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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Sooner or later I’ll get success: Irom Sharmila

Sooner or later I’ll get success: Irom Sharmila

Irom Sharmila says the army has got to change its mindset if it wants to see a peaceful integrated India

A file photo of human rights activist Irom Sharmila Chanu. Photo: ReutersPremium
A file photo of human rights activist Irom Sharmila Chanu. Photo: Reuters

Imphal: Moments after making a sudden appearance in the long, underlit corridor of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences’ special ward in Imphal, and just days before the Prime Minister’s visit to the Northeast, Irom Sharmila Chanu welcomes us with a genial smile.

The pipe through which the government has force-fed her since November 2000 when Sharmila started fasting to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Manipur hangs from her nostrils—almost as a prop to the protest that is in its 15th year. Arrested every year by the government for ‘attempted suicide’, the single-window room of her confinement could have belonged to a pimply teenager: soft toys, posters, photo frames, a pile of books, a few plants and her pet guinea pigs make it feel refreshingly young. There are photographs of the late South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo and her fiancé. A poster carries verses of hope.

Aptly, the interview ends on a note of expectation. “Here comes the postman," Sharmila cries out exuberantly as a middle-aged man hands her a bunch of letters. She loves getting mail and there are two letters from her lover. Her pet guinea pigs and rabbits start squeaking in chorus too. “They must be hungry," Sharmila says without any sense of irony. Edited excerpts from the interview:

What would you want to achieve in the next 15 years?

How can I comment about the future? I want others to see me as an ordinary human being with no extraordinary qualities. I don’t know about society, but I’m an individual standing against injustice.

I’m intervening at my best level but I need joining of hands. Why should we remain content as spectators?

You think the new government in Delhi will agree to repeal AFSPA?

They are strongly against repealing. The army mainly is strongly against repealing. I want to continue to defy and try to change their mindset. They think we are barbarous, anti-social, anti-national separatists and repress us using AFSPA. My demand is you should change your mindset if you want to see a peaceful integrated India with real meaning of democracy.

You have stayed in this room for the past 14 years. What has been your most joyful moment here?

When they shifted me to the upper floor, I could see the top of the Baruni mountain and in the evening I could see the full moon suddenly. It was so beautiful. The mountain is only 10km or so away. From my window, I could see the trees, the birds. I felt adapted to the environment. But after the incident with the underground representative (two underground representatives armed with guns had forced their way in and requested her to end her fast saying that her life is precious), they shifted me out.

Since you started your fast after the ‘Malom Massacre’ in November 2000 when 10 civilians were shot dead by Indian security forces, have things improved? A perception is that AFSPA has been softened and there are fewer violations by the forces.

Right now the armies are trying to cooperate with people in rural areas to give an idea of safeguarding the people. But in reality, it is nothing. A lot of make-believe things have happened.

What make-believe things?

The Meira Paibis (a powerful and influential women-run network in Manipur that has led political and social movements) have been brainwashed. During the time of the elections, the army’s tactic was to be seen as friendly towards the innocent, illiterate masses.

How have they brainwashed the Imas (women leaders) of the Meira Paibis?

A few years back they were given bravery awards. Those Imas who staged the nude protest against rape in front of Kangla Fort were awarded by the Indian government. Those who were strongly against AFSPA were tamed to accept the award. They followed blindly whatever they were told. I think they are not really awakened. When they went to Delhi to accept the awards, some students there pressed them not to accept the award without the repeal of AFSPA. But some revolutionary groups, supporting the awards, resisted the students and threatened them. I think our revolutionaries are also corrupt.

You have forged a special bond with your pets. Do you have a name for them?

There used to be a couple. I gave them a common name, Thoi. But one died some days ago. The guinea pig was so depressed and left me so unhappy. Then these new little ones were got here to give Thoi company. This one (pointing to a guinea pig) is so obedient. Last time, I managed to hide her in my clothes and went to the Imphal court; the guards did not know, as she remained silent.

Everyone in the court was surprised. They are my real friends. I learn lessons from them, too.

You don’t use a phone, television or an Internet connection. How do you pass the time?

Walking in the corridor is a part of my life. I water the plants on the window sill, feed the pets, wash my clothes, read the newspaper. I read travelogues and biographies. Nelson Mandela’s biography impressed me very much. My body and mind remain busy. Right now, my mind is much simpler than others, I think.

It’s said you also don’t use soap, shampoo or cosmetics.

What I want is to live as simply as possible. I want natural things. Even before entering my fast, I didn’t use soap. I would rinse my face with plain water. My food habits are simple, too. I abstain from drinking milk, because I feel that there are traces of the animal in it. In my mature age, I gave up meat, milk, tea and paan. I feel a little dizzy when I face a woman wearing heavy cosmetics. In the real sense, I want to encourage our traditional Manipuri productions, to nurture ourselves towards self-sufficiency. Right now everything is imported.

Don’t you ever think of throwing away this feeding pipe? Have you never felt the urge to resume normal life?

No, no, no, no. I have full faith in god. Sooner or later I will get success. Right now my fiancé is so eager about my success. But he is helpless; people mock him.

You have felt dejected over the erosion of support from your Meitei community and Manipuri society in general. Why has that happened?

No one will accept that they don’t support me. Everyone says, ‘Sharmila, what you are doing is for the common good and we are all supporting you’, but the reality is not that. The government arrests me every year after charging me for attempted suicide. It’s a joke. I love life. People remain spectators. Only about 20 of them give me company during release hours and remain vigilant when my health deteriorates. What I need from them is mass support and mass voice.

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Published: 02 Dec 2014, 12:33 AM IST
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