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Irom Sharmila Chanu was released from custody on Feb 29 and was arrested again on March 2. On her birthday, we take a look at her life. Image courtesy: Hindustan Times
In March 2015, the International League of Peoples' Struggle (ILPS) extended solidarity to the consistent resistance by Irom Chanu Sharmila, who has been carrying out fasting since November 2000 to protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
Popularly referred to as "Iron Lady of Manipur", Irom Sharmila Chanu is possibly one of the most noted and touted civil rights activist, political activist and poet too. Hailing from the state of Manipur, Irom is also called "Mengoubi" (the fair girl).
In November 2000, ten innocent civilians were shot and killed while waiting at a bus stop in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley of Manipur. After this incident, which was called 'Malom Massacre', Irom Sharmila began a hunger a strike, which is still an ongoing battle for last 13 years.
Allegedly, this firing was committed by the Assam Rifles, one of the Indian Paramilitary forces operating in the state. Irom Sharmila's primary demand to the Indian government is to completely revoke the AFSPA, which has been blamed for violence in Manipur and other parts of northeast India. The Act allows soldiers to detain anyone indefinitely on mere suspicion of being a rebel.
Irom Sharmila had gone out to attend a meeting to plan a peace rally but after she saw dead bodies on the front page of the newspapers, she thought to herself, "The peace rally would be meaningless for me, unless I was to do something to change the situation." She has been keeping day-long fast on Thursday since her childhood days and that particular Thursday, she just decided to extend her fast forever and fight for the rights of her people.
Irom Sharmila was all of 28 at that time, when she decided to raise her voice and started fasting in protest of the killings. Merely three days after she began her hunger strike, Irom was arrested by the police on charges of "attempt to commit suicide". She was later transferred to judicial custody.
As Irom Sharmila's health continued to deteriorate at fast pace, she was forced to have nasogastric intubation, nose-fed on a solution of vitamins and other nutrients, so that she can breathe and be kept alive during the arrest period.
Surprisingly even today, Irom Sharmila is facing trial for attempted suicide under IPC section 309. Since the law demands one-year prison sentence for attempting to commit suicide, Irom Sharmila has been released and re-arrested every year under.
You'd be surprised to know that despite her fatal protest, Irom Sharmila remained out of mainstream news and no one really bother to write about any developments in her case. It was only after Anna Hazare incident happened and took the nation by storm that Irom's existence and fading battle once again came to light.
Irom has always believed that if Mahatma Gandhi can launch the non-violent campaign to drive out the British without joining politics, why can't she follow the same approach and make a difference.
Irom Sharmila has given up food and water for more than 500 weeks, and this has led to her being called "the world's longest hunger striker". On completing 500 weeks of continuous fasting, she even overtook Mahatma Gandhi who stood for peace and non-violence with his fasts.
Irom Sharmila is the youngest of nine brothers and sisters and she grew up as a lonely child. She has always been very close to her brother, Irom Singhajit (closest to her age). While her parents were busy running a grocery shop, it was Singhajit who took care of Sharmila as a child.
Irom Sharmila indeed had a tough childhood. Her mother's breast milk had dried up when she was born, so her brother Singhajit would take his little sister to neighbourhood mothers who breastfed her and he would do their household work in return.
Singhajit has not changed even a bit and he is like a guardian to Irom Sharmila. He left his job as an agricultural officer in an NGO to support his sister in this struggle.
During her early childhood days, Irom Sharmila raised chickens, sold their eggs and donated the money to a local blind school. She was never much interested in studies and academics on a whole. She never really liked books in school because she felt text books didn't tell her anything about real life.
Irom Sharmila studied till class XII but never went to college. She joined a vocational course for shorthand, typing and journalism after completing her schooling. She even learnt tailoring and worked with a social group for blind children.
Irom Sharmila also used to write columns in a local newspaper and has worked in a non-governmental organisation. Whenever there used to be local protests or demonstrations carried out on the streets, revolving around army actions against civilians, Irom Sharmila would often join them.
Irom Sharmila owes her inspiration and inherited willpower to her grandmother Irom Tonsija Devi, who died in March 2008 at the age of 105. She had not met or seen her granddaughter Irom Sharmila for over seven years. Irom Sharmila was quoted saying, "My grandmother was illiterate but she had great knowledge of politics and economics."