Iron lady of Manipur Irom Sharmil’s Biography

Feb/19/2023 / by Swarnendu Biswas
Irom Sharmila
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Her Fast and Long Struggle

Irom Chanu Sharmila, popularly known as Irom Sharmila,is called the iron lady of Manipur not without reason. This Indian lady from India’s north-eastern state of Manipur showed seemingly infinite courage and determination, and gained global renown as a civil rights and political activist while undertaking a 16-year-long hunger strike!

Yes, dear readers you are reading it correctly; her hunger strike continued for 16 long years. During that long period, she was nasally force fed in detention This marathon hunger strike should of course be the most important highlight in any biography of Irom Sharmila.

She began the historic fast on 5th November 2000 with the demand for abolishing of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, an act that empowers the Indian armed forces to search properties without a warrant,  to arrest people, and to use deadly force if there is “reasonable suspicion” that a person is acting against the state.

World’s Longest Hunger Striker

The draconian act is at present applicable in some areas/states of India, which are Assam, Nagaland, Manipur (excluding Imphal Municipal Council Area), Changlang, Longding and Tirap districts of Arunachal Pradesh, and areas falling within the jurisdiction of the eight police stations of districts in Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam.

Here it deserves a mention that Manipur has borne the burn of insurgency for decades, leading to a huge toll of civilian lives in the state. Probably the continuing insurgency in the state compelled the Indian government to introduce the above-mentioned act in the north-eastern state.

Sharmila’s marathon hunger strike continued till 9th August 2016, making her the world’s longest hunger striker. After 16 years she ate voluntarily on that day, when she took some honey to end the marathon fast.

Though she couldn’t abolish the act despite her sustained and peaceful protest, but her enormous act of resilience would be and should be remembered for posterity.

Induced by Malom Massacre

While exploring about Irom Sharmila we can come to know that she was born in Kongpal, which is located in the Manipur state of India, on 14th March 1972. The age of Irom Sharmila is 50 years.

Her father Late Irom Nanda Singh served as a Grade IV worker in a veterinary hospital in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. She belonged to a poor family and struggled to complete her high school education.

On 2nd November 2000, a makeshift bomb exploded near an army convoy, which was passing by a bus stop in Malom, a town located in the Imphal Valley of Manipur. Assam Rifles, one of the paramilitary forces operating in the strife-torn Manipur, claimed the bomb was followed by gunshots and they fired back in retaliation.  However, no evidence was found that anyone shot at them and none of the troops of that contingent was hit.

The firing of the soldiers resulted in the death of ten civilians who were waiting at a bus stop. Among the victims was 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, who was a 1998 National Bravery Award winner. The extremely unfortunate incident is known as Malom Massacare.

At that timeIrom Sharmila was working as an intern with a human rights group and was helping to document cases of alleged human rights abuse by Indian army. In that connection, she interviewed victims of gang rape, and family members of civilian people killed by army.

She came to know about the Malom Massacre on the next day of the notorious incident, when she saw images of the dead victims screaming to her conscience from the top of the (front page) newspapers. That sparked in her the resolve to take that momentous decision and two days later, she began her historic hunger strike.

Her Fight Against the Act

On 5th November 2000, she sat near the site of the killings announcing that she would not eat, drink, comb her hair and look in the mirror till AFSPA was withdrawn.

However, only three days after she began her hunger strike, she got arrested on the charge of attempting suicide, which was illegal under Indian Penal Code during that time. She was later transferred to judicial custody. Soon her health began to deteriorate and from 21st November she was forcefully subjected to nasogastric intubation to keep her alive, while she was under arrest. Initially she resisted the feeding tube but soon realized that her efforts were futile before the might of the state.

The biography of Irom Sharmila should highlight that she was released after one year and she again started fasting and was promptly re-arrested on the same charge. Back to detention, the unyielding activist was again force fed through nasal tube. This process continued for many years; one can say that the Indian state arrested Sharmila many times, with each of her detention lasting for one year, which was the duration of punishment in Indian Penal Code for attempting suicide.

By 2004, activist Irom Sharmila had virtually attained an iconic status in Manipur and even outside the state.  She had become a symbol of resistance against AFSPA. Many who had initially joked and criticized her efforts had to eat up their words before her continued resolve to march ahead on the road of her conviction. During her long tenures of detention she also wrote poetry and sucked on cotton balls to counter the dryness in her mouth; to keep the saliva flowing.

Irom Sharmila got procedural release on 2nd October 2006, after which she went to Raj Ghat in New Delhi to pay floral tribute to her ideal, Mahatma Gandhi. On the same day, she took part in a protest demonstration at Jantar Mantar (a historical site in New Delhi) with students, other activists and some other concerned citizens. On 6th October 2006, just four days after her release, she was re-arrested by Delhi Police for attempting suicide as she was continuing her fast.

Here it deserves a mention that the lady did spend most of the16 years of her hunger strike in judicial custody in a hospital in Imphal, where she was subjected to force-feeding of a combination of medicines and baby formula.

Changing Track

During the course of her struggle, she got the support of the world renowned human rights activist and Nobel laureate from Iran, Shirin Ebadi and of the Communist Party of India(Marxist-Leninist) and of the Manipur Pradesh All India Trinamool Congress and many others, but they were not enough.

She fervently hoped that her hunger strike would inspire people of Manipur to make a concerted endeavor to persuade the Indian government to repeal the draconian act, but she was only treated as a hero to worship and not as a leader to follow by most of her admirers. She attained celebrity status but didn’t get what she really wanted -the repealing of AFSPA.

Irom Sharmila eventually broke her fast on 9th August 2016 as she wanted to change her strategy of protest and contest in the local assembly elections of Manipur. She told the reporters that she had decided to explore a different form of agitation as her fasting for 16 years didn’t yield the desired result. So she decided to switch gears from activism to politics but said that her fight would continue.

It is really amazing to know that she met her mother only once during those 16 years of hunger strike, as she thought meeting her mother may weaken her resolve to continue fasting. The mother-daughter met only once during her 16 years of hunger strike when her mother was admitted to the same hospital where Irom Sharmila was force-fed through nasal tube and kept under detention on the charge of attempt to suicide.

A Political Disaster

She launched a political party named People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance in October 2016. The main aim of the party is to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from Manipur and to bring clean politics to Manipur.

The party founded by Irom Sharmila contested in two assembly constituencies of Manipur in the next year and didn’t manage to win a single seat in that election. So we can say her political career has been pretty disappointing. She herself won only 90 votes!

Awards and Recognition

Many awards have reached her over the years. She was awarded 2007 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights along with Indian Dalit rights activist Lenin Raghuvanshi of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights. In 2009, she also got the first Mayilamma award of the Mayilamma Foundation “for achievement of her nonviolent struggle in Manipur.”

In 2010, she won the lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission, and in the same year won the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management.

In 2013, Amnesty International declared her as a prisoner of conscience.

FAQs

For how many years did Irom Sharmila fast?

She fasted for 16 years; from 5th November 2000-9th August 2016.

To whom is Irom Sharmila married to?

Desmond Anthony Bellarnine Coutinho is her husband.

What is the reason for Irom Sharmila’s fasting?

She was on hunger strike with the demand for abolishing the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958

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