When Irom Sharmila wakes up on the morning of November 2, nothing would have changed. She would rise from her bed at dawn, perhaps stay there for a few minutes, read a few pages of a book and begin a ritual that has been her life for much of the past 15 years, ever since a nasal tube became a body part in November 2000.

The nurses at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal will feed Sharmila, like they have all these years, with a daily diet of three nasal feeds. It will start with a morning nasal feed of baby food, a sweet apple drink, vitamins and medicines, all liquidised to enable easy intake. In the afternoon and then again at 5 pm, nurses will feed her a gruel made of 15-17 scoops of a protein powder – the dosage arrived at by doctors after years of keeping an eye on her. This is enough to keep Sharmila alive and allow an unimaginable status quo to continue. All around her people have got used to this, the nurses, her family, the political class, the protesters decrying the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. No one notices.

There may be visitors today to mark a decade and a half of her fast. There could be a statement underlining Sharmila’s continued unhappiness with either her supporters or the political class. It could go on Page 2 or 3 in local newspapers. Mainstream national media may push it further inside.

Zest for life

By any hospital standard, hers is a spacious room. It has grown more cluttered as the years have progressed. There are gifts and posters all around, sometimes giving it the semblance of a teenager’s room. She is slender but strong in her looks. Today, like all days, her hair will hang down the nape of her neck to her shoulder, and she would spend hours separating it, untangling the tresses, since she stopped combing at the start of the protest.

Even with a rubber tube running down her nose, Sharmila’s zest for life has remained remarkable. Most likely she will practice yoga for four to five hours, sometimes standing on her head, at other times stretching her legs horizontal on either sides for hours. Much of this has been learnt through books. The asanas bring together a balance of mind and body, but also restrict the size of her stomach and ease her excretory functions.

As the years have passed, there is the obvious warmth of admiration in which Sharmila expands and feels proud and supported. But much of the 15 years have been an isolated battle. The circle of her solitude is so tight that on many occasions Sharmila looks a misfit, her fast absurd and supporting her puts one in a dilemma. What should supporting Sharmila mean? Should it entail her freedom, her right to choose a life partner, a freedom from the nasal tube or should it mean support for her demand – the repeal of AFSPA? Sharmila’s steely resolve has brought many to her side, even as they murmur about why an AFSPA-protected Army is better than no Army in current-day Manipur.

Hannah Arendt, in her essay Truth and Politics, addresses a part of whether it is always legitimate to tell the truth. She concludes that the political function of the storyteller, historian and novelist is to talk about the acceptance of how things are. Out of that acceptance, which can also be called truthfulness, arises the faculty of judgement.

Finding a way forward

The truth, as data bears us out, is that Manipur has six banned terror groups operating in its boundary. There are six active insurgent groups, 24 inactive terror groups and six others that are in various stages of peace talks with the government of India. With almost 42 terror groups having some kind of presence in the state, can Manipur afford to repeal AFSPA? It’s a question that hides within it the many reasons why the political class wants the continuance of this Act. A political-underground nexus that even the best in Delhi’s North Block have been unable to break. The truth is that AFSPA is extended in Manipur year after year with little discussion. Unlike neighbouring Nagaland, where the state Assembly has at least passed resolutions for lifting the Act, Manipur has made no such moves.

The truth also is that the land remains trapped in time. Ceasefires have been followed by negotiations both inside and outside India, but they are yet to lead to a satisfactory settlement. The latest framework agreement between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction) and the government, which is of particular interest to Manipur, remains shrouded in secrecy.

The truth also is that the Army, in its AFSPA protected tenure, has been accused of human right violations, rapes and torture and rightly so. A Supreme Court-appointed commission that picked out six random cases to investigate found all of them to be fake encounters. It is in the spirit of truthfulness that justice must be served. AFSPA’s provisions may derive their strength from an ordinance that was designed to quell the Quit India movement, but even its stoutest defenders will not stake out on matters of rape and brutal violence that women and children of Manipur have seen.

At this moment, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which Sharmila is free and the state has no AFSPA. It is important to say it. Sharmila has remained committed to her struggle and her belief in the fight against AFSPA. Her resistance is resolute. The question to ponder for those who support her and are against the idea of AFSPA is this: how do we take this fight forward? Something about the way they are fighting this battle is certainly not working. Is it time to come back to the drawing table and evaluate where the protest has gone and what it has achieved so far? Is it time to talk to Sharmila and convince her to continue this protest in another form? Is it time for Manipur’s political class to show strength and put out an honest framework of where they stand? Sharmila deserves some humility and honesty. It may be time for her supporters to tell her, “Yes, AFSPA must go, but while it lasts, they want her to be free, at least free from the nasal tube."

Anubha Bhonsle is a Fulbright-Humphrey Fellow, 2015. Her book Mother, Where’s My Country? will be released this December.