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Anger in Manipur over Irom Sharmila's decision

By Chitra Ahanthem
Last updated on: August 10, 2016 09:37 IST
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The woman whose lone fight against the establishment all these long years has only the state machinery to keep her safe from the public whose cause she championed all this while. contributor Chitra Ahanthem reports on Irom Sharmila's decision to break the world's longest hunger strike and its aftermath.

IMAGE: A day to remember: Irom Sharmila breaks her 16-year fast with a dab of honey in the glare of the media. Photograph: PTI

When it came to the moment where Irom Sharmila was to break her 16-year-old fast in the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences complex, a few metres away from the hospital room where she had been kept in custody, it was an emotional moment, one she described as "a moment I will never forget in my life."

She asked for honey, which she put in her palm that she looked at for a long while, the tears streaming down her face even as she haltingly brought her face near to it.

As the cameras went into a frenzy, she took a drop of honey from her palm and put it in her mouth, making a face as she felt the taste.

Much before the moment of breaking her fast, unending drama unfolded at the complex of the court of the chief judicial magistrate (Imphal West). The first part of the drama was, of course, the media frenzy which swooped down to get the best pictures and visuals of Irom Sharmila being taken inside the court.

The frenzy was such that she had to be physically lifted inside the court complex by women personnel of the state police once she alighted from the ambulance that had brought her.

Inside the court room, when Lamkhanpau Tonsing, the chief judicial magistrate (Imphal West), brought up the case of the State of Manipur vs Irom Sharmila, she stood up and in a determined voice reiterated her decision to stop her 16-year-old fast, mentioning that her fight against the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act would continue, but that she had decided to change her strategy by breaking her fast and making a foray into politics.

When she was told that she would have to plead guilty to the charge of suicide against her, she said, "How can I plead guilty if I am not wrong?"

Sharmila also sought the magistrate's permission to address the media. Her only rider was that the media be seated in a room so she could speak to everyone. She was then asked to furnish a personal bond following which the proceedings went on for more than an hour as witnesses were still to depose.

At some point of time, two batches of four people who were involved in criminal cases ranging from murder to being caught with arms in their possession were also brought into the packed court room while medical and police personnel gave their testimonies.

When a restless Irom Sharmila requested a speedy process, the defence lawyer asked her in a curt demeanour, "Do you want to be free today or do you want to come back another day?"

When Sharmila replied, "I want to be free today," he shot back, "Then you will have to wait for all of this to be over."

By the time the court was in the process of preparing the formalities of freeing Irom Sharmila, it had been agreed that she would address the waiting media.

The second act of the drama unfolded as she was brought before the media which literally pounced and stepped on one another to be in 'breaking news' mode.

She was to speak while seated on a bench with 'table' that had been literally assembled from its old broken version placed before her. The 'table' had mikes and recorders placed on it, but in a matter of a few seconds, everyone was climbing and leaning on it, making the 'table' groan and creak ominously besides tilting towards Sharmila.

Seated beneath the table and less than an arm's length from Irom Sharmila I could not hear the few sentences that she was able to speak while the assembled media nearly came into blows.

Irom Sharmila had to be whisked off, which meant that thanks to the media behaviour, her freedom and the moment of her fast coming to an end was postponed some more.


'If the public is angry with my decision and resent it, you can kill me like Gandhi and Jesus Christ was killed. Let my blood wash away all their dark emotions and negative feelings.'

The third act of the drama was when representatives of women's groups in Manipur, who have rallied around Irom Sharmila every time she was released every year, started venting their anger and unhappiness over her decision.

'She should have continued her protest.'

'She should have consulted us.'

'She should have thought about the struggle that we have undertaken against AFSPA before she even took her fast.'

By this time, journalists reporting the story had taken the brief address Irom Sharmila had given to the media and taken it out of its context. Her statement that she would want to contest elections against Manipur Chief Minister O Ibobi and that she would repeal AFSPA when she became chief minister was reported as 'I want to be chief minister and repeal AFSPA.'

By 3 pm, the next act had moved to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences where security was tight but the media throng was a bit more organised. News then started to trickle in that the formalities for Irom Sharmila's release were being completed and she would address the media.

So she came, appearing in public for the first time without the nasal tube that had been her constant companion for the past 16 years. Surrounded only by the media and security personnel, she first addressed the gathering repeating that her fight against AFSPA would continue and that breaking her fast was a change in strategy.

"I am a true revolutionary. I do not want to be kept on a pedestal. Sixteen long years, I have been given the name Iron Lady while everyone else stays content that I am on my fast," she said.

"Many are saying that politics is dirty, so why should I take it up? I ask you this -- can politics be dirty on its own? Isn't society a part of the dirt associated with politics?" she asked.

"If 20 like-minded people emerge as candidates for the elections, we can bring about a change. I want to contest the elections against Chief Minister Ibobi. I want to be CM so I can repeal AFSPA," she added.

IMAGE: Journalists thronged to listen to what the Iron Lady had to say when she broke her fast.
Many of them asked her to repeat the act of breaking her fast so they could get 'proper visuals' and 'proper bytes.' Photograph: PTI

Commenting on her earlier statement that she had not got the kind of support that she was expecting for her cause, Irom Sharmila said, "Every year when I am set free for sometime, people come to greet me. It is like I am a spectacle to be seen with curiosity and then forgotten. When I first started my fast, the public said I was insane to do it. These long years, I remained cut off from everybody. I have to be free now."

Her statements included the following:

'If there had been a massive public support over my fast, AFSPA would have been repealed then. The narrative of my fast has in fact been misinterpreted. While I was fasting till the time AFSPA would be repealed, it is being described as an indefinite fast.'

'The martyrdom of Irom Sharmila is not what I want. I have become akin to Abhimanyu caught in the chakravayuh, unable to find a way out. If the public is angry with my decision and resent it, you can kill me like Gandhi and Jesus Christ was killed. Let my blood wash away all their dark emotions and negative feelings.'

'I do not want to be seen as a goddess. I am human and I want to be treated like one.'

In response to media queries on her future course of action, including where she would stay, Irom Sharmila replied that she would not go back to her house as she wanted to honour her earlier promise to her mother that she would come back only after AFSPA was repealed.

"I want to stay at an ashram, but it will take a few days to take a final decision," she said.

Asked what she had to say to the people of Kashmir who have been protesting against AFSPA, she said, "Let the people of Kashmir get their right to self determination."

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Irom Sharmila had this to say: "His governance deals with violence and his only concern is for the happiness index of nations. He is a native from the place of Gandhi. Why cannot he govern with non violence?"

"Are you a woman in love?" one journalist asked. "Isn't that a matter of my personal choice?" she responded. "Isn't that normal?"

When it came to the moment of Irom Sharmila breaking her fast, there was no one to do the honour of the symbolical act of offering her the honey even though she had announced her desire for young students to be present when she broke her fast.

When she did beak her fast she did it alone just as she was alone when she first began her fast in 2000. The only difference was the media scrum that asked her to speak in Hindi and English or repeat the act of breaking her fast so they could get 'proper visuals' and 'proper bytes.'

The last bit of the drama is yet to unfold even as this report is being written. When Irom Sharmila was being escorted to the home of a former health official under whose care she had been (the official has since retired), angry residents of the neighbourhood stormed the ambulance she was in and forced her to change her plans.

Last heard from sources, she was being escorted to the JNIMS to stay under police protection, free at last from the State, but not free from the anger of the public.

What irony that the woman whose lone fight against the establishment all these long years has only the state machinery to keep her safe from the public whose cause she championed all this while.


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