The sudden end to 16 years of hunger strike by ‘Mengoubi’ raises many questions. Why no associate was aware of this decision? Is it just a change of strategy or disillusionment that led to preference to personal life?
Sharmila, 44, has been on hunger strike for the last 16 years—since November 5, 2000—after 10 people were killed by Assam Rifles troops near a bus stop at Malom in the outskirts of Imphal close to Tulihal Airport. She was born on March 14, 1972 in Imphal. Youngest among nine children Sharmila avoided festivals and cosmetics since childhood. She practised yoga and read Bhagwat Gita. She studied up to class XII and walked 2 kms to school everyday. She imbibed love for animals from her father Irom Nanda, a grade IV employee in state’s veterinary department. She mourned much when her father died in 1980. She contributed articles and poems mostly on peace and non-violence in local vernacular dailies. She has also written love poems. In ‘A fortunate Women’ she writes, “Perhaps, I belong today to another!” The regular instances of violence in Manipur caused by insurgency and counter-insurgency operations used to upset her.
November 5, 2000
November 9, 2000
August 12, 2004
November 2004 Central Government appoints five members Jeevan Reddy Committee to study AFSPA
Manipur is a conflict ridden state where more than 40 militant groups operate for various causes including Manipur’s independence and recession from India. Manipur became part of Indian Union in 1949 after the then Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh signed the merger agreement on September 21, 1949.
It is said that Sharmila deeply moved when she attended an independent people’s court held in Imphal, a month ahead of the Malom incident. During the hearing of the people’s court, she heard the testimony of a woman who was raped allegedly by security forces during a search operation. “The incident disturbed her,” her elder brother Singhajit said. But her opponents say in that so-called people’s court, the opinion and statement of the security forces were not taken.
The critics also say that over a hundred Hindi speaking people and others have been killed. On almost every disturbance, Hindi speaking innocent people, including woman and children are hounded and herded. They are forcibly taken out from their houses by state police and herded in schools and dharmshalas where public conveniences extremely lack, for providing security from insurgents. Thus, these innocent people are put in the situation where lion is on the land and crocodile in the pond. Their human rights and civil liberties are curtailed. Their properties are looted and destroyed, but Sharmila never voiced for them. Security forces are ambushed and killed. The wives of security personnel are widowed and children orphaned and parents are made to beat their breasts for their beloved and shinning sons. Sharmila maintained silence on it too.
“Several prominent businessmen from different parts of the country have been living in Imphal and other parts of Manipur from over a hundred years having big apartments. They have contributed in building modern and developed Manipur but they are compelled to close their business, sale away their residential apartments at throw away prices and leave Manipur forever. Sharmila never spoke about their human rights, civil liberties and constitutional rights,” said a prominent businessman from Imphal adding that the vacuum thus created is filled up by Bangladeshi Muslims.
A prominent Meitei senior citizen from Imphal said, “The human rights and civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution for Manipur people are hijacked by the armed militants, but Sharmila never talked about it. She speaks about army’s excess but never say anything about the excesses committed by militants.”
He added further, “People’s voices are choked, development is almost nill, militants run parallel government, schools and colleges are near paralysed, corruption is rampant, but she talks about AFSPA only. She does not find any other human issues and grievances. If army and security forces go away, we all innocent people have either to bear the brunt of militants or leave Manipur for peaceful living.”
In this background, Sharmila announced on July 26, 2016 to end her fast, a decision to contest assembly polls next year and intent to lead a normal life that includes marriage to her boyfriend. “I have decided to change my strategy. I will end my hunger strike and contest the assembly election as an independent candidate to continue the fight on the single issue of scrapping the AFSPA,” Sharmila told reporters.
Her emergence as an enduring symbol of resistance often over shadowed the human aspect of people’s life and questions have been asked whether she was unwittingly becoming a prisoner of her own cause. Such questions were not encouraged by her close supporters. In this backdrop Sharmila said, “If I am defeated as a result of the people selling their democratic rights. I will not be disappointed. I will also not resume my hunger strike. If people reject me I will lead a normal life.” She plans to marry her friend Desmond Coutinho, 54, a British Indian of Goan Origin. “I will marry my boyfriend who is a British national. We will lobby the British Government to take up the issue of AFSPA with the Indian government,” she said.
Desmond Coutinho, 54, a writer and a human rights activist, visits Imphal to meet her during routine appearances in court. He was not present the day she announced her decision on July 26, 2016. Sharmila knew him through an exchange of letters and they finally met in Imphal in March 2011.
Charged with attempted suicide she has been routinely arrested, released at the end of her maximum one-year sentence and re-arrested after two days as an annual ritual since November 5, 2000 when she began her hunger strike demanding to repeal AFSPA. She has been kept in a confinement at Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences Imphal and a team of police woman kept guard round the clock.
Sharmila said she had realised that her 16 year hunger strike could not move the government and decided to continue her fight against as a lawmaker. “I am now convinced that my hunger strike can’t bring me to my goal. I want to achieve my goal during my life time. So, I decided to change my strategy,” she added.
She expressed her unhappiness over the lack of mass support from the people of Manipur for her cause. She appealed to people not to sell their democratic rights but elect people who can serve them. She is expected to contest from Khurai assembly constituency in Imphal East District about 2 km from Imphal city, which is now represented by Ngairangbam Bijoy Singh of the ruling Congress. Her immediate plan is to appear in the court on August 9 and break her fast with the school children. However, she has been expressing her displeasure against using school children during agitation.
Sharmila’s elder brother Irom Singhajit said he was not happy to know her decision, but the vigilant citizens of Imphal say he said so under compulsion. In fact, Sharmila desired to end her fast in 2004 after the submission of Justice Jeewan Reddy Commission Report that asked for repeal of AFSPA and the AFSPA was lifted from seven assembly constituencies in Greater Imphal area. But she was compelled to retreat after a threat to her life.
Whether Sharmila ends her fast or not, the Army continues to remain staunchly opposed to lifting the AFSPA from any of the areas in which it is deployed for counter-insurgency operations. Despite the observations of the Supreme Court earlier this month, the army is now even more resolved that its soldiers and officers on counter insurgency duties require immunity from prosecution because of recent events in the Kashmir Valley where the killing of militant Burhan Wani led to street protests in which security personnel were attacked.
“Soldiers too have human rights” is the refrain from the defence and internal security establishments. The Army observes that repeal of AFSPA in seven assembly segments of Imphal did not help in restoring peace. Rather, militants run a parallel government in Manipur where even newspaper editors and mediamen have been assassinated for not toeing the line of militants. Hundreds of civilians including Hindi-speaking people have been killed in broad day light.