Yesterday, many of us shared stories about Irom Sharmila breaking her 16-year long hunger fast. Poignant images of her tasting honey / breaking down / leaving the hospital, bombarded the internet.
What's not being addressed so much by the media and others, though, is what her options are now and where fate will take her.
Over the last decade and more, the Imas of Manipur, a group of elderly female activists--the same ones who came out in large numbers during the Manipur protests of 2004 that eventually led to AFSPA being repealed partially from the state-- have formed the backbone of Sharmila's struggle. Many of them also belong to a group called Members of the Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign).
[S]he told us many times that she felt her hunger-strike had no bearing on the conscience of local people anymore.
Earlier this year when she was released from jail, apart from the Imas, there were barely any young (or old for that matter) people who had come out to meet Irom or join her in solidarity. It's true that unfortunately much of her support through these years has come from outside Manipur. This was certainly what I witnessed when we were there with her in March, and an issue Irom raised repetitively. During our interviews with her, she told us many times that she felt her hunger-strike had no bearing on the conscience of local people anymore (as was clear in the lack of numbers around her during this time). This is also perhaps one of the main reasons why she decided to change her course of action. Personally, for me, the most important point here is that her fight goes on. She has only chosen a new method.
The fact is that this sacrifice has only been hers to bear. Whether or not it represents Manipuri people, their will, or their fight is not on the debating table. She endured the hunger strike and imprisonment by herself, and therefore the decision to continue or end the fast should be solely hers.
Yesterday, though, the headlines that talked about her fast finally being broken, did not mention how the story really ended. After the cameras were gone, and the journalists fell silent, Irom had nowhere to go.
My friend and colleague (whose name I will withhold for privacy reasons) is a journalist for the Sangai Express in Imphal. He called me last evening after reporting on Irom the entire day. He wanted to talk about what had happened. He said to me that he should have been feeling happy about Irom's decision and new found freedom, but he only felt sadness. He found it difficult to reconcile how orthodox Manipuri society really was. And that he was worried about how things would turn out from here on...
So let talk about what is really going on with Irom at the moment, from where I understand it.
She has refused to go back to her own home - because she doesn't want to meet her mother until her goal is complete. So that rules out going back to live with her family. Her relationship with her brother also remains complicated. When we met him in March, he refused us an interview, citing ill health, but remained in the background when we spoke to her mother.
Irom's plan was to stay at the residence of the former Health Director Thiyam Suresh till she can be back on her feet since her health will remain fragile until her body can accept regular food again. But Irom was not allowed into the Director's house. And this is the real kicker: The same Imas, who had earlier come out to support Irom in huge numbers, were there to block this move and oppose her from transitioning safely into a normal life.
The few articles I could find on this incident say that these women oppose Irom's decision because they feel let down by her. That by this decision, she may have inadvertently watered down their struggle for AFSPA.
That lady has now brought them disappointment by choosing life over a stalemate that neither brought death nor freedom.
To begin, let us buy this argument so we can question what that even means. Let down BY HER?! The woman who has given up everything to fight for a cause that has concerned all Manipuris. The now world-renowned icon for peace, and non-violence. The lady who has brought more attention to this issue, than all of the population of Manipur combined. That lady has now brought them disappointment by choosing life over a stalemate that neither brought death nor freedom.
The Imas have also declared publically their displeasure at Irom's alleged relationship. According to them, that she talks of marriage or love as a Manipuri woman, is a source of shame. Because somehow the calculations add up in their head i.e. it's okay to stay jailed for 16 years, without food or water, isolated from the world, and from your own cause coming out only once a year for a few days, only to be unceremoniously carried back to the same hospital bed; to do this year after year, day after day for "all the people of Manipur". But having feelings for someone, developing a relationship with them, especially someone who isn't from the same society, is still taboo. And somehow requires their consent. Without which, Irom's life has no bearing on them. Especially since she had been signed up as a martyr by the society of Manipur a long time ago.
This is also further complicated because a lot of people don't know Desmond – Irom's alleged fiancé. I use the word alleged again and again because he is yet to show up on the scene. He did come to Imphal in 2014 to meet Irom and had a falling out with the Imas. The reasons for this remain unclear but has added to their mistrust of the situation.
But what comes out of Irom and Desmond's relationship is frankly none of our business. Not even of those who feel some kind of perverse ownership over Irom's fight (and life).
What is in equal parts enraging, and disheartening is the current treatment of Irom. After breaking her fast, she was blocked by the Imas from seeking shelter anywhere else. For now, she is back at the hospital where she was kept a prisoner all this while. Ironically, this is the safest place for her to be right now, reported a police officer in one article.
Where are all the others who have been declaring their salutations to Irom? The people of Manipur who run Irom Sharmila Support Groups. What of those who have gained from her fight? The keepers of the Sharmila's Trust (and trust). Everyone seems to have fallen silent.
If this is a cruel joke, it needs to come to an end at the earliest because, despite her azaadi, she has now become a prisoner of her own struggle.
Watch the documentary on Irom Sharmila here.