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Sixteen years after she started a hunger strike to repeal AFSPA from the state, Irom Sharmila Chanu, popularly known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, Tuesday became a free woman.
Sitting in the courtyard outside the special ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS), where she has lived as an undertrial prisoner this entire time, Sharmila took a dab of honey to end her fast at 4.25 pm.
But the day ended on a bitter note, with residents of a colony where she had gone to stay turning her away, and a temple reportedly refusing to take responsibility for her.
At a press conference during the day, Sharmila said, “My love life is my personal life. That is my right to choose. It is only natural. I have ended my fast today because I want power, I want to be able to have the power to repeal AFSPA from Manipur. I want to become the Chief Minister of Manipur to be able to do this.”
Breaking her fast in front of national and international media, Sharmila was handed a 100 ml bottle of Dabur honey by her attending doctor. The honey was put in her right hand, which had begun to tremble. She stared at it for some time, before breaking down.
Weeping inconsolably, Sharmila bent her head twice to taste the honey, but was unable to do so. Then, with her left index finger, she took a dab and tasted it. She cringed, then said, “I will never forget the taste of that.”
This is the first time in 16 years that anything has passed Sharmila’s mouth. In her room at the special ward, she has been force fed through a Ryles tube. At the Cheirap court on Tuesday morning, and later when she came out for the press conference, Sharmila did not have the Ryles tube attached to her nose. Over the years, the tube, just like Sharmila, has become a symbol of Manipur’s resistance against AFSPA and the militarisation of the state. She has been force fed juices and baby food such as Cerelac through her nose.
“In Manipur, there is no real democracy. Politics is so dirty here and everyone knows it. Manipuri society is also involved in this dirtiness but no one accepts it. That’s the problem. I am not restricted to this state or nation. I am the embodiment of revolution. I want to become the Chief Minister so I can change society here,” said Sharmila.
Earlier in court, Sharmila had said that she wanted to contest the upcoming elections against incumbent Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh from his constituency. “I will contest as an independent candidate. If parties want to approach me, let them approach. In the meanwhile, I invite at least 20 other independent candidates to fight the elections alongside me so that together we can defeat Ibobi Singh and remove the present government,” she said. “I know nothing about politics and I have always been academically weak. But I will share my power.”
In court, the judge first asked Sharmila to plead guilty to charges of attempting to commit suicide. Sharmila refused, saying she did nothing wrong. She relented, however, to sign a personal bail bond of Rs 10,000. The prosecution examined two witnesses — her attending doctor and the investigating officer in charge of her case. Sharmila will next appear before the court on August 23. For now, she is a free woman and no longer confined to prison.
Meanwhile, angry Meira Paibis who attended court proceedings protested outside the courtroom, saying they were heartbroken with Sharmila’s decision. “We have stood by her for so many years. And now it has come to this — we have had to live to see this day,” said Ima S Mamon.
But Sharmila had a different take. “I don’t like being identified as a goddess. I am a human being and want to be treated as such. I have emotions, feelings and desires just like everyone else. Why would you isolate me with that identification? I feel very sad… I also want to share my emotions, I also want the sharing that other people have. People here want to see me with the tube. They want to keep me as a symbol of their fight — just a symbol without any emotions, without feelings,” she said.
After breaking her fast, Sharmila said the first thing she will do is approach the election commission to work out how she can contest the polls, due in February 2017. “I want to fight for the right to choose, right to equality, right to speech,” said Sharmila.
She said she had not decided where she will stay, but added that she would ideally like to live in an ashram. Going home is out of the question, she said. “I have not met my mother. We had promised each other I will meet her only after AFSPA is repealed from Manipur,” she said.
Later in the day, Sharmila left JNIMS hospital as a free citizen and went to a doctor’s residence in Imphal’s Keishampat colony, where she was to spend a few days while deciding her next step. But as news spread, residents of the colony refused to let their former icon live among them.
After being kept at the city police station for a while, Sharmila was taken to the ISKCON temple complex, where she had expressed a desire to stay. But the temple is learnt to have refused to take her responsibility.
“I am very dejected by the reaction of people. I don’t care if I die of hunger or at the hands of the people. But I will think of a way to take this forward,” she said.
With nowhere else to turn, Sharmila was in the evening taken back to JNIMS, where she has now been admitted as a patient, not a prisoner. “I will go back to my own world,” she said.
Two banned insurgent groups, KYKL and KCP, have threatened to kill Sharmila if she gets married or contests polls. “I don’t need any security. Let them kill me. Just like Mahatma Gandhi was killed because people accused him of being anti-Hindu, it’s the same with me. If the spilling of my blood can wash their sins and calm their dark emotions, so be it,” she said.
She also said that the people of Kashmir had a right to self-determination, just like the people of Manipur.
In a message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sharmila said, “Oh Mr Prime Minister, you continue to indulge in violence. You need to stop this. You can rule with fatherly affection — without this draconian law that is AFSPA. As a civilisation, we need non-violence.”
On Tuesday night, Sharmila was supposed to have a simple fare of Chabon — starched water of boiled rice.
A nutritionist at JNIMS said it will be a while before she can eat a normal meal. For the first week, she has to be on a liquid diet. For three weeks after that, she will be able to consume semi-solid foods. And while she can start eating solid food after a month, Sharmila has to be careful for the next three months. While faring well for someone who has been force fed for 16 years, her oesophagus needs to be slowly prodded back to use, the nutritionist said.