By Chitra Ahanthem
Today’s edition of Footnotes will really be a reproduction of my IFP editorial on March 13, 2013 titled ‘The annual spectacle of Irom Sharmila’ as it is this piece that has been accorded the Laadli gender awards for ‘Best Editorial’ for the ‘Print’ category (Eastern region). Written just days short of the yearly ritual of the release of anti AFSPA campaigner Irom Sharmila, the editorial was selected for its focus on the ‘marginalization and trivialization of Irom Sharmila’s struggle for the repeal of AFSPA.’ The editorial is reproduced below:
It’s that time of the year again: when Irom Sharmila at two days short of turning forty will be ‘released’ after a mandatory one year of being held in custody. She was only twenty eight years old when she began her epic fast in November 2000 protesting against the impunity that central para military forces enjoy in the state and in the region that had led one such force to fire indiscriminately at a group of people waiting for a bus. The circumstances that led Sharmila to her fast needs no reminding but what needs to be acknowledged is that Sharmila’s long fast and her firm belief that the Act will go away one day is now almost a footnote in the history of the forgotten. Once in a while, the slumber gets roused when there is a news blip on her but for most purposes Irom Sharmila is left alone to her stand and her commitment and brought out in ceremony. The usual suspect would be the mainstream media, which cannot bring itself to engage with the issues being raised by Sharmila in the same way it sweats out over even a Baba Ramdev or later, Anna Hazare. The few who have come to see Sharmila’s journey of protest and through her, the story of thousands of women who have lost their loved ones have come in late and too far in between. And then in the media, there is the phenomenon of milking the story in its prime. But in the case of Manipur and in the case of Irom Sharmila, that prime area has never been reached.
Sharmila herself knows that hers is a lonely struggle. In one of her poems, she wrote poignantly, ‘Am I a spectacle to be just stared at? They look, they observe and then, they go back to their lives.” The sight of representatives of civil groups from the valley and hill districts must have made her happy at long last for it was something that she has always mentioned in the course of her media interactions. Yet, on the same hand it is equally true that there are people who continue to remain insensitive to the cause that Irom Sharmila has committed herself too. By mocking her, they really mock their own failings. For Sharmila though, the mockery is not new but is part and parcel of how her life is governed and regulated. Booked under Section 307 that charges her of the attempt to commit suicide because of her stand to remain on an indefinite fast till the Armed Forces Special Powers’ Act is repealed, Sharmila continues to be produced every 15 days to be asked cursorily whether she is to continue her fast. Every 15 days, she is escorted by a team of police personnel and taken to court where there is only one question being asked. But there is more to the story. When the Patiala Court sends her summons for her appearance at Delhi, there is no acknowledgement that Irom Sharmila cannot move of her own free will as she is technically a prisoner and merely being kept in hospital because of the need to force feed her through a nasal tube. When the state government did not take up any arrangements for her transfer to Delhi, the court charged Irom Sharmila of contempt of court instead of rapping the state government, which gave the rather lame reason as a fund crunch that prevented it from taking her to the Court.
The message of hope that Sharmila gives is proof that suicide is the last thing on her mind. A woman kept in confinement and voluntarily cut off from even the most basic sense of taste falls in love and says that there will be life and love after AFSPA is lifted can only be an epitome of hope and a strong will. To say that her love for life and desire for love lies at odds with her stand on AFSPA would be foolishness. To honor the person that lies under the mantle of being an icon would be what Irom Sharmila would ask for of her own brethren.
Apart from the issue of an award on Irom Sharmila’s stuggle, the plight of the person it is about remains in the same status quo. Over and above the fact that many look on her struggle as something to be glossed over every time there is a significant aside on the yearly calendar, most notably the day she started her fast and the day she is released to be captured again; Irom Sharmila is left to languish in a world that is dictated by what is expected of her as an icon. It took severe criticism of the Government authority from the National Human Rights Commission to allow her visitors but the emergence of various women groups ironically to stop her from meeting who she wants to adds another layer to the fight that still lays in the way of Irom Sharmila. Even as a growing section of people are realizing that Irom Sharmila’s fight is against the intolerance and disrespect of lives that state agencies practice with impunity, not many are able to see that Sharmila is also fighting narrow prejudices of the very people that she is standing up for.