Irom Sharmila Chanu, who has been on a fast since November, 2000 as a mark of protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958), Tuesday announced she will end her hunger strike on August 9.
For the last 16 years, Sharmila, popularly knows as the Iron Lady of Manipur, has lived under house arrest as an undertrial prisoner in room number one in the special ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal. She has been force fed through her nose the entire time — the Ryles tube used to feed her has become a symbol of Manipur’s fight against AFSPA.
In an announcement that took many by surprise, Sharmila said she will give up her fast, get married and fight next year’s assembly elections in Manipur.
Addressing the media outside the Imphal court premises — Sharmila is facing charges under IPC section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) — Sharmila explained her decision: “The Government has not been listening to our voices and has been suppressing our movement.”
She said she will join politics and contest polls in a bid to “get our voices heard at the Centre”. Activists said she is likely to contest as an Independent candidate.
WATCH VIDEO: Irom Sharmila To End 15-Year-Long Fast
Sharmila has, in the past, expressed her desire to be “able to live like a normal human being”. “I don’t want to be a goddess. I just want a normal life,” she has said in earlier interviews.
Sharmila has been involved with Goan born British citizen Desmond Coutinho for the last few years. Their relationship has faced criticism from within the Manipuri community and from pressure groups such as the Meira Paibis, who have alleged Coutinho was trying to sway Sharmila and derail their movement to repeal AFSPA.
While activists, the Meira Paibis (the ‘mothers organisation’ which has been Sharmila’s support system for the last 16 years) and even her family were caught off guard by her announcement, Sharmila had called a local newspaper on Monday night using the phone of a hospital personnel and asked them to be present at the court hearing in Imphal on Tuesday.
“No, she hadn’t told me about the decision. Nor anyone else in the family. She never discussed it with anyone in the family. I got a phone call from someone informing me of her announcement,” her elder brother Irom Singhajit said.
He said their 84-year-old mother, Irom Sakhi, had not been informed either. “I have not told her yet. And I will not tell her. I am afraid of the effect this news will have on her. She will eventually come to know, I know. But she has been fighting, just as the rest of the family, in support of Sharmila and in the struggle to get AFSPA repealed. I think she will be angry if she hears this,” he said.
After Sharmila began her fast, her mother had vowed not to meet her till AFSPA was repealed from the state.
Sharmila has, over the last few years, had a turbulent relationship with her brother, who is opposed to her involvement with Coutinho. She has, in the past, even accused Singhajit of threatening Coutinho.
Isolated from friends and family, Sharmila would take comfort from letters and gifts Coutinho would send her, and from the two guinea pigs she kept as pets.
Director, Human Rights Alert, Babloo Loitongbam, who began the Save Sharmila campaign, said the decision took him by surprise. “It was a shock. But I can understand why this is happening. If after 16 long years, her fasting has had little impact on the government and there has been no progress in the move to repeal AFSPA, then what is the guarantee it will happen if she fasts for another 16?”
“She wants to change her track, the path of our collective struggle, and enter the political arena. We give her our best wishes,’ ‘Loitongbam added.
But rumblings within Manipur have begun, with sources saying pressure groups in the state are unhappy with Sharmila’s announcement. “There is a feeling that Sharmila’s decision may jeopardise the movement,” said one activist.
“The movement for AFSPA will continue with or without Sharmila. It is true that her sacrifices have been tremendous and that is why she had become a protagonist in the movement. If she wishes to continue leading the movement, we will all be with her. But if she decides otherwise, that is her choice. Someone else will take her place. The movement will continue till the time justice is served to the families who have lost loved ones,” said another activist.
Vice-president and spokesperson of the state Congress Committee N Biren welcomed Sharmila’s decision to join politics. “If the fasting hasn’t helped, maybe this will. She has been isolated from people for years. She doesn’t get to meet any political leaders. Maybe as a political leader, she will be able to meet leaders at the Centre and convince them to repeal AFSPA. We all want AFSPA to be repealed in the state,” said Biren, adding that the Congress has not approached her so far. “It’s too early. We have just heard the news. And this is a decision the party will take collectively.”
Sharmila had started her fast in November 2000, soon after the Malom massacre on November 2, 2000, in which 10 civilians were allegedly shot dead by the Assam Rifles. She was already a human rights activist when the incident took place.
In an earlier interview to The Indian Express, Sharmila had said, “I was at a preparatory meeting for a peace rally when I first heard of the incident. It was a Thursday. And for years, I would fast on Thursdays. I saw photographs of the dead bodies drenched in blood the next day, and never broke the fast — I was so upset that I didn’t eat. My colleagues told me to take my fasting from outside the bedroom and into the public sphere — that was November 5. So I went to get my mother’s blessing and then I left.”