On Sunday, Irom Sharmila, known as the Iron lady of Manipur, gave birth to twin girls – Nix Sakhi and Autumn Tara. Irom, who is best known for her 16 year-long hunger strike in protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) implemented in Manipur for the past 60 years, said the birth of her daughters mark the beginning of a new life for her.
The youngest of nine siblings, Irom belongs to a middle-class Meitei family from Imphal, Manipur’s capital city. An ordinary woman, Irom was dragged into the world of activism at the height of rampant killings in Manipur when Indian security forces and the banned militant groups in the state were at war. In November 2000, when Irom was 28-years-old, 10 civilians were allegedly gunned down by the 8th Assam Rifles at Malom Makha Leikai, near Imphal’s Tulihal airport. The infamous incident is commonly known as the ‘Malom massacre’. The massacre prompted Irom to begin a hunger strike against the atrocities in Malom, which later developed into a prolonged hunger strike against the AFSPA.
Three days after she began her fast, Irom was arrested for “attempting suicide” and remained in police custody for 16 years where she continued her hunger strike. During this time, she was force-fed through a Ryles tube.
Established in 1958 as an Act of Parliament, AFSPA grant special powers to the Indian Armed Forces in disturbed areas. Currently, AFSPA is implemented in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.
Under its provisions, the armed forces have been empowered to open fire, enter and search without a warrant, and arrest any person who has committed a cognisable offence, all while having immunity from being prosecuted.
According to critics of the Act, it gives overarching blanket powers to the security forces which has resulted in rampant killings. EEVFAM, the Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association of Manipur, approached the Supreme Court in 2012 against the alleged 1528 extrajudicial killings in Manipur since the 1980s because of the Act. The implementation of AFSPA has entered its 61st year in Manipur this year.
Irom ended her hunger strike on August 9, 2016. She cited two reasons for her decision. First that her hunger strike seemed to have little impact on the government, and that while her strike continued, so did AfSPA and that no attempt had been made by the government to remove it. Irom had said that she felt a need, therefore, to `change track’ and adopt a different approach. She then decided to enter the political fray and contest the 2017 assembly elections as a means to actively take forward the cause of removing AFSPA from Manipur.
Irom was also persuaded by her love for fiancé Desmond Coutinho, a Goan born British national. They had met briefly at her court appearances and their romance had sustained over the years, simply through correspondence alone. Irom and Coutinho’s match was widely and angrily opposed by the people of Manipur as well as her family. She said that one of the reasons for her ending the hunger strike was to be able to marry her fiancé.
Irom co-founded a new party – People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) along with Harvard graduate Erendro Leichombam. The party had fielded five candidates in all including Irom who were to stand against Manipur’s Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh on his home turf, Thoubal.
Irom lost miserably, garnering a paltry 90 votes, the least of all five PRJA candidates. Voters in the area had said that while they love Eche Sharmila (sister Sharmila), they did not agree with her decision to join electoral politics.
For Irom, this election was significant not only because she was contesting, but also because this was the first time that she cast her ballot in 20 years. Rejected by her own people, she decided to leave both electoral politics as well as her home state and focus on her personal life with fiancé Desmond Coutinho, whom she married soon after the electoral debacle. The BJP, which so far had no presence in Manipur, emerged winner and formed the government for the first time in Manipur.
After the election results, a humiliated and upset Irom left Manipur. She lived in Kodaikanal for a while before shifting to Bangalore last year, where the couple have decided to stay for the time being.
Irom’s exit from Manipur has left the inevitable void in the anti-AFSPA movement in the state. While the movement continues, it has become a low-key affair in the Lok Sabha elections. Irom Sharmila has for years been the most visible, the most prominent and an international face of Manipur’s and the entire North east’s struggle against the act.
Activists say that the Supreme Court observations in a case looking at 1528 alleged fake encounters in Manipur, has ensured that the security forces in the state cannot operate with absolute power without restraint. This has led to the reduction of rampant killings as well as day-to-day harassment of civilians by security forces. The apex court’s scrutiny and the reduction in human rights violations have coincided with Irom’s exit from Manipur. The emotional mass mobilisation of the people of Manipur around the issue has therefore disappeared.
Irom’s presence in the state had also ensured a steady stream of international visitors, human rights activists from around the world and the national and international media. The media attention on the state as also reduced significantly after Irom’s departure.