Freed from detention after 14 years, Irom Sharmila had a message on her first day out. “I want to eat. Help me. Join my struggle. Let us bring a solution to the problem of AFSPA so that we can live together; eat, sleep and drink together. I am not a martyr. I am a common person. I also want to eat,” said 42-year-old activist against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act on Thursday.
A stream of people, civil rights activists and spiritual leaders came to meet Sharmila through the day. When word spread that she will visit the Ima Keithel (the mothers’ market) located at the centre of Imphal city, hundreds of people, primarily women, gathered to greet her.
As Sharmila got out of the car, a crowd of mediapersons and women rushed to meet her. The crowd, who had only seen Sharmila in photographs printed in newspapers, garlanded her. Many women started crying. Young men began taking photographs of Sharmila on their cellphones. She was jostled around the Ima market amid loud slogans of “Sharmila – save her life”. Traffic came to a halt. People peered down from balconies just to catch a glimpse.
Then in 15 minutes it was all over. An exhausted and frail Sharmila, not used to so many people, dehydrated from no medical care, sat down on the steps. The police deployed at the market quickly cleared the crowds and she was whisked away.
Chaungbum Ibetombi, a 55-year-old garment stall owner at the mothers market, run completely by women and touted as the only market of its kind in Asia, said, “I was so emotional when I saw her that I started crying. Now that we have seen her we will join her protest. We are ready to take to the streets if need be.” She said that news spread like wildfire through the market that Sharmila was going to visit them. Women left their stalls unattended just to catch a glimpse of her.
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In the quieter confines of the Press Club, Sharmila addressed the local media to send her message to all Manipuris.”It is time to wake up. Join my struggle and get this Act repealed so that the citizens of Manipur can enjoy the right to life,” she said. “I had not expected so many people to come to see me. I am very happy.”
Breaking down once more, an emotional Sharmila said she had faced a lot of criticism over the years. “There are people who have said that my fast is to gain publicity, and not justice. Do they know how much I have struggled. Do they know what it is like to not eat for 14 years. Whenever I felt like having food I would clamp my tongue to the roof of my mouth and swallow my own saliva,” she said.
She said the decision of the sessions court freeing her from detention was an honour to her struggle. “My appeal to Prime Minister Modi is that while he himself never talked of repealing AFSPA, this is the platform used by the BJP here to fight the elections. They had said that if the BJP came to power they would get it repealed. They must honour this commitment,” she said.