When I met Eche

By Tinky Ningombam

Last week I attended a candle light vigil in the name of Eche Sharmila. With an early exit from my office, I rushed to the venue at Delhi University where students from the State and supporters from others had gathered for a march. It was a feeling of nostalgia and renewed enthusiasm as the thought of a vigil rekindled the memories of my student years when I used to brandish my social and political voice with colorful placards and rallying with my fellow mates. The passionate activism in my student years have been mellowed down with age perhaps but habits don’t die soon I reckoned later. From campaigning for school elections to leading rallies, my student life has indeed been colorful, thanks to me being borne in a conflict riddled State and landing straight in Delhi later, the mother-ship of student activism.

Irom Sharmila Chanu (born March 14, 1972), also known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur” or “Mengoubi” (“the fair one”) is a civil rights activist, political activist, and poet from the Indian state of Manipur. Since 2 November 2000, she has been on hunger strike to demand that the Indian government repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), which she blames for violence in Manipur and other parts of northeast India. Having refused food and water for more than 500 weeks, she has been called “the world’s longest hunger striker”. Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia
My story goes back to 2006, when I was studying Literature in my MA first year in Delhi University, in awe of artistic prodigies, getting inspired by poems of revolutions, fueled by thoughts of an idyllic society.  In the midst of it all, a pact of friends started when we unanimously decided that we should do something to allow the younger generation from the State to showcase their musical talent. And with this thought, an informal events’ committee was formed that my friends initiated, one that would speak with a fresh voice, one that hoped to provide a stage for our rich musical talents to perform in the capital city. Ill-experienced and without a single penny to our name, we started planning a Tapta concert to start the drive. We were far removed from politics then, but just a bunch of young blood who wanted to do something creative. And we were caught in a bigger scheme of things. Eche Sharmila flew in to Delhi and set up her fast at Jantar Mantar. Her protest was always a topic of our discussions but we never really understood what her struggle really meant.  And I guess now, back then, we had never really understood the gravity of the sacrifice that she has made for us. In the light of the recent development, we had to cancel our event. Most of our members had to give time in to join the rest of the protesters at Jantar Mantar and we had to pause our work.

Normal life ensued for me, or so I thought. The next day I went to college and my evening Human Rights’ classes that I took at the ISIL. A phone call from our dis-assembled group changed my plans and I found myself at Jantar Mantar with our group taking the midnight shift for Eche. For a very long time, even when I had reached the venue, I didn’t go near where Eche was. I didn’t know why but I was too overwhelmed, I was seeing something that I only read in books, of meeting a real life hero, a woman of true grit fighting for non-violence, being a voice of the oppressed. The thought scared me. After a while of walking around the pavement where about 30 odd people had gathered in and around the protest area, I finally sat by her side on the pavement and kept the ice packs by her head. She had her eyes closed as we kept the ice packs beside her. I was told to replace it when the ice melted; I did what I was directed.

In some time, I was called out by my friend to set my place to camp the night, to use Odomos and to find myself a make-shift pillow. But as I returned to the site, I saw our beloved CM with his array of guards talking to Eche and we gathered besides them . Not an hour later, the police squads came in. Everything happened really fast, next second I was running barefoot and we were around Eche and trying to stop them from taking her. Ten minutes later, they did take her and I looked around to search for my friends. And suddenly, almost everyone was gone, being chased and scattered things lay everywhere till just a handful of us re-gathered. We knew we could not leave and that we had to follow them and so we did with some of the activists, us with Da Babloo (Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert) to reach AIIMS.

When we reached, the nurse was attending to her besides the ward gate; Me, my friend Rosy and another young Assamese activist escorted Eche to the hospital room and we stayed the night whilst our friends waited outside AIIMS. When the nurse had set the drips in place, Eche started talking. She asked us what we were studying; it was as if nothing had happened, as if we were friends who were just hanging out for a sleep-over. We sat at the couch 3 of us while we saw her slowly been made to sleep on the hospital bed.  We spent the night on the couch, sitting. We didn’t talk. And as we walked out of the hospital in the morning, I knew that I would never meet a woman so extraordinary, someone so unassuming and yet stronger than anyone that I had ever met before.

Till today, when my friends do ask me what it was like, I could never clearly explain what I felt that night, but it was something that I would never forget in my life. And though we never set out to make that committee again, we became more involved in social activism in our own ways. Life caught up with us then and our professional lives took us into the grind. But Eche carried on. College days are long gone but not her struggle against AFSPA. And this time when I walked through the University lanes, candle in my hand, I saw these bright-eyed young kids, shouting for justice, raising their candle for solidarity, embracing Eche’s struggle. And I smiled.

“I’ll spread the fragrance of peace/ From Kanglei, my birthplace/ In the ages to come/It will spread all over the world.” Irom Sharmila



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