End of a 16-year hunger strike

In­dian ac­tivist gives up protest for love

The Observer - - World - Michael Safi Ban­ga­lore

Jour­nal­ists from around the world watched ex­pec­tantly. Irom Sharmila peered at the smear of honey in her hand. Her face was twisted in an­guish. She wept. Then, with a glance at the sky, she scooped a fin­ger of honey on to her tongue.

And that was how it ended. On a cloudy morn­ing in Au­gust 2016, in Im­phal, the cap­i­tal of the northeastern In­dian state of Ma­nipur, the world’s long­est hunger strike was over. Sharmila had eaten for the first time in nearly 16 years.

A martyr had come back to life. A slight, pale woman with un­ruly dark hair, Sharmila had last vol­un­tar­ily eaten on 4 November 2000. That af­ter­noon she had set­tled by a pond, in a meadow of banyan and bam­boo, with two pack­ets of pas­tries, “fill­ing my stom­ach to my heart’s con­tent”, she says.

The state around was seething. Ma­nipur, a vi­o­lent, di­vided for­mer king­dom on the bor­der with Myan­mar, is riven by eth­nic and anti-In­dian in­sur­gen­cies. It is one of a hand­ful of In­dian states sub­ject to a colo­nial-era law known as the Armed Forces (Spe­cial Pow­ers) Act, or Af­spa, which grants vir­tual im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion to In­dian mil­i­tary sta­tioned there.

The results are pre­dictable. “It has cre­ated a new cat­e­gory of In­dian cit­i­zens who are kil­l­able peo­ple, rape-able women,” says Babloo Loitong­bam, a hu­man rights ac­tivist and lawyer. “We have con­crete records of at least 1,528 ex­tra­ju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tions of civil­ians over the space of 33 years. And this is just the tip of the ice­berg.”

Over the 5,574 days she fasted to de­mand the law be abol­ished – force-fed through a nasal tube and im­pris­oned in an In­dian govern­ment hospi­tal – Sharmila be­came the face of the struggle against Af­spa. She was lav­ished with in­ter­na­tional prizes, awarded thou­sands of dol­lars and de­clared a pris­oner of con­science by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. Her poster adorned homes across the state.

Yet now, Sharmila, 46, has be­come an out­cast in her home state. With a lick of honey that day in Im­phal, she chose to give up saint­hood. She

‘It needed to be a mass cause, but I was iso­lated and idolised, liv­ing on a pedestal’

Irom Sharmila

was sick of be­ing wor­shipped. She no longer be­lieved in fast­ing. Maybe worst of all – in the eyes of many sup­port­ers – Sharmila had fallen in love.

On 2 November 2000, a makeshift bomb ex­ploded close to an army con­voy pass­ing a bus stop in Malom, in Im­phal’s west district. The sol­diers claimed the bomb was fol­lowed by gun­shots and they re­turned fire. None of the troops was hit – a judge would later de­cide there was no ev­i­dence any­one had shot at them – but when the fir­ing ceased, 10 Ma­nipuri civil­ians were dead.

Sharmila, then 28, was work­ing as an in­tern with Loitong­bam’s hu­man rights group. She helped to doc­u­ment cases of al­leged abuse by In­dian sol­diers, in­ter­view­ing women who had sur­vived gang rapes, and the par­ents and chil­dren of slain civil­ians.

Her fam­ily had been poor and she had strug­gled to fin­ish high school. But she had what she calls a “gift from God”: an over­whelm­ing sense of duty that com­pelled her to find a way to fight in­jus­tice. She learned of the so­called Malom mas­sacre the day af­ter the shoot­ings, when im­ages of the vic­tims’ bloody bod­ies were printed on the front of news­pa­pers.

“See­ing that, I felt the fu­til­ity and use­less­ness of hold­ing an­other rally, just shout­ing,” she says. “That was how I de­cided. I thought peo­ple would fol­low me like Gandhi’s in­de­pen­dence struggle. I just felt I wouldn’t die.”

On 5 November, Sharmila sat un­der a shel­ter near the site of the killings with a plac­ard, an­nounc­ing she was fast­ing un­til Af­spa was re­pealed. A crowd quickly formed around her.

“Be­fore sun­set, peo­ple were sit­ting with me,” she re­calls. “But a lit­tle later, they all, one af­ter an­other, ex­cused them­selves and left me be­hind.”

The an­nounce­ment that one of his in­terns had stopped eat­ing came as a shock to Loitong­bam, a lawyer trained in Delhi. “Hon­estly, my first sug­ges­tion to her was, no, don’t do this,” he re­calls. “Re­peal­ing Af­spa is very big. Let’s choose some­thing more strate­gic.

“But she said no, I’ve got my moth-

er’s bless­ing – and she jumped into it.”

Even at that stage, Sharmila says, mis­giv­ings were creep­ing into her mind. She re­calls ob­serv­ing the crowd in Malom in the first days of the fast. “It was like a street show or a cir­cus,” she says. “They gath­ered on the road in the thou­sands – gos­sip­ing, laugh­ing, crit­i­cis­ing.”

The first time Sharmila was forcefed was around 10 November 2000, about six days af­ter her last vol­un­tary meal, and soon af­ter she had been ar­rested and charged with the crime of at­tempt­ing sui­cide. Though the prison man­ual re­quired force­feed­ing through the mouth, she per­suaded the doc­tor to use a nasal tube in­stead. If she was force-fed through her nose, she rea­soned, she was hold­ing to her prom­ise not to eat un­til Af­spa was re­pealed.

And so, sev­eral times a day for the next 16 years, Sharmila was kept alive by a mash of nu­tri­ents and wa­ter pumped through a a three-feet tube be­tween her nose and stom­ach.

Ma­nipuris were ini­tially baf­fled, Loitong­bam says. “Hon­estly, at first it was a joke. Peo­ple asked, how can this girl from the mid­dle of nowhere be do­ing this? Me, my or­gan­i­sa­tion, her fam­ily mem­bers worked hard to es­tab­lish her.”

In­dian au­thor­i­ties could de­tain Sharmila for one year at a time: the length of the penalty for at­tempt­ing sui­cide. When the year was up,she would be re­leased, start fast­ing again, and promptly be re­ar­rested and re­turned to iso­la­tion in her ward at Im­phal’s Jawa­har­lal Nehru hospi­tal.

Out­side, Ma­nipur con­tin­ued to boil. On 10 July 2004, a young woman named Thang­jam Manorama was dragged from her home by In­dian sol­diers. A ju­di­cial in­quiry later found that Manorama was tor­tured and her body dumped near a po­lice sta­tion with 16 bul­let wounds. No­body was charged; the sol­diers in­voked Af­spa.

Out­rage af­ter the mur­der paral­ysed Ma­nipur for months and turned Sharmila into a hero. “The fact she had con­tin­ued fast­ing for four years hit the psy­che of the peo­ple,” Loitong­bam says. “From 2004 on­wards, she was a leader. She be­came the sym­bol – for bet­ter or worse – of the Ma­nipur re­sis­tance.”

In her guarded ward, Sharmila oc­cu­pied her­self with pass­ing the end­less time alone. She wrote po­etry. She rose in the mid­dle of the night to walk in cir­cles in the cor­ri­dors. She held yoga po­si­tions for hours.

She fought the mad­den­ing dry­ness of her mouth – hav­ing also es­chewed wa­ter – by suck­ing cot­ton balls to keep saliva flowing.

“I re­ally loved life,” she says. “Just be­cause of that love, those long years of en­durance were pos­si­ble.”

She awaited the day Ma­nipuris would be in­spired by her strike to or­gan­ise, shed their divi­sions and force the govern­ment to re­peal the mil­i­tary spe­cial pow­ers act. Then she could get on with a nor­mal ex­is­tence.

Yet as her aura grew, Sharmila felt like this goal was be­com­ing more dis­tant. “That pro­longed sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity and com­mit­ment was left to me alone. It needed to be a col­lec­tive cause, a mass cause.

“I was iso­lated and idolised, liv­ing on a pedestal, with­out voice, with­out feel­ing,” she says.

At the peak of her pow­ers, Sharmila was be­ing sought out by No­bel lau­re­ates and diplo­mats. She was called the Iron Lady of Ma­nipur. She was mis­er­able.

Early in 2007, a Bri­tish-In­dian named Des­mond Coutinho ar­rived in the coun­try. His mother had just died from can­cer, and the west Lon­doner was ques­tion­ing his life. “I was al­ways half-train­ing to do some­thing but never got any­where,” he says.

So a friend sug­gested Coutinho, now 55, fol­low in the foot­steps of generations of list­less west­ern­ers and go to In­dia to find him­self. He even­tu­ally set­tled in the south In­dian city of Ban­ga­lore, where one morn­ing, he saw a news­pa­per story about a hunger striker in Ma­nipur. He says: “The story sounded hor­rific, and at the end she said she liked read­ing books, but she wasn’t al­ways given some.”

So Coutinho started send­ing her let­ters, along with two books. About three months later, Sharmila replied. “It was a bit of a stroppy let­ter,” he re­calls. Sharmila was keener to in­ter­ro­gate the crimes of im­pe­rial Bri­tain than to flirt. “She wrote, ‘It’s all well and good to ad­mire me, Mr Coutinho, but why is it right to send your mer­ce­nar­ies through­out the world?’”

He re­calls: “I replied say­ing, whoa – I per­son­ally do not send any mer­ce­nar­ies any­where.”

Over the next months they kept ex­chang­ing let­ters, and Coutinho kept send­ing her books. She liked PG Wode­house. She dis­liked a book of es­says about post­mod­ernist economics. (“I toned down my choices,” Coutinho says.) Her favourite was a biography of In­grid Be­tan­court, the French-Colom­bian ac­tivist held hostage by guer­ril­las for six years.

Coutinho was smit­ten by Sharmila, and siz­ing up the hurdle be­fore him: how to sig­nal to a woman he had never met – a woman en­gaged in the world’s long­est hunger strike – that he was keen to start a re­la­tion­ship.

Sharmila fi­nally made the move. “She wrote a very sweet let­ter, say­ing please for­give me if I’ve mis­un­der­stood, and if I’m wrong, please don’t hurt me,” he says. “I went to one of the lo­cal stores and looked for the big­gest Valen­tine’s card I could find. Some­thing over the top, so there could be no mis­un­der­stand­ing.”

Sharmila re­minded him she was not free. Did he want this com­mit­ment? A re­la­tion­ship with a pris­oner, iso­lated in a hospi­tal ward?

“So I said in re­turn, I will no longer be free,” he says. “I will not write to any­one but you.”

“To me, the prob­lem started when Coutinho walked into her life,” says Loitong­bam. “Ma­nipuri so­ci­ety is tra­di­tional, and there is a cer­tain way courtship should take place.”

Coutinho’s ar­rival in Ma­nipur in 2011 shook up the anti-Af­spa move­ment. The group of ac­tivist moth­ers who had sur­rounded Sharmila stren­u­ously ob­jected to the partnership. So did mem­bers of her own fam­ily.

For Sharmila, the re­ac­tions fu­elled a sense of re­sent­ment to­wards the cam­paign­ers around her. “Even though I was on a hunger strike, I still cher­ished fam­ily life, liv­ing with a life part­ner. My in­ner be­ing was dream­ing of th­ese things.”

She con­tin­ued her an­nual cy­cle of re­lease, star­va­tion and ar­rest, but her doubts were grow­ing, and she prayed for guid­ance. In July 2016 she shocked the coun­try and her sup­port­ers by abruptly an­nounc­ing an end date to her fast. “Noth­ing had changed in peo­ple’s mind­sets af­ter 16 years,” she says. “I re­ally wanted to change my­self, the en­vi­ron­ment, the tac­tics, ev­ery­thing.”

In­stead, Sharmila said, she would marry Coutinho and con­tinue her struggle by run­ning for Ma­nipur’s par­lia­ment.

To Loitong­bam, the plan was hope­lessly naive. Democ­racy in In­dia can be grubby; most cit­i­zens still vote along caste or re­li­gious lines, and votes are brazenly traded for money or gifts. It is no place for saints.

The elec­tion, held in March 2017, was a dis­as­ter. Sharmila ran against the state’s most prom­i­nent politi­cian. She won 90 votes. Two days af­ter the re­sult was an­nounced, she boarded a flight out of Ma­nipur.

To­day, Sharmila lives in an apart­ment on the out­skirts of Ban­ga­lore. She and Coutinho re­cently cel­e­brated their first wed­ding an­niver­sary. They went to the Taj Ma­hal. A pic­ture of the pair is framed in their home, near a shelf of awards that Sharmila has ac­cu­mu­lated, and a rare statue of a starv­ing Bud­dha.

Eat­ing again is a plea­sure, she says. Ev­ery­thing is tastier since the fast. “That first drop of honey was bit­ter, so caus­tic,” she re­calls. “The taste spread through­out my whole body.”

Hours later, beyond the glare of the cam­eras, she tried to drink co­conut juice – and threw it up. It took her months to hold down a full meal.

Sharmila has never re­turned to Ma­nipur. She is un­sure if she would be wel­come. I ask if she is fi­nally at peace. “I think so,” she says. “No more bondage, con­trol­ling by oth­ers all the time. That sense of free­dom, my own view, reach­ing out to the far­thest point.”

“What else could we have done?” Loitong­bam says rue­fully. “The only ser­vice we could do was to build her im­age higher and push for the re­peal of Af­spa.

“Our mis­take was that we eu­lo­gised her so much,” he con­cludes. “She didn’t want to be a god. She wanted to be a hu­man.”

ABOVE Sharmila and her hus­band at the Visthar jus­tice and peace cam­pus near their home in Ban­ga­lore.

LEFTIrom Sharmila is taken to hospi­tal in 2016, shortly be­fore end­ing her hunger strike. Pho­to­graph by Anu­pam Nath/AP

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