SEPTEMBER 12 (courtesy TOI): Manipur`s `Iron Lady`, Irom Chanu SharmilaManipur`s `Iron Lady`, Irom Chanu Sharmila, is the subject of a raging debate in the state. Sharmila, on a hunger strike since November 2, 2000, demanding withdrawal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or the AFSPA, recently confessed to a group of visiting journalists that she was in love with a British citizen of Goa origin and complained that her supporters, unhappy with this development, had behaved harshly with the man.
A Kolkata-based English newspaper that published the interview has been banned in Manipur by the influential Apunba Lup, a coalition of 13 prominent civil society organizations. Her league of dismayed supporters see the interview as a sinister attempt by the state to draw attention away from her movement and the Act which empowers security forces to detain people without trial and immunity from prosecution after killing civilians.
Sharmila, 39, launched her fast after a particularly horrific incident of the paramilitary Assam Rifles opening fire on unarmed civilian demonstrators near state capital Imphal`s Tulihal airport on November 1, 2000, killing ten and seriously injuring many. Since then, she has mostly been confined to a state hospital where she is under arrest and is being force-fed. Her protest, the longest such fast anywhere in the world, has gained global attention and drawn the spotlight on the `unconstitutional` AFSPA. Sharmila, say her supporters and a plethora of human rights and civil society organizations in the state, has been the beacon of the movement to demand withdrawal of the AFSPA that had led to thousands of disappearances, `encounter` deaths and cold blooded killings by security forces in Manipur over the past few decades.
Sharmila, in the interview with the news daily, spoke of her love for the 48-year-old Desmond Coutinho, a writer and human rights activist, with whom she had been exchanging letters for the past one year. She said they met for the first time on March 9 this year when she was produced in a local court. It was sometime during the exchange of letters that he proposed to her and she accepted the proposal. He has gifted her a Apple MacBook, which is her prized possession now. She said her supporters were against the marriage, which she has clarified will take place only after she succeeds in her mission of getting the AFSPA repealed. Desmond, she said, had arrived in Imphal in February and had to wait for many days before her being allowed to meet her.
The interview created uproar in Manipur , where she is justifiably revered by people. “At one level, Sharmila is free to fall in love with anyone she wants and marry him and no one has the right to oppose this. But the way just her romance was publicized gives the impression that a sinister attempt has been made to destroy the aura around her,” prominent human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam told TOI. He pointed out that it is the state which controls access to her. “I find it very strange that while even letters written by her family members don`t reach her, those written by a man who must have been a stranger to her initially are delivered to her. Her own kith and kin can`t meet her, and here we see a group of journalists from outside the state gaining so easy access to her,” added Loitongbam, who is also closely involved in the fight for repeal of the `black` Act. “Did the media focus on the issue of corruption during Hazare`s fast or did they talk about his personal life? In the days of the freedom struggle, was Gandhiji`s personal life the primary issue? Then why should Sharmila`s personal life find so much prominence in the mainstream media that largely ignores the sufferings of the people of Manipur?” asked an indignant Loitongbam.
Prominent social activist and MLA, R K Anand, who has known Sharmila even before she went on fast, told TOI that the circumstances surrounding the developments raised suspicion. “The interviewers focused solely on her so-called love affair. Her personal life is not the main issue. The primary issue is her struggle and the untold atrocities, rapes, molestations and killings committed by the security forces under the cover of the AFSPA. The interview in the newspaper gives the impression that an attempt is being made to divert attention away from the burning issue,” said Anand, who says Sharmila is morally upright, disciplined and honest”.
Few in Manipur are willing to openly comment on Sharmila`s `affair` or her right to fall in love. Privately, however, many say that while what she does in her personal life is her own business and nobody has the right to interfere, her struggle represents the struggle of the people of longsuffering Manipur and, hence, the disappointment among her supporters over the developments.
Everyone TOI spoke to, including prominent lawyers, Opposition politicians who support her struggle, civil society leaders, educationists, artistes and litterateurs, were unanimous in their view that the entire development-a stranger being allowed to write freely to Sharmila, the journalists granted easy access to her and focusing only on her `affair` and the subsequent published interview that highlighted the romance and opposition to it-was a sinister attempt by the state to shift focus away from the struggle that Sharmila is leading.