New Delhi: It has been nearly two months since the pipe that the state thrust into the nostrils of Irom Chanu Sharmila, to keep her alive, was removed. But her two long nails jut out rather noticeably from the left hand when she begins responding to the queries put forth by The Wire at a guesthouse in New Delhi on Friday. Her locks of curly, unruly hair – that hang a little below her shoulders – slightly shake in the course of the conversation.
Both, her uncut nails and the uncombed hair, are a residual proof of the non-fulfilment of the cause behind the peace activist’s legendary fast by the state – repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).
AFSPA has allegedly been responsible for several cases of human rights violations in her home state of Manipur, and in other parts of the country that are considered as disturbed areas by the state.
For nearly 16 years that she continued her fast, Sharmila, 44, also hung on to another form of personal protest – not meeting her beloved mother Irom Ongbi Sakhi until AFSPA is repealed.
However, she accidentally met her mother a few days ago in Imphal during a visit to a hospital. “But I will not go to visit her at the house till [the] AFSPA is repealed,” she said in Chandigarh on September 28 on the sidelines of the 11th Global Youth Peace Festival, where she was a speaker.
Since she arrived in Delhi on September 25, Sharmila has been meeting a host of people, including state chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who she met on September 26. After returning from a two-day trip to Chandigarh, she met “more people to help create a positive force” to defeat “the forces which have made Manipur what it is today”.
Excerpts from the interview:
How was the meeting with Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal? There is a speculation that you might join AAP (Aam Aadmi Party)?
It was a courtesy call, a casual meeting. Kejriwal visited me when I was fasting. Now that I am visiting Delhi and can move about freely, I went to meet him.
Another reason was [that] I wanted to know from him how he fought [the] established political parties in Delhi and won the last elections. He has emerged as a leader. I sought his advice on it. Besides moral support, I also want him to help me in the coming elections by, may be, campaigning for my party.
On knowing I met him, there was a speculation about my joining AAP in some quarters, but neither he asked me, nor I want to. However, AAP asked me to join it when I was fasting, so did some other parties.
When do you plan to form your own party? You talked about the need for 30 candidates to fight the coming assembly elections alongside you. Have you identified them?
No date has been set for it, nor a name or symbol has been fixed yet. We are still deciding on it. I and my associates are thinking about it. It will be a collective decision. We want to form a party [that] represents all the indigenous people of Manipur, their sufferings [and] their experiences. It should be a party that represents the people of Manipur, not Delhi.
We have not identified possible candidates yet, still thinking about it. It is not an easy task. We want representation from all sections of society, want to form a collective force to eradicate all the bad things from our soil.
You have announced your candidature for the polls from Thoubal, the constituency of present chief minister Ibobi Singh. Have you begun your campaign there considering the polls are just a few months away and it is also Singh’s stronghold from where he has won for so many years?
I visited Thoubal recently, but not for campaigning. I know I need to engage with the people of Thoubal, they need to know why they should support a change of government [and] what change will I attempt to bring to their lives. The people of the state have suffered for a long time. There is money power in Manipur, parties don’t fear people because they feel they can buy votes. I will soon visit Thoubal again.
Now that you are readying yourself for the polls, what is in your mind? Do you have any fears about losing the elections? Apart from Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party is also a serious contender for power in the state.
There is anxiety in my mind, not much tranquility. Winning elections – I am told – need many things, but I have nothing. Every time I feel anxious about the elections, I say to God, let it be your will, I know nothing, I am nothing [and] I have nothing to fight an election – only the heart of a human being.
It still puzzles me sometimes how I thought of fasting, why I got familiar with so many things that concerns the state. I fasted because I love my state, its people.
Change is possible only when we realise that we can indeed bring change. We need to put in place the basic ingredients to win an election. [We] need people from both inside and outside Manipur [to lend] their moral, physical and financial support, share their thoughts [and] help create a positive force to defeat those who have made the state what it is now.
Contesting elections also need funds. How do you plan to organise it?
As I said, I need the support of the people and well wishers, people who want to see a real change of governance in the state. I have been meeting people from different walks of life with the conviction that change requires all stakeholders to come together. Generating funds is a question we have to face, we have not decided on it yet. Some are suggesting crowd funding. (Sharmila For Change – a citizens’ group formed to support Sharmila in her endeavour to bring change electorally to Manipur – has already sought volunteers and cash contributions from the public on its Facebook page named Sharmila4change.)
You just attended the Global Peace Festival in Chandigarh. How was the experience of meeting for the first time people from different countries who have heard about your fast?
It was so heart warming, so many young leaders, so much love and respect, such thirst for change. They could sit together and face the differences with each other and talk about peace. Interestingly, if they were looking at me as the ‘Iron lady’ they have heard of, I was also looking at them as people of countries and races that I have not met or seen before.
For instance, until this conference, I [had] never met a black person. It was lovely. I clicked a photo of myself with the person, it was a moment to remember and cherish.
Recently, a filmmaker (Hansal Mehta of Aligarh fame) announced a film based on your life to which you objected. Any further step, legal or otherwise, you plan to take in this regard?
I don’t agree to commercialisation of my life as long as I am alive. I would like to believe that once the filmmaker sees my negative response to the film, he would not go ahead with it. I don’t plan to take it up legally.
After so many years, you have begun eating normal food. What was for breakfast today?
Yes, I begun eating normal food just a few days after breaking the fast. Being in Delhi, I ate like a Delhiite today, two aloo paranthas at breakfast.