Woman with iron in her soul

November 5, 2014 was the 14th anniversary of the world’s longest fast by Irom Sharmila. Amit Sengupta has a conversation with Irom Sharmila in her hospital room and brings us intimate stories from Manipur, of the ‘Malom Massacre’, of women raped and murdered signifying the horrors of AFSPA and a defiant woman revolting against army violence …

“I am an easy-going person,” she says.  “I am an ordinary woman.  I want to live an ordinary life.”

The hospital corridors move into an antiseptic labyrinth of familiar smells and suffering. It had taken us serious effort to get permission from the office of the Superintendent of Manipur Central Jail in Imphal to enter the premises and meet her.  In police custody at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Parampat in East Imphal, it is difficult to internalise the heaviness and suffocation in the air. It seems that time has turned static; that 14 protracted and long years of suffering and struggle have passed by like a legendary epic in slow motion since that fateful and tragic day Irom Sharmila began her fast on November 5, 2000, against the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, (AFSPA), originally enacted in 1958, with parts of Northeast of India in focus, so predictably declared as “disturbed areas”. Inevitably, the act was later enacted in Kashmir as well, and that is where the two disparate geographical ends of the great Indian map unite in its “occupied and prison consciousness”.

In her one-room ‘cell’ in the hospital, Irom Sharmila sits on an old mat and argues: How can nations call themselves advanced or civilised if they practice, sanction and legitimise organized barbarism in the name of law and order? She asks, repeatedly: Why can’t they repeal AFSPA if they know so well that it is completely inhuman, anti-democratic, brutal, and irrational; that it has led to mass insecurity, relentless tragedies, angst and injustice in Manipur and Kashmir; that it has led to the armed forces going berserk without accountability and with absolute impunity? She says, slowly but steadily, “I am fighting for reason and humanity. My struggle is peaceful. Why should the armed forces be allowed to kill and torture and get away? Why are we treated differently from the rest of India?”

So, will it ever be successful, this long and endless struggle, and how long will it take, how many more years?

She looks up, the nasal drip fixed on her nose, her hair falling all over face, her face resolute, her eyes almost twinkling. She smiles, “Why not?”

Her little room is full of books arranged in three rows, including a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, her bed is surrounded with teddy bears, her window shelf adorned with green plants, her walls full of messages, newspaper clippings and posters, including one of Nelson Mandela. There are pictures of Hindu gods on the wall. There are two little guinea pigs in the room, a gift, which she feeds, they are her pets. They too seem like symbolic ‘living’ creatures in an ‘occupied’ time and space.


It’s time to leave. The cops are at the door. “You must be tired,” says someone. “No,” she protests vehemently. “I am not tired. I am ready to spend hours with you. This is only a reminder of the fact that I am a prisoner.”

THE EARLY EVENING sun sets into the room too early and suddenly, even as Imphal prepares for yet another dark night  — at just about 5 pm. It’s been a long day in the life and time of Irom Chanu Sharmila in her solitary prison, surrounded by posters, guinea pigs, messages of solidarity, and teddy bears on her crumpled bed. Outside her room, a huge pile of hospital garbage has collected; no one seems to have noticed the Delhi hyperbole of the ‘pledge of cleanliness’ here. Last clicks of the camera, and Sharmila says goodbye. It’s transparent: she is a prisoner. No one knows this bitter realism than this frail woman with iron in her soul.

Outside the hospital, in a make-shift tent, on a busy and dusty road, the mothers of Manipur are eternally waiting, steadfast and stoic, sitting in resolute defiance, day after day, fasting every day, day after day, in solidarity with Sharmila. Even while small town Imphal goes around in half-circles,  eternally dusty and polluted, with big hoardings of Mary Kom and Priyanka Chopra staring at you at street corners; even as  para-military commandos stalk every nook and corner on the streets, and armoured convoys of security cross traffic lights, as if it is another country.

Ironically, Mary Kom could not be released in the eight odd cinema halls in Imphal which still run Manipuri films, some of which are immensely successful with Manipur throwing up its own superstars. Most cinema halls have bitten dust, and the rest don’t show Hindi or English movies; the unwritten ban has been imposed by the ‘rebels; of the many armed underground groups which marks it as resistance against “mainstream Indian culture” and the “repressive Indian State apparatus”. As an aberration, one Hollywood movie was curiously shown to a surprised audience in June 2011 at Usha Cinema Hall: Fast and Furious 5.

And yet, almost everyone has seen Mary Kom at home on TV, with pirated, shared or borrowed networks, including via cable.  However, it is not really a rage. “The film is just about okay,” seems to be the unanimous verdict in the capital of Manipur, within which the river Imphal flows, once a sublime flow of many currents, like an unhappy river turned into a dirty drain.

MALOM IS A BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAIN VILLAGE far away from the undulating meadows, valley and water bodies in the picturesque hilly kaleidoscope of Imphal, still left unravaged by the insatiable desires of backward capitalism, modernity and industrialisation. Across the vast agricultural fields, rice terrains, green landscape and pristine ponds, the village suddenly appears like a memorial, refusing to be forgotten. A memorial, in memory of the dead.

Ten people, including youngsters and women, including a national bravery award winner, were shot dead in cold blood as a public spectacle by the 17 Assam Rifles, for no rhyme or reason. The killings are now infamously remembered as the ‘Malom Massacre’. It is this massacre on November 2, 2000 which triggered the infinite fast of Irom Sharmila, which entered its 15th year on November 5, 2014, in imprisonment and custody in Imphal.

Fathers, mothers, brothers, neighbours, ordinary folks: they speak haltingly, in staccato, unfinished sentences, their voices moving with the wind of the rice fields, hanging in sudden stillness, around a humble memorial with the pictures of the dead, next to the little bus stand where the killings started. Tears flow effortlessly from the eyes of the mothers, dressed in pristine white, their suffering relentless, unforgettable, sine die, without a closure.

Across the little green pond in the field late afternoon on that fateful day, an underground rebel group triggered a blast even while the convoy of the para-military forces crossed the village road. The man who did it disappeared, but the forces went berserk. They killed anybody and everybody they saw, someone in the field, others at the bus stop, others alighting from a two-wheeler. Women, boys, men, without a single mark of ‘terrorism’ on their faces, were draped in blood on the streets for all to see.

They sanitised this twilight zone, blocked all movement and all information, declared a de facto curfew, hauled up all the men, and branded the entire village as criminal/terrorist.  This was the full might of the totalitarian powers of the Indian State, in absolute and stunning public exhibition, close to the state capital, under the legendary and infamous AFSPA.

Now, all the names and the faces, lit by candles flickering in the sunshine, stare at you, as if the clock of justice is destined to turn anti-clockwise. “I still can’t accept that he left the house never to return,” said Takon Devi, mother of Soibam Prakash, 24, shot dead.  Her son’s name too is etched at the memorial erected by ‘The Ten Innocents’ Trust Organisation’, Malom. Another mother gives you a candle; she is speechless in her white sarong and white shawl, not a tear in her eyes. The candles flicker and the names of the dead become blurred in the saline waters of this annual resurrection of tragedy and injustice by those who have survived and who just can’t forget:


Mrs. Leisangbam ongbi Ibetombi, 62.
Mr. Gurumayum Bapu Sharma, 57.
Mr. Oinam Sanatomba Singh, 50.
Mr. Kangjam Bijoy @ Naouba, 35.
Mr. Amakcham Raghumani, 34.
Mr. Soibam Prakash 25.
Mr. Kshetrimayum Inaocha, 20.
Mr. Tokpam Shantikumar, 19.
Mr. Sinam Robin 28.
Sinam Chandramani, 18, (Winner, National Child Bravery Award 1988).

The brief statement issued by T Somorendra Singh, whose son Tokpam too was killed, is simple, like the people of this village. It says: “The root cause of such type of killings is due to the adoption of AFSPA. Such type of killings might be happening anywhere at any moment. Under these laws, we are in a cage, like a fish in a pot. The solution is to root out AFSPA, the draconian laws, completely, from the surface of the earth… Irom Sharmila’s love for mankind is boundless. She is struggling not for a particular area or country, but for all mankind…”

ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF EAST IMPHAL, across the road, one has to move into a shed surrounded by trees, cross a long lane with little huts across, and finally reach the empty courtyard of the humble house of Thangjam Manorama Devi, her family trapped in abject, transparent poverty.  On the intervening night of July 11-12, 2004, the 32-year-old woman was reportedly tortured in this very courtyard in the thick of the night (midnight? at the crack of dawn?), and then picked up by men of the Assam Rifles. She was branded with no evidence whatsoever as an expert in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and an informer of the underground People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Her ravaged, brutalised, bullet-ridden corpse was left in a field not far from her home. The Assam Rifles claimed that she was shot dead because was trying to escape at the pretext of easing herself.  That compelled them to fire a short burst in the air to warn her; consequently, they fired towards her legs.

Manorama was wearing a sarong, the traditional Manipuri dress. Every woman in Manipur will tell you, that it is absolutely impossible to run so fast to escape a group of trained male soldiers, as claimed by the para-military forces, that too while wearing a sarong.

Every independent report, thereafter, including leaked official versions, proved that Manorama Devi was killed in cold blood after alleged gang-rape by Assam Rifles personnel. As many as eight bullets were reportedly fired at her at point-blank range, including on her genitals, clearly, as experts point out, hiding evidence of the sexual assault.  Other forensic evidence found on her body too proved the assault.

The latest report drafted by the Commission of Inquiry under former District and Sessions Judge Upendra Singh, recently submitted to the Supreme Court, has categorically put the onus on the army and blamed it for its “reluctance” to cooperate in the investigations. The judge has termed the army claim as a “naked lie” and recommended action against the men of Assam Rifles. It has stated that Manorama was picked up after issuing an “improper arrest memo”. She was “never handed over to any police station, even though the Irilbung police station is just half a kilometre away from her house”.  The local police or civil administration was not given any information about her arrest, as is required.

She was found dead next day with “multiple gun shots and other injuries on various parts of her body, including genitals and thighs” about two kilometres from the local police station.

The bare courtyard of Manorama’s modest house has a tulsi tree, surrounded by a small, unruly forest. The verandah has a dilapidated handloom and a faded, framed picture of Manorama with her family. Her frail and fragile mother, trapped in abject poverty, looks shaken and devastated. The years which have gone by have only added an air of absolute suffering and helplessness around her wrinkled face. Will she say something? Whispered Thangjam Khumaneleimai Devi, “I don’t have anything to say.”

Her son Dolendra Singh, in a worn out T-shirt, told the painful story yet again. That the torture began in this verandah. That he has run from pillar to post, across the spectrum of political parties and political leaders, but justice has eluded the family. There has not been an iota of relief. “All we want is justice,” he says.

Added Babloo Loitongbam of the Human Rights Alert, based in Imphal, “Justice? When the NHRC awarded Rs 10 lakh to the family, the army opposed it on the ground that it would set a bad precedence. Instead, the men responsible for the crime have been upgraded and promoted.” Babloo should know. He has been in the thick of the struggle against AFSPA since the day Irom Sharmila chose to continue her fast.

Human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen, too, came to meet Manorama’s mother in Imphal. “She too is our sister, our daughter,” he told her mother on November 4. “We too will not rest till she gets justice.”

Her mother nodded. She shut her eyes. She sat on a little cane stool in the courtyard, as silent as a statue. In her poverty-stricken life after her daughter’s brutalisation, and at this moment, she epitomised absolute tragedy and the complete failure of Indian democracy.  Her fragile body, wrinkled face, old, worn-out sarong, her thin fingers, and her eyes as lucid as that of a mother; her silence like an epic. You can almost see Manorama’s image in her eyes, like a black and white picture in an eternal twilight zone in which there is no hope of a dawn.

NOVEMBER 5, 2014 IS AN EVENTFUL DAY IN DUSTY IMPHAL.  This is not the beginning of the end, but the 15 year beginning of the fast, and the 14th anniversary. Irom Sharmila is alone in custody continuing her fast with that nasal drop fixed to her face. Outside the hospital, amidst non-stop traffic, the  fearless and defiant Mothers of Manipur, all wearing pristine white sarongs and shawls, elegant, dignified and beautiful, many of them 70 plus, have yet again raised their collective voice in solidarity with the prisoner on fast, and against the “draconian AFSPA”. They sing, they shout slogans, they give speeches, they rally, they light a thousand candles, and they refuse to be defeated.

They are also among the defiant mothers who stripped themselves naked outside the Kangla Fort in Imphal, then the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, originally the palace and cultural centre and heartland of the ancient Meitie Manipuri civilisaton.  On that day, soon after the rape and murder of Manorama, the mothers had stripped naked in front of the western gate and challenged the might of para military forces and the armed Indian state in “occupied Manipure”. They held a banner: “Indian Army Come Rape Us.”

Momon Soibam, 70 plus, is a natural leader. Her spontaneous speeches are fiery and resonant with the idea of freedom and justice. “Until AFSPA is removed, we will fight against it. Every day we will fast in solidarity with Sharmila. We will not accept defeat,” she says. The traffic slows down, stops; people wait for her speech to end; others join and light a candle.

The Mothers of Manipur have resilience; they have guts. They refuse to be defeated. Even the mighty Indian State seems scared of them.

On November 5, across Imphal there are waves of protests. School students and teachers across the city are fasting inside their schools. Students at the University of Manipur are fasting. Film actors, writers, producers, musicians and directors are fasting outside Shankar Talkies. The entire film fraternity is fasting for Sharmila. Says top star Kaiku, “Our sister is fasting for the 15th year now. We want to ask the people of all states in India to come out and support Sharmila,” he says.

Says ‘superstar’ Gokul, “The army can’t get away by killing innocent people. They have to repeal AFSPA. Sharmila is dying for humanity. She too has a right to live a normal life. We, all the people, are the same; we may be in Delhi or Manipur. She wants all the people everywhere to be treated with dignity and freedom.”

It’s become dark yet again a bit too early. We sneak inside the hospital. We have no permission to meet Irom Sharmila. A signal is sent inside. She sneaks out to the corridor across the barricaded door.  Hands seek out her hand.  “I will come back,” says a South Korean photographer, clicking desperately…

And then, she cries. In stunning silence. Tears roll down her cheeks. I remember her first statement, “I am a prisoner.”

She is. A prisoner.

“Don’t cry,” says a friend. A cop arrives. “Go away,” the cop shouts. Sharmila stands alone holding the gate, refusing to leave. In the darkness her tears shine like petals. Everyone moves away, far away. It’s time to leave. Or else, they might harass her.

Between the Iron Gate and the darkness, now, she stands alone. “Long live,” I say. The final goodbye. She stands there, solitary, holding the gate. The candles burn on the stairs. And then her voice, loud, lucid and strong as steel, floats through the darkness.

“Long live,” she says.

As AFSPA moves through the night with army convoys in Manipur, that’s the last sound of silence floating in Imphal, as I say my silent farewell to a woman with Iron in her Soul.

Amit Sengupta started journalism when he was 19, even while he was working in the relief camps as a student of JNU after the State sponsored genocide of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. Since then, he has been an independent president of the JNU Students' Union, writer, activist and editor, closely involved with multiple people's movements and conflict zones in contemporary India. He was Executive Editor, Hardnews magazine, South Asian partner of Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris. He has earlier worked as a senior editor and journalist with Tehelka, Outlook, The Hindustan Times, Asian Age, The Pioneer, The Economic Times and Financial Chronicle. Till recently he has been a professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.

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