on Tuesday. Credit: Sobhapati Samom

Addressing the media after the court hearing, Sharmila re-iterated her stand. “In truth, there is no change in my stand … I (was) fasting alone in isolation, realising that this would not produce results, I wanted to go along with the people, putting my belief in the secret ballot box. Let us together bring a change,” she said, seeking support from the people, civil society groups and womenfolk.

“…Since this is a social issue, until there is a change in the democracy, in the administrative system, there cannot be a change in the society. In the waves of this dirty social system wherein we are all being carried along – filled as it is with issues, and continuously saying ‘protest, protest,’ when there isn’t anyone to listen. Let us change this together – with this thought I had taken this step … Believing in this change,” she said.

Outlining her strategy, she further said that she has decided to launch a wider campaign against AFSPA by linking up with various mass movements across the country. Among the places she plans to go are the Ukhrul district of Manipur, Punjab and other areas. She has already received letters of support and invitations from many individuals and organisations, including Medha Patkar, Maitree and the Indian Christian Women’s Forum.

“The people, expressing their desire that such a draconian law which a democratic country is using as its governmental aid/tool, should be done away with, you have all given me moral support. But every year during my yearly release, I had never received the mass support like that during the anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare, when thousands and thousands came forward willingly, thinking that it is their duty. And that is the reason why I am changing my strategy,” she said, appealing to the people to support her with such a mass movement. “Let us walk together, change together…”

After the court took her statement under IPC section 309, Sharmila requested that her case be disposed of as she had ended her fast and started leading a normal life. The final hearing has been scheduled for September 5.

With Sharmila’s new strategy, Manipur, already benumbed into a dangerous resilience by an endless cycle of killings, protests and a string of inattentive governments, is now put to the test. The same test of fire is for Sharmila too.

Irom Sharmila inside her hospital room, most of her belongings now packed. Credit: Anjulika Thingnam Samom

Irom Sharmila inside her hospital room, most of her belongings now packed. Credit: Anjulika Thingnam Samom

Hurdles ahead

During her fast, Manipur has already seen three chief ministers – Wahengbam Nipamacha, Radhabinod Koijam and Okram Ibobi, the last of whom is at the end of his third term as chief minister – and a brief period of presidential rule.

The socio-political reality that existed in 2000 has changed drastically. The Naga-Kuki-Meitei conundrum had already made its presence felt then, but never as sharply antagonistic and divided as now, 16 years down the line. Since 2000, the killings under AFSPA only increased, peaking around 2009. The year that Sharmila started her fast, 246 persons, including 93 civilians, were killed as a direct result of the ongoing armed conflict in the state, according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal. The figures, fluctuating between 200 and 400, reached 485 deaths in 2008, including 131 civilians and 341 alleged underground persons. In 2009, the year when Chungkham Sanjit Singh Meitei and Rabina Devi were killed in broad daylight by the police in the BT road case made famous by the Tehelka exposé, there were 416 deaths, including 77 civilians and 321 alleged underground persons.

To the government and the people, the most pending issues at present however are not Sharmila or her political venture. The movement for an inner line permit systems, which culminated in ten deaths – a student from Imphal and nine persons who still lie unburied in Churachandpur – takes major precedence, especially as the government is hard-pressed to find an amicable solution either before or during the next state assembly sessions starting from September 2 next.

Three draft bills which were passed by the state assembly last year – The Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill and the Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill – were rejected by several people and organisations as anti-tribal.

An amicable solution seems unlikely at the moment, as the standoff continues between them and the valley-based Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System, which is intent on the formulation and implementation of a law or laws that would protect the indigenous peoples from unchecked influx of migrants that has already threatened to tip the demographic balance of the state. The hill-based bodies, on the other hand, continue to view the bills and the newly revised drafts as intents to snatch the land and rights of the hill people.

With the state elections due in a few months, the frenzy has already started. Not only are political parties and would-be politicians trying to score points through the media on every possible issue, ranging from bad roads to the non-issuance of rice through the recently launched National Food Security Scheme, but also the rush of the general public to optimise opportunities such as promotions and appointments while time still remains.

Hundreds of young men who had given written exams in 2013 for appointments as constables in the state police department took out a rally in Singjamei area of Imphal West district after a public meeting on August 23. They were protesting the fact that instead of declaring the results of the test, the government had announced that the test will no longer be valid and new tests will be held – three long years after the initial test. After two persons were injured when police fired tear gas shells at the rallyists, the youths under the name of the ‘All Manipur DPC Completed Candidate Of Police Constable, Male, 2013’ has called for an indefinite bandh, which is already in effect from midnight today.

After every earthquake that shook Manipur, scholars well-versed in the ancient texts and astrological charts came up with a forecast for the whole state – a prosperous season, a chaotic period or blood spills. Yesterday the state was hit by a moderate intensity earthquake a little after 8 am. The events of the day, however, did not require a Maichou or Meitei scholar to interpret it. Manipur aspires for a change, yet change seems like an almost impossible task.