I have been fascinated by Irom Sharmila ever since I came to know about the hunger fast that she began to protest against the Army’s atrocities in Manipur. Her fast was to demand a repeal of the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). The Supreme Court has ruled in a recent judgement that the Army can’t possibly allow the use of excessive force even in areas that come under AFSPA. However, I was simply enthralled by the idea of a woman who can use her body as a political tool—in the footsteps of Gandhi—and who can for almost 16 years remain without eating any food. During these years, she has been prosecuted by the state and charged with “attempting suicide”. She has been forcibly picked up and force-fed by a tube that was inserted into her nose and incarcerated inside the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in Imphal. She has often been isolated, her letters censored, her visitors screened and allowed to meet her after an arduous permission process. Despite the violence visited upon her and her people, she has remained non violent and has advocated peace and ahimsa during these anguish filled years.
When I got the opportunity to interview her, I was touched at how humble she was as she faltered for words in an attempt to respond to my probing questions. She was with a man who, as I recorded the interview, sat next to her, often wiping her nose, which had through it a Ryles feeding tube.
I recorded the interview with Irom Sharmila but her faltering English was at times difficult to fathom. She often groped for words and also was unwell. The first question I asked her was: when did she start the fast?
“From 4th November 2000,” she replied simply.
“And what has inspired you to take the nonviolent path?” I asked, stunned.
“Basically from my conscience as a human being. My living force is from hope,” she replied. She continued, “From my childhood I could hardly tolerate extreme sounds or light or even smells. Extreme things were intolerable to me. There were firecrackers at the time of Diwali. When Bangla… (indecipherable) was bombarded, I got startled and cried.”
“You could not tolerate even Diwali crackers,” I clarified.
She nodded, “There was a shop run by my parents. We were near the river. On Diwali night, there would be festivities. Such times there would be heavy sounds. Our house was a quarter of a mile away but I would run away, I could not tolerate it.”
“So you can’t tolerate strong sounds, you can’t stand violence, but you have taken a very strong step: to deprive your body of food. So what are you fighting for?” I query her, now curious that a person so fragile can have so much determination to take on the might of the state.
Irom replied, “Let us have our dignity of life as a human being. Give us the right to live. And to stand against the injustice in governance.”
But I am not satisfied, I pursue, “Why have you chosen this path? Even Gandhiji went on a fast, but not for so long. You have also been offered a ticket to fight elections, which you have refused, so why this path?”
Irom replied, “It is unharmful (sic) to our surrounding, to our environment…as an instrument. I use it as a non violent tool. We can see Mahatma Gandhi did this to get Independence for India. We want freedom from unwanted happenings, tortures, disappearances, killings, abductions, the army raping, such kind of things. Our future generations, if they visualise the realities of our lives in contemporary society (sic), they would ask us to take steps, but I have no means, I am just a humble, poor, innocent woman.”
“Are you inspired by Gandhi or anyone else?”
“Lots, lots…of people. Basically it’s my conscience. That’s the main factor which inspires me to go on.”
“Where do you get the willpower? How can you live without any food?”
“They feed me through this tube, I get artificial nutrients.”
“Don’t you feel like breaking the fast?”
“I want to get success.”
“What is it that you are asking for?”
Irom replied. “Civilisation needs conviction of heart. They are turning fertile soil into poison and innocent people into cancerous bodies... Creating wars between countries, such as India and Pakistan after the Pokharan test… Such things are really unnecessary. Powerful academicians and politicians are crazy about conducting nuclear tests. Nuclear weapons are being made and laboratories are being used for nuclear experiments.”
“So you are fighting for a nuclear free world, for world peace.”
“For world peace; for the whole world. For the betterment of our precious mother earth.”
“Where do you get the resilience from, I know I am repeating myself, but I can’t tolerate living without food even for two days.”
“Love of mankind, really.”
“And who has been supporting you all these years? You have been in and out of hospital.”
Irom turns to the man next to her.
“What is his role in your life?”
“I began to know him in 2009, before this I have been having nasal feeding, with no taste of anything and no taste of life. He gives me strength and love also as a woman.” She cries softly, very softly.
“What is his name”?
I turn to him. The man says, “Desmond.”
“This is a miracle story. How did you meet him?”
(Long pause) “Through letters.”
“This is like a love story of the old times. Is Desmond a supporter of your cause?”
“Yes, he is.” She smiles, “He told me he was also a troublemaker in his school.”
“So he is also a dissenter. But does he support the cause?”
“Yes, there is deep understanding.”
“This is like a fairy story. Are you happy?”
“I don’t know that also,” she answers frankly.
“If someone asked you to give up your fast what would you say?”
“It is very easy to give up. I can’t just give up. I need to give all to my soul. It is my commitment. I need to give my all to my conscience. My mother is very old. I was born when she was 44 years old, so she is old and unhealthy, but she knows my hurt, my nature, she knows my determination. She understands what I am doing. Though she loves me, she has blessed me.”
“What is your message?”
“I am asking for peace, let us join together, let us not fight, let’s realise ourselves, let’s try to live with dignity as human beings.”
“Does your stand go beyond the repeal of AFSPA?”
“Our struggle started in Manipur, but it expands to all others. Let us realise ourselves, we are social beings with rights and responsibilities. It embraces all others. I want to taste the life of a normal human being.”
“What is the life of a normal human being?”
“Just Imagine it. Imagine it yourself instead of asking me. I love humanity. Not as an activist but as a human being, I want to taste the beauties of life.”
“You are a poet, can you recite a few lines of your poems?”
“I can’t remember anything right now. My mind is full of other things… My mind is blank how will I write right now?”
“You are so humble, you don’t call yourself a poet or even an activist. What keeps you going?”
“It is my conscience. My conscience is the sole factor.”
“What do you want the people to do?”
“The people can see my heart. They can hear my inner voice.”
“What do you mean by non violence?”
“I am not a scholar, I am a slow learner. But do not use weapons or harmful means to achieve your goals. Even in eating, do not kill animals just for food. We do not see the soul of the innocent creature. I feel its soul, I will not eat any creature’s body for food. We humans can live with less. Our nature is higher than others, so we should not kill for taste.”
Irom was clearly unwell and feeling the strain of the hunger fast and the talking. As her nose dripped and Desmond kept wiping it with a tissue, I asked if I could take his photo with her. He looked at her as if for permission. When Irom nodded in consent, he then put his arm around her, gently. He is Desmond Coutinho, a Goan born British citizen who read about her amazing feat of non violence, wrote her letters and then came to meet her. They fell in love.
Irom Sharmila has now announced her decision to call off her fast on 9 August. She has also declared that she plans to marry him and will stand for elections as an Independent. To assume that Irom stands for the repeal of AFSPA in Manipur alone, is a grossly narrow representation of her work. Irom is walking in the footsteps of ahimsa and her fast is a cry for a non-violent order of life. She has embraced all humanity in her call for peace and a nuclear free world. What gives this fragile woman so much strength and determination is perhaps she has cracked the secret of ahimsa—she has sought love, embraced it and has touched all humanity with her boundless emotion. Irom is a poet and a contemporary practitioner of ahimsa and the least we can do is to honour her sacrifice, her call for peace and heed her symbolic action before it is too late as we estrange our own people. From the Northeast to Kashmir to Chhattisgarh, people want a loving dialogue, not brute force, that is the message of Irom Sharmila.
Irom Sharmila’s poem “Fragrance From Peace” describes how she would like her body to be treated when death comes:
When life comes to its end
You, please transport
My lifeless body
Place it on the soil of Father Koubru
To reduce my dead body
To cinders amidst the flames
Chopping it with axe and spade
Fills my mind with revulsion
The outer cover is sure to dry out
Let it rot under the ground
Let it be of some use to future generations
Let it transform into ore in the mine
I’ll spread the fragrance of peace
From Kanglei, my birthplace
In the ages to come
It will spread all over the world.
Fortunately for all of us, Irom has chosen life itself. Viva Irom, modern practitioner of ahimsa and teacher of non violence.
Sagari Chhabra is a poet, playwright, award-winning filmmaker and an author. Her latest book, In Search Of Freedom just got the National Laadli Media Award.