Fifteen years ago, before that fateful afternoon of November 2, 2000, on which the Assam Rifles gunned down 10 innocent bystanders at a bus stop at Malom in an Imphal suburb, after a failed attempt by militants some distance away to trigger a wired remote-controlled bomb as a convoy of the troops passed by, practically nobody outside of her immediate family and friend circle would have known Irom Sharmila. The troops also went on a rampage in the nearby village for days without end, leading the young woman, then only 28, to her desperate and heroic path of fasting indefinitely to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA 1958, which not only gives sweeping powers to security forces in areas officially declared as “disturbed areas”. After a decade and half, she still has not eaten and is kept alive through nose feeding in custody at a special jail ward of the Government’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, Porompat. Because of the cause she has taken up, combined with the iron determination that had kept her going for all along, at this very moment she undoubtedly is one of the most wellknown person worldwide from Manipur, if not the best known. One way of making a rough estimate as to how much her name has come to be in circulation is to google search her name, and you will discover there are 233 web pages dedicated to her and her cause, some of them in non-English foreign languages, accumulated in all of the fifteen years of her astounding protest, during which media from outside the state, politicians, social workers and human rights activists have been routinely paying her visits and showing solidarity to her heroic fight. Practically every news organization has done a story on her, from the BBC to provincial newspapers in Bangladesh, vague and little heard of in this part of the world.
It is simply extraordinary how an ordinary mufossil girl, with little or no background in social activism, could have transformed overnight so completely. But then, extraordinary events always throw up extraordinary people with extraordinary commitment. It has also been a pattern through history anywhere in the world that these extraordinary people often are very ordinary people from very ordinary backgrounds. For 15 long years Sharmila battled it alone single-mindedly, braving criticism and taunts initially but persuasions, probably intimidations, temptations of bribes and co-option too as the years rolled by. She had no time or interest in any of them. The only thing she wanted was to have what she steadfastly believed was the cause behind such horrors as she witnessed in her home locality 15 year ago, removed – the controversial AFSPA. She did not get the kind of publicity she is getting now when she started out on her long odyssey, but she did not care either. To somebody voluntarily dating death by hunger for 15 years, publicity and glamour cannot possibly mean much. So, alone in her special forlorn prison cell at the JN Hospital, she kept on running her lonely marathon without ever the thought of looking back.
The energy that has been driving Sharmila can best be described as an irresistible force, but the tragedy seems to be, this spirit, indomitable as it may be, may be running against an immovable object. Even committee set up by the Union government to assess the AFSPA after another explosive situation following the rape and murder of another girl, Manorama Devi, in 2004 by troops, had recommended the abolishing of the draconian Act and to toughen a non-military Act – the Prevention of Unlawful Activities Act – to tackle armed insurrection in the northeast and Kashmir less militaristically but this was left in the cold storage of the Union government to deep-freeze and be forgotten. It is anybody’s guess that the recommendation has been rejected. Obviously, there are hawks amongst policy mandarins in New Delhi who still do not see beyond a military solution to the Northeast situation. The troubling thought is, it is also quite obvious there are many within the state who too sometimes are left to doubt by the lawlessness all around, if there is at all any other real way out. Easier said than done, but there is a way out. Let everybody give peace a chance. That would be a rich harvest for all of us in the Northeast, and a definite way to save the brave lady, Irom Sharmila. It would then be much easier and more convincing to campaign for the total abolition of the draconian AFSPA once peace prevails.