(Based on the true story of Irom Sharmila, the “Iron Lady of Manipur”. The poetry is by Irom Sharmila herself and was originally published by Human Rights Initiative (HRI))
“If it’s true, that I made an attempt to commit suicide, or if I really wanted to die, there is an electric bulb available. I would have used that! I have plenty of clothes I would have hung myself! It’s not a matter of death!”
-Irom Chanu Sharmila
November 5, 2000:
In a small town called Malom, in the heart of Manipur, two people, enveloped under their shawls, sat down to dine together. A single candle on the table illuminated the room. 28- year-old Sharmila gulped down her favourite pastries and sweets offered on the table.
“Sharmila,” her brother, Singhajit called; his voice shaky and hesitant. Sharmila looked up from her plate. He had hardly taken any food, she noticed.
“Please think about it one more time. It’s too dangerous.” he warned. “Are you sure you want to get into all this?”
He knew it wouldn’t move her. He has been saying it the whole day without being able to affect her decision. He knew how Sharmila felt for her land, her people. Her patriotism was so deep rooted in her heart that even death did not scare her.
“Yes,” she replied with a smile. Her fair face didn’t show the slightest hint of fear.
Two days ago…
She sat on the verandah of their hut, watching the evening sun beginning to slowly descend behind the horizon. It was winter, so the night was going to be long and cold.
But just as dawn followed night, and summer followed winter, will Manipur too be blessed with a ray of light some day?
She sighed sadly. To greet the warmth of the day, you would have to wake up first. You would have to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and take that extra step that’ll lead you there.
And into her notebook, she scribbled:
“Wake up brothers and sisters
The saviour of the nation
We have come out all the way
Knowing we all will die…”
“Sweets, sister?” a voice interrupted her thoughts. It was her brother, with some delicious looking pastries in front her. Sharmila stared at the pastries: tempting, but not enough for her to break her fast.
“It’s Thursday today,” she said, snapping shut her notebook. “You know very well that I fast on Thursdays.”
He whistled softly and took a bite of the pastry. “So delicious!” he teased her.
“Stop doing that, will you? You’re mean!” she cried out and tried to hit him with her notebook. “I won’t break my fast for anything,” she said.
“Well what do you get by fasting every Thursday anyway? You are missing something delicious,” he laughed again, standing a safe distance away from his angry young sister.
She frowned at him and went inside the house, clutching the notebook tight against her chest.
Singhait shrugged nonchalantly. “As you wish…” he said. He always enjoyed pulling his sister’s legs.
Humming an old bollywood song to himself, he walked up to the gate and stood leaning on it, looking around at the people passing by; people leaving for work, children going to school and some others out for their daily chores.
He was just finishing his pastry when suddenly he heard a loud bang. A group of birds flew high in the sky. It took him a moment to realise that it was a bullet shot. Nervous, he dropped his plate on the ground. Then there was another loud bang. He flinched. And then another. His mother came running out of the house. “What’s that noise?” she asked, her expression horrified. She didn’t dare walk up to the gate.
The very next moment, screams filled the atmosphere. “Get inside!” Singhajit cried out, his face pale, as if he had seen a ghost.
Sharmila rushed towards the gate against the pleas of her mother. Another bullet sounded.
“Get in!” her brother screamed, stopping her midway.
“What happened in there?” she screamed out the question. Two more bullets fired.
He held her by her waist and dragged her inside the house. “What’s going on? What did you see? Tell me!” Sharmila was furious. Another bullet. The screams outside continued. Her mother began to pray as a few more bullets fired. After a total of ten shots, the firing ceased. The three looked at one another, fear and helplessness written large on their faces. Sharmila sat down with her hands on her forehead. She was in a daze.
“O God, for how long are you going to sit and watch this massacre?” her mother cried out and began to sob loudly.
“Mother, don’t cry, please,” Singhajit said, holding her hands.
“Send us a saviour, lord!” she said, weeping into his shoulder. “Send us a saviour!” Singhajit gently rubbed her head. He didn’t know what to say.
Sharmila closed her eyes; Whoever they were, they were innocent, the thought made her tremble, and this was one thought that didn’t leave her mind.
As the sun rested behind the clouds and stars started to flicker, Sharmila lighted a candle in the living room and sat down with her mother. They still hadn’t stepped out of the house after the firing.
“Ten people were shot dead at the bus stop… for no apparent reason.” Singhajit broke the bad news to them.
An awkward silence prevailed in the room after he spoke. Not fear, but numbness. For they weren’t new to such incidents, but every time such a thing happened, something inside them seemed to die a little more.
“Who were those people?” Sharmila asked, staring blankly at the floor. Her heart pained.
Singhajit shrugged. “Just… normal people…” he said. “They were simply waiting for the bus…” A wistful expression crossed his face as he spoke. “It could’ve been anyone…”
Again silence. A longer one this time. Numbness. Disappointment.
“Assam Rifles?” Sharmila asked, though she knew the answer.
Singhajit nodded slowly. “Who else…?” he said.
“We have to do something about it,” Sharmila spoke into the silence. “We have to fight.”
“We cannot fight,” Singhajit disagreed.
“It could have been anyone among those ten people,” Sharmila said to no one in particular. “It could have been me too… or you… They’ve been raping and butchering our people for years, Singhajit. Don’t you feel the angry fire in your heart? Don’t you feel responsible to your people?”
“We cannot fight, Sharmila,” Singhajit repeated his words. “They’ll kill the one who fights. Live in fear.”
Sharmila frowned. “I would rather not live!” she spat defiantly and left the room.
She went to her room and slumped on her bed. She couldn’t sleep that night. She tossed and turned in bed, dreaming with her eyes open, hearing the sound of the ten bullets and the screams that followed it again and again in her mind. Ten bullets. Ten people. Ten innocent lives lost. How could she sleep when ten families had been destroyed that very day?
She sat up straight as a streak of sunlight came from the window and a new day dawned. A new day it was, and yet her soul refused to acknowledge it.
She brought out her notebook and wrote:
“…Why the fear is
so shaky in the heart?
Yes, myself too
In the impact of this hard step
Overwhelmed with anxiety and fear…”
“Sharmila, can you get the newspaper?” her mother’s voice brought her back from her poem. She closed her notebook and went to fetch the morning newspaper. She heard her stomach rumble. Yes, she was hungry, having eaten nothing the other day.
She picked up the newspaper from the gate and started walking back. But her steps stopped as soon as her eyes landed on the front page of the newspaper. She just stared in shock at the content. There were photos of ten people: the very ten people whose bodies were pierced by the ten bullets of the previous day. A soft cry escaped her lips when she saw 18- year- old Sinam Chandramani among them. Sinam was a National Child Bravery Award winner of 1988. They were all gone. Killed. Dead.
She gripped the paper tight in her hands and looked upwards towards the sky. She exhaled deeply, a silent prayer for the souls to rest in peace and for their families to have the courage to accept the painful truth. Somebody had to do something. Somebody had to stand up and fight! Somebody… but who?
She stared at the sky and repeated the question to herself.
Somebody… but who?
She went into the dining room where Singhajit was having his morning tea. She placed the newspaper in front of him. Singhajit’s face clouded at once. He let out a gasp.
“So heartless!” he cried out. “O God, why?”
Sharmila stood quietly till her brother finished reading the full article. When he was done, she spoke, “Don’t you think it’s time someone fought them?”
Singhajit was thoughtful. “Superheroes don’t exist, Sharmila.”
“We don’t need a superhero!” Sharmila said immediately. “All we need is the courage to speak up! If we stand united…”
Her brother shook his head. “This is not Delhi or Mumbai, Sharmila. It’s going to take years till our country pays heed to this issue. Who’ll fight? Who’ll take the first step?”
The question hung in the air, unanswered.
“I will,” she said finally.
“…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.”
In the dining table, the tension between the two siblings was obvious. “It could be fatal, you know,” Singhajit said, or rather he pleaded.
“They have been raping and killing our people for years,” Sharmila replied. “Every village has a story of someone lost, someone tortured and so many others living in constant fear… Staying silent can be as fatal as fighting back. So I would rather fight.”
“The Assam Rifles won’t be tolerant… They are inhuman. You realise this, don’t you? Your fast-unto-death may go a complete waste if you do not win the support of the people or…” he paused, “or if something bad happens to you.” He shivered when he said it.
Their argument went over an hour. Sharmila’s patriotism was infectious. Singhajit was proud of his sister, but how could an elder brother permit his darling sister to stand against the mighty Indian army? Their argument heated.
“You’re impossible,” Singhajit said, accepting defeat. He held her hand across the table. It was probably the last time they were dining together. “Take care of yourself.”
Sharmila could see through his forced smile and she patted his hand gently. She knew it was hard on him. But she had already made up her mind.
Later that night, Sharmila went to her mother and sat down at her feet. Mother’s eyes were moist and cheeks tear-stained. Singhajit had probably told her about it, she thought and sighed. Neither said a word for some time.
“If I was one among the ten dead, and you had to cremate my body today,” Sharmila began. Her mother flinched at her words. She continued, “Or if I was one among the hundred rape victims in Manipur, would you have supported that one person who went on ahead and dared to protest against the Assam Rifles?” Her mother closed her eyes and let her held back tears flow out.
“The Lord has answered your prayers mother,” she said. “Your savior is here.”
Her mother placed a hand on her daughter’s head as a sign of her blessing. For Sharmila it was all that she needed.
From the next day onwards, Sharmila began her hunger strike. No media, no slogans, no grand announcements. Just a young woman with a brave heart and an indomitable faith in her people.
Three days later, she was arrested by the police, charged with an “attempt to commit suicide”, and was 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.
Days turned to weeks and weeks to months and then years. Ever since she began her strike, Irom Sharmila has been regularly released and re-arrested every year, and has a tube running down her nose that survives her.
Thus was born the “Iron Lady of Manipur” or “Mengoubi” (the fair one) as her people lovingly call her…
By 2004, Sharmila had become an “Icon of public resistance”. On 2 October 2006, Irom Chanu Sharmila went to Raj Ghat, New Delhi, which she said was “to pay floral tribute to my idol, Mahatma Gandhi” and started her public demonstration at Jantar Mantar. Following which, she was re-arrested by the Delhi police for ‘attempted suicide.’
In November, at the end of the eleventh year of her fast, Sharmila again called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to repeal the AFSPA. On 3 November, 100 women formed a human chain in Ambari to show support for Sharmila, while other civil society groups staged a 24-hour fast in a show of solidarity.
But little has been done to help Manipur. The atrocities continue and their screams and cries still go unheard as Indian Army Officers, our ‘saviour’ and ‘defenders’, wine and dine every day in their camps, probably mocking the attempts of ‘a mere North Eastern woman’ to fight against the great Indian Army all by herself!
“When we do not have one meal, we feel so uncomfortable. Every meal that I have had all these years, I have thought of her,” says Sharmila’s mother. Though she lives just metres away from her daughter, she hasn’t seen her since the day she started her hunger strike.
Sharmila had the same feelings and emotions that we have… she is as like you as you are for yourself: a sister, daughter and a fellow citizen. An Indian. The only difference between us and her is that she fought and struggled for the cause for a long time and she never came back to normal life. An isolated journey on the darkest path is what she has opted for. She’s a hero indeed: a one-woman-army fighting for justice, fighting for us.
But it’s a sad thing that she is treated more like a petty criminal and very less like a real hero.
She’s a lone warrior in this ruthless battle. And yet she fights on with hope: a hope that someday India will care to spare a thought for her. It’s been thirteen years now. Thirteen years and her struggle is far from over…
When will my country open its eyes to her silent revolution…?
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions presented herein are solely those of the writer and do not constitute official statements or positions of YourStoryClub.com. YourStoryClub.com has not verified nor claims correctness of the incidents presented.