It was the first time in 14 years that Irom Sharmila appeared without a tube attached to her nose, the symbol of her struggle against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. It was also the first time in 14 years that she was free, once the black iron gate to her isolation ward at JNIMS Hospital was drawn open.
Composed behind the grill, she broke down after taking her first few steps as waiting journalists threw questions at her. “I am emotional. I have wanted freedom very much,” she said before regaining her composure.
Clad in a green phanek, a white embroidered kurti and a traditional Manipuri shawl, she stepped out unaccompanied by guards. With her were Meira Paibis, or Manipuri Mothers, who have been at the helm of the Save Sharmila Campaign.
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“Its God’s will,” she said of her release. “What I need now is mass support from the people. My appeal to them is that they not sing my praises, but give me support in this hour of need,” she said as she left the hospital where she had spent nearly 5,000 days. “I will continue my fast until AFSPA is repealed once and for all… I will not accept any medical help from the government,” she said, amid concern that her health may deteriorate outside the ward.
“It (the court verdict for her release) proves that my cause was justified, that I had been doing what I was doing to get justice. In my native land, it is because of AFSPA that there are so many widows. I am not a victim of the conflict here, but I don’t want coming generations to grow up in this darkness,’’ she said.
Until AFSPA is lifted, she will not enter her home at Porompat in Imphal East. Nor will her 86-year-old mother meet her. Her brother Irom Shinghajit, who had arrived with his wife, said, “My mother said one thing this morning — to tell Sharmila to continue her fast. When AFSPA is repealed, she says she will feed my sister the first morsel with her own hands.”
Sharmila will spend the next few days at the shed that serves as an office for the Save Sharmila Campaign. A piece of paper was burnt in front of her to ward off evil spirits and diseases, three candles were lit in front of the shed, and a matka was placed with a coconut and a Rs 10 note on top.
A temporary room has been arranged with bed and mosquito net, but Sharmila will sleep outside. “Anyone who wants to meet her can do so. For so many years no one was allowed to meet her,’’ says Save Sharmila Campaign convener S Momon Laima, 67. “We say, start figuring out a way to deal with her issues and stop figuring out a way to deal with her,” Human Rights Alert executive director Babloo Loitongbam said.