"Exhibiting You" - Story

Fasting for Justice

Irom Sharmila's Seven-Year Hunger Strike Against Military Violence

Other authors: Kavita Joshi
Submitted: 04/17/2008

Her eyes are piercing and intent. Her nose, covered by a swatch of medical tape, is disfigured by a yellow tube that forces its way into her left nostril. Her lips are stretched tight, as if in pain. She sits, supported by a bare wall, hugging herself tightly under a blanket. She is Irom Sharmila, a Manipuri woman who has been incarcerated for her crime of fasting at the security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, Manipur. The charge: attempted suicide.

It takes her immense effort to speak, but she is determined: "How can I explain? This is not a punishment. It is my bounden duty at my best level."

Irom Sharmila has not eaten for more than seven years, surviving instead on account of a constant, painful nose drip. Since November 2, 2000, Sharmila has been on a fast-unto-death, demanding the complete removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958.

The AFSPA is a law that gives authority to India's armed forces to arrest, search, and destroy property without warrant as well as to shoot, and even kill, on suspicion alone. Manipur has been under this law since 1980.

Sharmila started her epic fast quietly. It was a Thursday, much like any other Thursday of the year. But on that particular Thursday, the Manipuri insurgents bombed a convoy of Assam Rifles (Indian security personnel) near the town of Malom in Manipur. In retaliation, the men in uniform killed ten civilians. A vicious combing operation followed.

This type of violence was not new to the people of Manipur, but for Sharmila this incident was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. "There was no means of stopping further violations by the armed forces," she says. Fasting was her only way of protesting and bringing attention to the unbearable situation.

Since that fateful Thursday, Sharmila's frail body has become a battlefield. Within days of her fast, she was arrested on charges of "attempted suicide" and put in jail. She refused bail, and she refused to break her fast. Time and again, the courts have released her (she can be held in custody for attempted suicide only one year at a time). But with each release, she simply continues her fast, is re-arrested without fail and forcibly nose-fed.

After being released from prison in October 2006, she traveled in hiding to New Delhi with her brother and two other activists. She camped on the roadside in a hot and dengue fever-struck city and continued to fast hoping to bring attention to her cause. She received no media coverage.

In March 2007 she returned to Manipur. A few hours into her allegedly "free" return, she was re-arrested.

In April 2007 she was honored with the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. The award carries $125,000 in prize money, which Sharmila donated to the victims of human rights violations in Manipur.

This is what Sharmila had to say about her fast for justice:

Why did you start this fast?

For the sake of my motherland. Unless and until they remove the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, I shall never stop my fasting.

Could you tell me something about the incident that sparked your fast?

I had gone there [Malom] to attend a meeting. The meeting was towards planning a peace rally that would be held in a few days. I was very shocked to see the dead bodies on the front pages of the newspapers. That strengthened me to step on this very threshold of death. Because there was no other means to stop further violations by the armed forces against innocent people. I thought then that the peace rally would be meaningless for me, unless I were to do something to change the situation.

But why a fast-unto-death?

It is the only means I have. Because hunger strike is based on spirituality.

What about the effects it has on you, your health, your body?

That doesn't matter. We are all mortal.

Are you certain that this is really the best way, inflicting this on your body?

It is not an infliction. This is not a punishment. I think this is my bounden duty.

How does your family react to your fast?

My mother knows everything about my decision. Although she is illiterate, and very simple, she has the courage to let me do my bounden duty.

When did you last see your mother?

About five years ago. There is an understanding between us. That she will meet me only after I have fulfilled my mission.

It must be very hard on both of you...

Not very hard... Because, how shall I explain it, we all come here with a task to do. And we come here alone.

Why are you in custody?

It is not my will. But the State insists it [the hunger strike] is unlawful.

The government says that your fast-unto-death is an attempted suicide, which is an offence...

Although they may think so, I am in no mood for suicide. In any case, if I were a suicide-monger, how could we communicate like this, you and I? My fasting is a means, as I have no other.

How long are you prepared to go on like this?

I don't know. Though I do have hope. My stand is for the sake of truth, and I believe truth succeeds eventually. God gives me courage. That is why I am still alive through these artificial means. (Indicates the tube going into her nose.)

How do you spend your days in the hospital?

A lot of the time I practice yoga. It helps me keep my body and mind healthy. (She points to the tube again.) It is circumstances that make things natural. Though this (tugs at the tube) is unusual, it is natural to me.

What do you miss the most?

The people. As I am a prisoner here [in the hospital], everyone is restricted from meeting me without permission. So I miss people a lot.

If you had one wish that was yours for the asking, what would it be?

My wish? We must have the right to self-determination as rational beings.

Do you think the AFSPA will be repealed? Will you receive what you are fighting for?

I realize my task is a tough one. But I must endure. I must be patient. That happy day will come some day. If I am still alive. Until then, I must be patient.

Our time was over, and the crew and I were preparing to leave, when Sharmila stopped us saying:

Will you help me? I would like to read about the life-history of Nelson Mandela. I have no idea about his life. Will you send me a book about him? It is full of restrictions here. Make sure you address it to the security ward. If not, I may not receive it.

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