Day 1: Sharmila released
She looked almost resplendent, certainly much more so than in the confines of the dull hospital room I last saw her in, where she was force-fed and detained on charges of attempted suicide. Amidst a lot of security, the Imphal Press Club saw Irom Sharmila attend her first formal media conference after her release following the Imphal East Sessions Court ruling on 19 August 2014. Speaking to journalists, activists and well-wishers, she was flanked by local women from the Save Sharmila group, many of whom have participated in the relay fasts in solidarity with her for some years now. Breaking down into tears, she said, “No violence of any sort can ever be a solution. I have literally been chewing on my tongue just so violence can end.”
Babloo Loitongbom from Human Rights Alert, who was chairing the conference, closed saying “Sharmila is not fasting unto death. People must not misunderstand this. She is fasting till the time AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) is repealed.” As the conference came to a close, the police came in swiftly expressing concern for her frailty amid the throngs of people who’d gathered to see her as a free woman on a day of victory for human rights. Escorted by the women from Save Sharmila group, she made her way out, for a change this time not in a police jeep but a regular car, Babloo‘s own. Among those that stayed back, Chaoba, a reporter with Imphal Free Press, remarked, “She doesn’t want to be a hero or a martyr. She just wants to say no to AFSPA. The constitutional framework allows each of us to protest peacefully and she has been doing just that. But one never knows. Arrest is likely again. Public pressure must increase.”
I accompanied the other women protesters to the sanglen, a temporary shelter draped in banners of repeal AFSPA and Sharmila posters. It was teeming with people wanting to know more, hear more and see more of her. It seemed as though everyone was taking it in as much as they could of her, given it was still not clear if or when she would be rearrested. After the crowd dispersed, I got a chance to chat with Sharmila. She smiled and told me, “I don’t know about the future. I feel excited by today, all those faces, those people in the market, people who agree with my message, to those that support me and give me blessings. To Amnesty International ..you may feel some fulfillment of your efforts..to set me free. My sincere gratitude for your deep understanding as a human being, of my cause. I feel indebted for the support but I expect more support from you to keep the pressure on the government to repeal the act. My happiness and gratitude to you will not be complete till AFSPA is repealed.”
Last year, over 18,000 people from across India supported an Amnesty International India campaign calling for the unconditional release of Irom Sharmila. The AFSPA, which has been in force in parts of North-eastern India since 1958, and a virtually identical law in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990, provides sweeping powers to soldiers, including the power to shoot to kill in certain situations and to arrest people without warrants. The Act also provides virtual immunity from prosecution for security personnel, by mandating prior permission from the central government, which is almost never granted. Sharmila, who is considered to have undertaken the longest hunger strike, will soon complete 14 years of her struggle against AFSPA. Her protest began on November 2, 2010 soon after the killing of 10 people in Manipur by the Assam Rifles (a paramilitary force) in Malom, Imphal.
Day 2: Sharmila detained
After yesterday’s resplendent Sharmila, the morning that followed painted a sad contrast. I got to the sanglen, where she and the others were. The atmosphere was palpably tense and tentative. The police had just made an attempt to take her away and the women resisted. Just as I sat down to speak to her, they came back and forced the circle around Sharmila. Chaos ensued. There was screaming and resistance as the older women jostled with policewomen. Sharmila fell to the ground engulfed in the ensuing push-and-shove between the older women and policewomen. The policewomen struggled to restrain her without using force and within what seemed like a few minutes, they deftly picked her up and drove off in the manner of a well-practiced drill. It was a shocking contrast from Sharmila’s peaceful press conference exit yesterday. Today was quick, loud and almost violent - the imas pelting stones at the jeeps driving off, weeping, hitting and swearing at the police, who despite the imas’ outburst, exhibited restraint. Sharmila was promptly taken to the hospital for a check-up and force feeding, and shortly rearrested under charges of attempted suicide. It was just about eleven in the morning. Suddenly, the sanglen bore a quiet and forlorn look, the pot of lotus flowers next to which Sharmila was sitting, lay kicked over.
And so the cyclical farce of Sharmila’s arrest, release and re-arrest continues again without respite for 14 years. Her release after the court order was a historic opportunity for the Manipur government to engage in a meaningful dialogue with Sharmila, but instead they chose to return to the same old ways. The last time I met Sharmila in November 2013, she had spoken to Amnesty International India of how she loves life and yearns for a sense of normalcy someday. Her struggle is for an end to violence in Manipur and that process can start with the repeal of the draconian AFSPA.
Will Sharmila get to return some day soon, to that sense of normalcy that she yearns for?
As the police jeep pulled away I thought of the irony and absurdity of it all. Just a few days ago, the court recognized Sharmila’s argument that her’s was a lawful protest and not an attempt to commit suicide. Her subsequent re-arrest and the lack of political engagement has quickly shut down that glimmer of hope—a crucial opportunity has been lost.