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Three Views of Irom Sharmila, the Greatest Gandhian of our Century

Anyone who respects Gandhi will be deeply interested in the selfless effort of Irom Sharmila.  It is internationally recognized that even Gandhi could not have physically borne with the torture of nearly 13 years of force feeding and politically forced silence.  

It is difficult to get information about Irom Sharmila other than news reports of her few words caught on her way to and from the fortnightly hearings in Imphal.   Very few people are allowed to meet her, no matter who you are, as the recent rejection of the UN Special Rapporteur's request demonstrates.  

These are three views of Irom Sharmila that my research on her is pulling up. The first,  is by Soma Chaudhury, takes place in 2006.  She points to the power filling Irom Sharmila, which Soma calls, `a moral force.'

The second is by her first biographer, Deepti Mehrotra, in 2008.  In Deepti's meetings with Irom Sharmila, Irom mentioned, and then gave her a 1000 stanza poem she had written, called Rebirth.   If you know where it can be ordered from please reply on the comment.

The third is by soniasarkar26, a blogger, who met Irom Sharmila in 2010, she gives a brief biograhical account of issues, and was the one to whom Irom publicly disclosed that she has a beloved, a fiance, and plans to marryafter her mission is completed.


1. By Soma Chaudhury Tehelka (India magazine) December 9, 2006

An ordinary November evening in Delhi. A slow halting voice breaks into your consciousness. “How shall I explain? It is not a punishment, but my bounden duty...” A haunting phrase in a haunting voice, made slow with pain yet magnetic in its moral force. “My bounden duty.” What can be bounden duty in an India bursting with the excitements of its economic boom?

You are tempted to walk away. You are busy and the voice is not violent in its beckoning. But then an image starts to take shape. A frail, fair woman on a hospital bed. A tousled head of jet black curls. A plastic tube thrust into the nose. Slim, clean hands. Intent, almond eyes. And the halting, haunting voice. Speaking of bounden duty.


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That’s when the enormous story of Irom Sharmila begins to seep in. You are in the presence of something historic. Something unparalleled in the history of political protest anywhere in the world ever. Yet you have been oblivious of it. A hundred TV channels. An unprecedented age of media. Yet you are oblivious of it.

Irom Sharmila, 34, has not eaten anything, or drunk a single drop of water for six years. Six years. She has been forcibly kept alive by a drip thrust down her nose by the Indian State. For six years, nothing solid has entered her body. Not a drop of water has touched her lips. She has not combed her  hair. She cleans her teeth with dry cotton and her lips with dry spirit so she will not sully her fast. Her body is wasted inside. Her menstrual cycles have stopped. Yet she is resolute. Whenever she can, she removes the tube from her nose. It is her bounden duty, she says, to make her voice heard in “the most reasonable and peaceful way”.

Yet we have remained oblivious to it. The Indian State has remained oblivious to it.


2. By  Deepti Priya Mehrotra in InfoChange News & Features, April 2008 :

The first time I met Irom Sharmila, in early-November 2006, she was reading a book on Japanese folk stories. Subsequently, we discussed books whenever we met -- Buddhist texts, Manipuri poetry, the newspapers, Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, Swami Rama’s Mystics of the Himalayas... I lent her Chinua Achebe and Greek mythology, and she spoke about her poems, saying: “I write long poems -- some 400 lines, one 600 lines.” 

In February 2008 she said she wanted to return to Imphal and, once alone, write a poem of at least 1,000 lines. “It will be about what I have seen and experienced of life, of our society,” she said.


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Irom Sharmila left New Delhi for Manipur on March 4, 2007, and was arrested a few hours after her arrival in Imphal. She was remanded to judicial custody on March 7, 2008, for a year.

Permission to visit her in hospital in Imphal is not easily granted. When I made a trip to Imphal in April 2007, her brother, Irom Singhjit, ran around trying to get me permission to visit her. A jail escort came in with us. 

For six weeks, nobody had been allowed to meet her. Her face broke into a delighted smile when she saw us: she proffered a little notebook, saying: “I have completed writing the poem! It is a poem of one thousand and ten lines!” On my request, she read out the first page of the poem, and translated it. Called Rebirth, it reflects on the frailty of the human body, and the reason we are sent here, to exist between birth and death. 

Irom Sharmila is philosophical, thoughtful and determined she will not eat until AFSPA is repealed. Not a single morsel of food, or even a drop of water, has passed through her lips since November 4, 2000 -- a period of nearly 90 months. Stoic, friendly, and completely committed, Sharmila is a unique rebel....

Yet, Sharmila continues to languish in jail. Her grandmother Irom Tonsija Devi, who provided much of her early inspiration, died on March 1, 2008 at the age of 105. She had not met her beloved granddaughter for over seven years. Neither has Sharmila’s mother Irom Sakhi Devi, although she often passes by the hospital, located barely a kilometre from their humble home. Unshed tears shining in her eyes, Sakhi Devi says: “I feel I will go mad sometimes.” 

Sharmila Irom one day said: “The day the Act is withdrawn I will eat rice from my mother’s hands.” Physically isolated, her body frail, Sharmila’s spirit remains as strong as ever. Tucked away in a state geographically and culturally remote from the capital, she nonetheless poses a powerful challenge to the impunity and high-handedness of State power.

Deepti Priya Mehrotra is a Delhi-based writer. Her book on Irom Sharmila:  Burning Bright was  published by Penguin in 2008.


3.  By Soniasarkar26 


 In 2010, Sharmila’s silent protest completed a decade. Curious to know what makes the Iron Lady of Manipur, as she is popularly known, this resilient, I had sought an appointment with her. Permission, however, was not easily granted. The request moved from one sarkari office to the other for nearly two months. Finally, I was allowed to meet her on December 20, 2010. Knowing well that even celebrated writer and activist Mahasweta Devi was denied permission, I considered myself lucky.


Before I met her, I had sketched an image of Sharmila in my mind by reading various newspaper reports that featured her struggle, her pain and her plight. They had made her look gloomy and exhausted. But my perception changed the moment I got the first glimpse of her when I lifted the green curtains of the ward for under-trials needing medical attention at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital. She looked frail but cheerful and welcomed me with a wide smile as I walked into the room. Her freshly washed hair smelled of a familiar brand of shampoo. The shiny wet curls of her hair were carelessly playing on her forehead. She looked calm and unencumbered, the fairness of her skin heightened by the pink top that she was wearing.
Strange though it may sound but of all things, we started talking about food. “As a child, I loved eating. After finishing my own meal, I used to eat off others’ plates. My mother often scolded me for this. It is an irony that my struggle is related to food – though it’s about not eating,” Sharmila had said. She spoke haltingly in English. Her voice was frail.
Born on March 14, 1972 in Kongpal Kongham Leikei in the east of Imphal, Sharmila loved eating freshly plucked raw vegetables – peas, cabbage and red spinach. Her other love was pastries.
In fact, a night before she started her fast, she bought two packets of pastries and cakes from a local bakery. “ I ate all of them to fill my stomach, and vowed that it is my last day of eating. I totally surrendered myself to God,” she recalled. Her fast was triggered by the Malom massacre of November 2, 2000, in which 10 people were killed by security forces on the outskirts of the capital Imphal. She consciously chose to fast because all other forms of protest such as demonstrations or strike would harm others unlike fasting that could harm only her, and not anyone else.
A day after she began fasting, the cops had charged her with the attempt to suicide under section 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and had put her in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail. Two and a half months later, she was shifted to the hospital, where she has been nose-fed thrice every day – at 10am, 2pm and 9 pm- since then.“I don’t feel hungry. The liquid diet keeps my stomach full,” she had said. The plastic tube through which she is fed was hanging close to her neck, but that has become a part of her body in these many years.
In 2004, Human Rights Alert (HRA), a collective of lawyers moved the Supreme Court (SC) to remove the charges against her as her intentions were not commit suicide. The SC had then asked them to file the case in Gauhati High Court in Manipur, which a year later ordered her release. But then the court was silent on whether such charges should be removed or not. Later, in 2006, Irom Sharmila’s supporters brought her to Delhi to pressurise the Centre to repeal AFSPA but it was all in vain. After being moved from one government hospital to another for six months, she was later forced to go back to Imphal. Every year, she is released for a day in March only to be arrested the next day and sent back to the hospital.
The youngest of nine siblings, Sharmila grew up a lonely child. She raised chickens, sold their eggs and donated the money to a local blind school. Never academically inclined, Sharmila joined a vocational course for shorthand, typing and journalism after school. Before she went on a hunger strike, Sharmila also wrote columns in a local newspaper and worked in a non-governmental organisation. She had often joined demonstrations when protests spilled out on the streets, mostly revolving around army actions against civilians.She was close to her brother, Irom Singhajit, nearest to her in age. With their parents busy running their grocery shop when she was a child, it was Singhajit who took care of her. Their mother’s breast milk had dried up when Sharmila was born, so Singhajit would take his little sister to other mothers in the neighbourhood who breastfed her. In exchange, he did their household work.
Even today, Singhajit is by her side. He left his job as an agricultural officer in an NGO to garner support for his sister’s struggle. “He is like a guardian to me,” she told me. Sharmila, who is now seen as a symbol of resistance in India, stressed that she inherited her willpower from her grandmother, Irom Tonsija Devi. Tonsija Devi, who died in 2007, was a part of the 1939 Nupi Lan movement–a war women waged against the export of rice by the king, Maharaja Churachand, and the British government. “My grandmother was illiterate but she had great knowledge of politics and economics,” Sharmila had said,sitting on the bed in her hospital room.
Her room was full of gifts– a wind chime, presented by a filmmaker who directed a short film on her, a red and white Assamese gamcha, a gift from a photographer, and a statue of Meera Bai, given to her by another nurse, were a few among them. She said that most of her time was spent in doing yoga and writing poetry. Two years back, Zubaan had published 12 of her poems in a volume called ‘Fragrance of Peace’. Books were lying heaped on an iron cot in the room. I had spotted a Khushwant Singh, a Kahlil Gibran and a Chetan Bhagat in the pile of books. “Most of these books have been gifted to me by my lover,” she said shyly.
This was the first I had heard of a man in her life as before this, I had never heard or read any reference to her love relationship. Initially I hesitated to ask more but Sharmila was clearly keen to talk about him. “His name is Desmond Coutinho,” she  said. A Britisher based in Kerala, he got to know about Sharmila after he read ‘Burning Bright’,  a 2009 book on the Manipuri struggle written by Deepti Priya Mehrotra. “He wrote me a letter after he read the book. We have been exchanging letters since then,” she  said smilingly.
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Pointing her long skinny fingers at the plants – Chinese evergreen and ponytail, surrounding her bed, she had told me,“These are my friends. I water them, and tell them about my feelings for him.”
Minutes later, she had asked me if I could call him. I was a bit confused about what to say at the moment but couldn’t refuse her. I rang up a number that she remembered by heart. As I got to talk to Coutinho, Sharmila, like a teenager in love, had asked me to tell him that she loved him.  Coutinho expressed similar emotions for her and said, “Please tell her that I want to come and see her, but I am yet to get the permission.”
In another few minutes, we hung up. And then I  suddenly noticed Sharmila, her smiling face turning pale. She immediately covered her face with a book. I noticed tears in her eyes. “I miss him. I want them to grant him permission soon,” she told me. Two years later, the permission has not yet been granted.  But Coutinho had met her in the court in March last year while Sharmila was being produced before the judiciary – an annual ritual before she gets released for a day. However, Sharmila’s supporters beat him up because they do not approve of the idea of Sharmila having a romantic relationship with a Briton.
Despite such hurdles, their love for each other hasn’t faded away. “I fully intend to return to Manipur to marry Sharmila and I will live and die for her. I do not see any other end for us,” Desmond told me in a recent conversation.
He had gifted her a wooden statue of the two legendary lovers, Krishna and Radha.“He says that he’s Lord Krishna, and I am his Radha,” Sharmila said. As a young woman, she used to ride a bike and had never behaved in a “stereotyped” manner in her younger days, her mother told me. But now, she has started talking of desires that any woman of “marriageable” age would do. “I want to get married. I want to be free,” she told me. “But,” she  stressed, “after my demand is met.”
Do you have stories of Irom Sharmila from people who have met her?  Please send or post here!  Thanking you!

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She is greatest living icon today. Her views reflect that. My salute



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