Birthday Special: When I First Met Irom Sharmila

Today is the 42nd birthday of Irom Chanu Shramila, better known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur” or “Mengoubi”. On 2 November 2000, she began a hunger strike, demanding Repeal of AFSPA, which is still ongoing. Having refused food and water for more than 500 weeks, she has been called “the world’s longest hunger striker”. She is currently on trial for attempted suicide. We wish Irom a Happy Birthday and extend our solidarity with her struggle. Free Irom Sharmila, Repeal AFSPA now! – IR Team    

By Mathew Jacob,

Two days and still in the hangover, trying to decipher whether it was just a dream that I had met one of the most legendary figures of our times, or was it that I was enchanted by just another beautiful young woman who had ambitions different from us. Driving down the roads of Calcutta and gazing at the numerous billboards, that image was still stuck in my head, an indelible mark refusing to fade.


It was all of a sudden when some of us took a chance and managed to meet her late that evening. I had heard much about Irom Sharmila Chanu, in her mid-30s, about her prolonged fast, a protracted battle in defence of peace and against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958.

I found myself suddenly in front of a woman who had intermittently shaken the conscience of the Indian State by surrendering the youth of her life for 14 years now. Though physically confined to a room in a public hospital in Imphal for the past 14 years, her struggle has traveled globally and has become the symbol of a resolute fight against the AFSPA. Sharmila has taken a pledg that she would not break her fast until the draconian AFSPA is repealed. This law is responsible for claiming lives of thousands of innocent young people. Her fast is the only one of its kind, a unique non-violent struggle against a State hell bent upon using arms against its civilians in the name of national security.

It was during my university days I first heard about Sharmila. Both Sharmila and AFSPA were completely unfamiliar to me as it would be for anyone who is a product of globalised middle class set up, more worried in life to be an engineer, doctor or have a big fat paying corporate job. Sharmila emerged as an inspirational figure and the desire to know her commenced a new journey towards exploring the North East of India, the arbitrary use of law by the Indian State against its own people. As we embarked on a study to know about her, we got introduced to Manipur, the North – East of India and the people’s struggle against AFSPA. Soon we got engaged in human rights discourse in the country. Suddenly we found ourselves discussing and debating these issues, inside and outside classrooms; many of us joined protests with other fellow students in solidarity with Sharmila and her fellow citizens from Manipur. She was completing one decade of indefinite fast.

And then, few days back, she was suddenly there in front of me.  Draped in a blue shawl and a red wrap-around skirt, a tube hanging from her nose, she walked into the room with a wide smile on her face. Her humbleness and the pleasant greetings shook me more than the idea of just standing in front of her. She was extremely warm to me and my friends, and gently offered us to sit on the bed used by the police guard as she pulled the wooden chair close. And before we asked anything she started with – ‘How are you all?’

As I gazed at her for an hour, my friends spoke to her in English and Manipuri. For the first time Manipuri seemed familiar after being completely clueless in Imphal for almost two days. Concentrating at that point was extremely difficult as I shuttled between my senses to grasp as much as possible. She went through a whirlpool of emotions as she spoke, I thought she had tears in her eyes but the next moment she had a big laugh, like a child. She would suddenly get mildly agitated and next moment she was silent. Perhaps a lot of questions, unanswered questions, were crossing her mind, one after another. But one could make out that there was nothing personal about her concerns, it was all political, a yearning for and commitment to peace and justice. Not for a moment did she give a feeling of being tired and dejected though she was definitely upset with few things.

She looked so ordinary, so different from how she appeared in various magazines and newspapers. She looked thinner, certainly more than her age, less hair, long and beautiful nails on both the thumbs of her feet. She defeats the notion of fasting by not restricting to a bed and constantly engaging in physical movement. While the police guard keeps an eye on her, she strolls for two hours every day in the corridors of the hospital. Not even a drop of water down her throat since past 14 years, yet her routine is more fruitful than of any other person in that hospital. Toothbrush and water have been substituted by the regular cotton available in the hospital.

Just as we were about to leave, there was more of her waiting for us. There was an impromptu request made to her to visit her room. She kindly agreed and what was witnessed just added to the dream that I was already in. A room no different than of a teenager, nicely cuddled beddings, photographs of her near ones and two teddy bears possessing a constant yet loud smiles.  The entire room was surrounded by books – political, philosophical, religious, fictions and so many more. Once she finishes reading them, these are handed over to the state library. An entire wall was full of photographs with a couple of small plants around it. A small little beautiful world inside the hospital is created by this woman.

A custody can never be more political and vibrant. Along with the photographs of her parents, there was another of an unknown man. She picked it up with a gentle shyness on her face and pointed towards it.  She smiled and said, “you should know him” and stared at it for a while adorably before keeping it back.

It was time to bid her goodbye and ending one of the smallest but most enriching episodes of life. She has started getting the feeling of being alone but is strong enough not to let this struggle go waste. She is upset about the news of a sculptor trying to make her statue, for she doesn’t want to be worshipped and idolised. Her only request to her fellow countrymen is not to be oblivious and she duly expects much more from them. “I need physical support from my people and the people of Manipur should join hands with me. I wish that during my release hour (which is  a yearly routine as her custody period expires and she has to be released and arrested yet again for yet another year), while being produced before the court, people join me by fasting at least for a day.”

Mathew Jacob is a researcher based in New Delhi and associated with the Human Rights Law Network. Email:  


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