Today is 14th March, the 43rd Birthday of Irom Chanu Sharmia, often referred to as the Iron lady of Manipur. But it is not so very happy one for her this year. I remember meeting her briefly on 28th May 2014 while she was brought to Delhi to be produced before a Sessions Judge at the Patiala House Court.
Towards the end of our meeting, she hoped that her next birthday (14th March ’15) would coincide with the repeal of AFSPA. And after that, she would be free to lead a normal life. She was at a loss of words while saying this, but the conviction on her face was more than enough to convey what she wanted to say. To be frank, I was not very hopeful. It sounded naïve to me. But then I also thought that she had, other than hope, only to be optimistic and to keep fighting.
But, you may ask, who is Irom Sharmila? Irom Sharmila is an ardent believer of Gandhi’s non-violence and from the state of Manipur. She has been on a fast-unto-death since November 2000, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA), a draconian law which gives extra-judicial powers to armed forces in the name of ‘countering’ insurgency and terrorism’. Last year, on the 4th of November, she completed the world’s longest fast and it seems that she is going to be the first Gandhian to complete her fast unto death in the real sense as we hardly see any intention to repeal the draconian law.
Over the years, it has been established that hundreds of ordinary citizens of the so-called disturbed states like Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Jammu & Kashmir have lost their lives to the draconian law. Extra-judicial killings, illegal detention, rape, torture has become a routine affair for the people of these disturbed areas – men, women, children and the elderly alike. According to a report, between 1979 and 2012, at least 1,528 civilians were killed by the armed forces in Manipur alone.
The act has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high handedness by the state, which is supposed to protect their life, liberty and dignity. And without an iota of doubt, the impacts of draconian laws like AFSPA, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and Public Safety Act (PSA) are more far reaching and disastrous than corruption. These are tools of the Indian government through which it is alienating and pushing its ‘own people’ towards the wall. And government after government has made no change to the status quo, no matter which party is at the helm of affairs.
I was meeting her for the first time last year, not that I had never tried earlier but that I had been denied permission on some flimsy grounds. When I saw her walking, standing and talking to her supporters, journalists and lawyers in the court, I was amazed to see her levels of energy, strength and optimism. How could someone manage to be so energetic and full of life I found asking myself? That, after going through so much of pain. It was incredible to see her talking, answering oft-repeated questions of those present so patiently.
During an hour long meeting, she reiterated that “I want to live. I want to lead a normal life like most of you. I want to eat and taste different food. I am interested in love, marriage and romance but all of these would only be possible when AFSPA is repealed”. Affirming her pledge that she would continue her struggle till the day AFSPA would be repealed, she said, “The moment AFSPA is repealed, I will eat whatever that is available in front of me.”
On being asked if there was any message that she would like us to carry forward, she emphasized on continuing non-violent struggles against all sorts of injustice. “Peace, love and non-violence are the only solution to everything,” she asserted time and again during our meeting. She also asked her supporters to read her writings and poetry. “My writings are my weapon for my struggle, they speak my mind and that is where I feel natural.”
Irom has made it very clear and shown by her practice as well that she would not stop fasting until AFSPA is repealed. Now the real question is, are we really bothered about her future, in a larger sense future of people of all these so-called disturbed area? Or do we just want to let her die and later read stories of her brave struggles in our text books. The issue needs urgent intervention, not only of the government and state apparatus but also of ordinary citizens. Because Irom’s fight is not one of an individual, but of democracy and justice. So, we have to decide on which side we are on.
Is anyone listening?