There is something poignant and evocative about Imphal, the capital city of Manipur. It has been almost a year back when I first visited Imphal and the loneliness of the place still haunts me. The violence ravaged city stands alone, like a stoic mountain enduring its pain in silence.
As I and few of my friends entered Imphal, all we saw were jawans of Indian armed forces lined up its various streets as long as our eyes could see them. The long queue of jawans in fatigues and bandanaas created a hallucination like feeling for the visitors. They were spread everywhere.
I asked myself, "Is this India, or a foreign land?" The prying eyes of army men narrated the whole story. "Not all is well with Manipur." Otherwise, why in a democratic country army men are dictating every move of civilians? It is the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) which gives Indian army the power to kill and arrest anybody in Manipur according to their whims and fancies.
It is not just Imphal but its inhabitants also carried a piercing melancholic look. Even when they smile, it is not hard to miss the tears in their eyes. This is no exaggeration but reality which we (read mainland India and its people) often love to ignore. And this is the plight of Manipur, where militancy, corruption and lack of governance have created a complex situation, which is difficult to describe in few words.
And defining the tragedy of Manipur and its people is Irom Sharmila Chanu. The lone woman, who is on fast for last 12 years to express her protest against AFSPA.
So, all young men and women in Manipur (the entire northeast for that matter) are prospective terrorists, especially when "special laws" like AFPSA makes a mockery of living in a 'free country'. The shroud of "disturbed area" tag engulfs the entire northeast India, almost since the Indian republic got its independence.
On mere suspicion, people are arrested and killed at point blank by the law enforcing agencies in the Northeast region. It is true that Northeast is hit by militancy but tell me about one place in India where crime and killings don't take place. You can't. But I can tell you that nowhere else in India, common citizens have to prove themselves to be law-abiding citizens of the nation every day.
Sharmila completed 12 years of her hunger fast against the controversial Act on Monday, Nov 5.
Sharmila (41) has been fasting since Nov 5, 2000, a couple of days after Assam Rifles personnel gunned down 10 civilians including a National Child Bravery Award winner near a bus stand at Malom village along the Imphal-Aizawl highway.
"Sharmila completes the 12th year of her fast today (Monday) and she is entering the 13th year of her stir. She will continue till the oppressive act is repealed. The state government as well as the 60 legislators are watching her struggle but are not taking steps to scrap the act. We are not happy with their attitude towards her struggle," Irom Singhajit, Sharmila's elder brother said.
The sight of Sharmila, a petite woman wrapped in a shawl with a pipe inserted in her nose can easily move anyone to tears. But it seems Indian authority has decided to maintain its silence and waiting for Sharmila to die the death of a martyr? No authority, no politician, no bureaucrat had ever shown their solidarity to Sharmila. But the fragile and weak woman is determined enough to fight her battle alone by refusing to take food and water for more than 500 weeks now. In fact, she has created a world record for being "the world's longest hunger striker", a feat which is nothing to celebrate but rather we should mourn about it.
"I am not going to break my fast and am ready to die for a cause that I believe is just and right," Sharmila said.
"I am fighting for justice," Sharmila sounding confident, said in a feeble voice.
The authority may be blind towards her demands but they are scared by the bravery of a lonely unarmed woman, who has become a symbol of resistance against dictatorial attitude of the Central government.
Three days after she began her strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with an "attempt to commit suicide", which is unlawful under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, and was later transferred to judicial custody. Her health deteriorated rapidly and the police then forcibly had to use nasogastric intubation in order to keep her alive while under arrest. Since then, Irom Sharmila has been regularly released and re-arrested every year under IPC section 309, a person who "attempts to commit suicide" is punishable "with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year (or with fine, or with both)".
Within the confines of her hospital bed, Sharmila writes fervently, with the hope that one day authority would listen to her cries.
Apart from being a political crusader and civil rights activist, Sharmila is a poet too. She has published her poetry collection "Fragrance of Peace" in 2010, which contains twelve of her poems. The poems were originally written in her native language Meiteilon. The poems of Sharmila consist of a unique blend of passion, protest and hope.
Wake Up (By Irom Sharmila Chanu)
Wake up brothers and sisters
The saviour of the nation
We have come out all the way
Knowing we all will die
Why the fear is
So shaky in the heart?
Yes, myself too
In the impact of this hard step
Overwhelmed with anxiety and fear
With the prayer to almighty
Praising the spirit of truth
Touchily from this frail body
I am bidding farewell
Yet longing for life
Though birth is followed by death
So fond of to accomplice
My desired mission
Hope isolation of Sharmila and her struggle comes to an end soon before it takes another shape. For a Gandhian like Sharmila, violence can never be a tool to continue a legitimate struggle. But in Manipur, where militancy has taken the shape of cottage industry, future might have more episodes of violence in store.