Courage comes in many sizes. Sharmila Irom Chanu is a diminutive woman from Manipur, frail and meek looking. Looking at her one wouldn’t imagine that this woman has embarked upon a courageous mission to save her land and people. But what she has done over the last six years is nothing short of a display of courage of the rarest kind, a courage born out of empathy for the rape of her land.
Sharmila has been on a total hunger strike for the last six years for the cause of withdrawing the Armed Forces Special Provision Act (AFSPA) that has been clamped in Manipur and much of the north-east of India. This draconian act gives the Indian army power to detain and shoot people upon a mere suspicion. Further, army personnel cannot be prosecuted without prior permission from the ministry of home affairs.
The turning point for Sharmila was in November 2000 when a convoy of Assam Rifles was ambushed in a village outside Imphal. The enraged troops shot dead 10 people at a bus stop. That was when Sharmila decided to embark on her extraordinary measure. After all you have to fight fire with fire. In this case she decided to use a Gandhian form of non-violent protest and refused to eat or drink anything till AFSPA was repealed from Manipur.
The state government arrested her and force-fed her through a pipe attached to her nose. Further, they booked her for “attempt to commit suicide’. As is the case with the mainstream media, they didn’t pick up this extraordinary story because it was unfolding in Manipur, far from ‘mainland’ India. This continued for 6 years till Sharmila decided to come to Delhi where she believed her case would get more exposure. She was surreptitiously smuggled out of Manipur by her brother and continued her fast outside Jantar mantar. After a few days the police once again arrested her and shifted her to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and once again a tube was inserted in a nose.
Something else happened in Manipur. In 2004 a group of women assembled outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles (the main paramilitary outfit operating in the NE). They were all naked and held aloft signs that read ‘Indian Army, Rape us’, ‘Take our bodies’. They were protesting the death of a woman who had been picked up by the Assam Rifles and allegedly raped in their custody. The soldiers claimed that she was a wanted militant. These women also wanted AFSPA withdrawn because they were sick of living under the military jackboot.
Back to the dingy room in AIIMS where Sharmila is confined. The last six years have taken a toll on Sharmila’s health. She is allowed to take a walk in the corridor outside her room assisted by the guards who are posted 24/7 outside her room. When she is not reading she practices yoga to keep herself in some sort of health. There have been a few articles here and there in the papers. Her story has been documented in the non-mainstream print and online media though. She hasn’t met her mother in 5 years because her mother couldn’t bear to see her daughter in the state she is in.
Sharmila’s amazing struggle against the might of the Indian state is a story worth telling. The media has gone ga-ga over ‘gandhigiri’ with silly stories doing the rounds about how gandhigiri is sweeping the nation. But when it comes to an innovative form of gandhian protest it is strangely silent.