A pond in Manipur’s Kongpal separates the homes of two of Irom Sharmila’s brothers.
At Irom Singhajit’s home, Sharmila’s 84-year-old mother, Irom Sakhi, is a little downcast. “I have waited for the last 16 years. Every day, I prayed that Sharmila be successful in her mission. I had told her that the day AFSPA is repealed from Manipur, I will feed her the first morsel of food with my own hands. That is all I have to say,” she says.
Nobody from her family told her that Sharmila will end her fast on Tuesday morning. She came to know of Sharmila’s statement, made on July 26, through a vernacular newspaper. Sakhi had refused to meet Sharmila till AFSPA had been removed.
A day before Sharmila’s 16-year fast comes to an end, there is uncertainty among those who have been touched by it — from the Meira Paibis and activists who stood with her to a family that has waited for her.
“I was afraid of my mother’s reaction. I thought she would be angry. Sharmila did not consult anyone in the family. We will see what happens tomorrow,” says Singhajit, who plans to attend the hearing at Cheirap sessions court in Imphal city, where Sharmila will be produced Tuesday.
It does not seem like a special day for the family. Both homes are eerily quiet — there are no special meals being cooked; her relatives aren’t even sure if she is even coming home.
Over the past few years, the distance between Sharmila and her family — and between her and her supporters — has grown. With her Goan-born British fiance Desmond Coutinho, a non-Manipuri, wooing her, distrust has poisoned Sharmila’s personal relationships.
She had earlier claimed Singhajit threatened her fiance. Coutinho has also been criticised by the Meira Paibis (women activists, also known as the Imas or mothers), who formed the backbone of Sharmila’s movement.
Across the pond lives Irom Chandrajit with his family. Sharmila’s 15-year-old niece Irom Tanu is excited about Tuesday. “I haven’t met my aunt in years. The last time I saw her was when someone from London sent her a gift and we went to give it to her. Before that, till the time I was in class VI, my 13 cousins and I met her every Sunday. She would cry every time. I used to learn dancing and singing, and she would ask me to perform for her. But a few years ago, that stopped — they stopped letting us meet her,” says Tanu, who is now in Class IX.
Her mother and Sharmila’s sister-in-law, Irom Sanahonbi, has never met the activist.
On the main road outside Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences at Porompat, where Sharmila is kept as an undertrial prisoner and force fed through her nose with a Ryles tube, is a shack that has stood in the same spot for the last eight years. The shack is what Sharmila would call home whenever she was let out for a couple of days every year before being sent back to jail.
Soibom Mamon Laima, 70, and Leiphakpam Madhu Laima, 72, sit in the desolate shack alone, pouring over old albums of themselves with Sharmila, and of different campaigns they have run. “See this one is Delhi, too,” points out Ima Mamon. The convener and head of the 4,000 Meira Paibis in Manipur, Mamon says she was particularly hurt by Sharmila’s decision.
“That’s why the two of us are going through old photographs and reliving the past. Sakhi is her biological mother but each and every one of us who has stood by her for the past 16 years is also her mother. But she didn’t even think of asking us,” says Mamon.
Mamon and the other Imas went to JNIMS twice to meet Sharmila — on July 27 and 29. They were refused permission.
“We went between 6 and 7 am, which is when Sharmila comes out to water the plants. I called out to her. She looked at me, then turned away. I think it’s because of the police,” Ima Mamon says. She has herself spent a year in jail under the NSA, and was one of the women captured in the iconic photograph that has come to represent Manipur’s struggle to demilitarise — women staging a nude protest in front of the seat of the Manipuri kingdom, Kangla Fort, with a banner that read “Indian Army rape us”.
Over the past eight years, she has seen Sharmila grow thinner and her voice become weaker. She has herself become a great-grandmother, while her husband has become bedridden after a stroke. But Ima Mamon has never wavered from the cause. She has been coming to the shack every evening to spend the night since 2008, just so Sharmila never feels alone.
“Sharmila was not like this before. Her mind has changed ever since the jailors gave her a laptop. Which prison allows this? When I asked police, they told me it’s so that she doesn’t get bored. The laptop changed her,” she says. “Sharmila says no one is supporting her. But we are all supporting her, everyone in Manipur… No one forced her to do it. Of course she is allowed to get married — but after AFSPA is repealed. She is known as the Iron Lady of Manipur and has won the Guangzhou award because of the fasting,” Mamon says.
At Cheirap Court, the man behind the Save Sharmila campaign and her advisor till recently, Babloo Loitongbam, has just opened an office. Loitongbam, a rights activist and director of the Human Rights Alert, has been leading the case pertaining to 1,528 alleged fake encounters in Manipur in the Supreme Court.
Instructed by the court to document each case, his team is busy collecting data. The office was set up on July 25, and they have until August 25 to complete the task.
“This is a tactical change that Sharmila has made. She has realised that the fasting is going nowhere. The Satyagraha, which worked with the British, does not seem to have any impact on the Indian government at the Centre. Not a single leader has ever come down to meet her,” he says.
Two banned insurgents groups, KCP and KYKL, have threatened to kill Sharmila if she marries or joins politics. “They have a right to their opinion, just as Sharmila does… But only two groups have issued the threat and not the other five — that is telling,” he says, adding that the organisation will decide what to do next after talking to Sharmila on Tuesday.
Sources say the state government and the police have been talking to Sharmila ever since she announced her decision.
“She has told us she wants to open an office in Imphal to continue her movement. Where she wants to open one, who will be her supporters, how she will manage the office — she does not know. As far as her stay is concerned, Sharmila has suggested two places she wants to visit — an orphanage in Koreingei and the ISKCON complex. In view of the threat, we suggested she leave Manipur and we take her to Delhi. But she has not responded so far. We don’t know where she will go and what she will do. She doesn’t know herself either. But we do know that this is the most isolated and alone Sharmila has been in the last 16 years,” says a police official.