Irom Chanu Sharmila has, for 16 years, been a symbol of non-violent protest against injustice. Her admirers and worshippers aren’t just limited to Manipur, her home state – she has found widespread support in India at large and across the world.

But after a long and courageous protest, Sharmila announced on July 26 that she would break her fast on August 9 and would continue her struggle to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act repealed by contesting the Manipur elections next year as an independent candidate. She also expressed her desire to lead a normal life and marry her boyfriend, Desmond Coutinho.

Sharmila’s announcement has come as a shock to many, including her family and those close to her. She had not purportedly taken them into confidence regarding her decision.

The reactions to her decision been varied. While some have applauded her courage and the decision to continue her fight through the electoral route, others have looked at it as a betrayal. But Sharmila had said in her earlier interviews – “I don’t want to be treated as a goddess.” That’s the message she’d like to send across to her critics today.

Perhaps, instead of scrutinising Sharmila’s decision, the media and activists should use this as an opportunity for introspection and self-assessment.

The individual and the society

Since November 2000, Sharmila, has been on a hunger strike demanding that the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act be repealed. What prompted her protest was the Malom Massacre that month where 10 civilians, including a child who had won a national bravery award, were killed by paramilitary forces.

Her indomitable spirit, endurance and integrity have inspired people the world over. Peace activists, including Nobel laureates, celebrate her as an icon of peace and have flown to Imphal, the state capital, to pay homage to her.

In stark contrast to this, the Indian government has criminalised her protest, repeatedly charged her with attempted suicide and kept her in a jail ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, where she has been force-fed through a nasal tube.

All these years, the media and activists have separated Sharmila from her context – social as well as political. Journalists have extolled her phenomenal patience, but have not tried to understand or tell us what the source of this endurance is.

It cannot be explained by merely talking about the individual – one needs an in-depth understanding of the history of and response to injustice in the state.

Manipur is a treasure trove of culture – in the form of ancient poems, contemporary literature, traditional games, classicial and tribal dances, ancient religion, modern theatre and internationally acclaimed films. The Northeastern state also has a long history of resistance to oppression and injustice, one in which women have played an extraordinary role.

Sharmila belongs to the Meitei community, the majority ethnic group of Manipur. The Meteis extensively chronicled the history of their kings, from ancient times.

The most famous among these is the Cheitharol Kumbaba, considered the official chronicle of the state, which tells us the story of 78 kings, beginning with the first Meitei ruler, Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, whose regime goes back some 2,000 years.

The symbol of the Meitei civilisation is the Kangla Fort, the ruins of which stands on the banks of the Imphal river today. This river hosts of an annual boat race Hiyang Tanaba, one of Manipur’s traditional sports held in November.

In its time, the fort was a formidable structure, a repository of Metei history, spirituality and culture. There were as many as 360 places of worship dedicated to ancient gods in the complex. In front of the Uttra, or the coronation hall, stood two massive Kangla Sha, or dragons, made of brick. The Kangla Sha are also the state symbol of Manipur.

Leading from the front

Then came the British, greedy to conquer the mighty kingdom that the Metei people call Kangleipak. By 1891, Manipur was a princely state under British rule.

Leading the protests against their oppressive policies and social inequalities were the women of Manipur. At the time, women of the Ima Keithel, a famous market run entirely by women, rose up in revolt against foreign rulers and launched the first Nupi Lal, or women’s war in 1904.

Sometime that year, it is believed that the Meteis set fire to many of the bungalows housing British officers to protest against their oppressive policies. The British had been using Manipuri men as forced labour and made them work for free.

On September 30, the British ordered all able-bodied men of Imphal to reconstruct the bungalows using teakwood from the Kabo valley (now in Myanmar).

But the women of the Khwairamband Baazar, the earlier name of the Ima market, would have none of it. Launching a mass agitation, the women blocked the path of Manipuri men on their way to reconstruct the bungalows and threw their building materials into the river.

The second Nupi Lan of 1939 was an uprising of the Meitei women against the colonial rulers and the Maharaja instated by them who did not work towards the welfare of the people.

The immediate provocation, however, was an exponential rise in the prices of rice and large-scale export of paddy at a time when there was a near-famine situation in the state.

On December 12 that year, more than 10,000 women gathered at the Imphal Telegraph office, demanding that the export of rice be stopped. The Manipur Government has built a memorial to Nupi Lal in Imphal and December 12 is marked as a public holiday.

When India became independent of the British crown in 1947, Manipur was a princely state. There was great resistance to joining the Indian Union and for a brief period, Manipur stayed independent. In 1949, Manipur became a part of India and only in 1972, it was granted statehood.

Special powers

That was the year Sharmila was born. By then, the government passed the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act, 1958, which was later renamed as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and extended to all of the North East.

The Act empowers the Government to declare any area as disturbed for any length of time without provision for review. It gives vast powers to even a constable to shoot anyone on mere suspicion, to arrest without warrant and to search and seize. The armed forces acting under the Act have virtual impunity from criminal persecution.

The Meiteis felt a deep resentment that their beloved Kangla was occupied by the armed forces and their ancient language was not given official recognition.

Instead of responding to the legitimate demands of the people of Manipur, the Indian government tried crush resistance with military might. The armed forces committed brutalities every day and misused the blanket protection given to them under the law to commit excesses.

On December 29, 1980 a young man called Lourembam Ibomcha was picked up by the armed forces. Local women protested that he was innocent and demanded his release. Prominent activists in the community like Ima (mother) Ramani, Ima Chaobi and Ima Momon patrolled the streets with lit bamboo torches. Those were the early days of the Meira Paibi movement, which translates to flaming torches.

But on this day, what was earlier a social movement against alcoholism became a political movement against repression by the armed forces.

The Meira Paibi women have been the backbone for Sharmila, providing her the emotional sustenance she needed to keep up her fast.

Some of these women feel let down by Sharmila’s decision to end the fast and marry Countinho – an Indian born British citizen – whom they perceive as an outsider. They have made their displeasure public.

But is it fair to put the burden of Manipur’s struggle against AFSPA on the shoulders of one woman, exalting her as a goddess?

In the past it was the collective strength of the Meitei people, especially women, which brought about change. It is this collective strength that compelled the armed forces to move out of the Kangla Fort in November 2004 and hand over the historic structure to the people of Manipur. Earlier that year, it was a protest by a group of nude women that forced the country to take note of the murder and alleged rape of Thangjam Manorama Devi.

It was also an angry yet peaceful agitation that forced the government to recognise the Manipuri language and include it in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution in 1992.

In one voice

Sharmila, through her refusal to play goddess, has paved the way for the mobilisation of people against continuing injustices. She has exposed the extreme cruelty of the Indian state and its indifference to the fate of its citizens.

However, the media and activists, by focusing solely on Sharmila’s protest, have silenced so many other voices, even within Manipur. No one went to meet L Khola, a Poumai Naga woman from Oinam village in Manipur’s Senapati district, who was forced to deliver her baby in the full view of Indian soldiers. In July 1987, when she was nine months pregnant, the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, launched their infamous Operation Bluebird to recover arms looted by Naga insurgents. Khola was made to stand in ankle-deep mud and even when she went into labour, she was not allowed to go back to her home.

In October that year, Naga human rights activists filed a case against the Indian armed forces for the brutalities committed by the armed forces during the operation. The list of atrocities committed by the Assam Rifles included beatings with sticks, rods and rifle butts; kicks in the genitals, stomach and on the soles of the feet and inserting iron rods into the anus and rubbing chilly powder into the eyes and nose. They were also accused of giving electric shocks, burning people’s arms, legs and face with cigarette butts and lighters, burying people alive, hanging men upside down from poles, drowning people in cold water, raping women and depriving people of food, water and sleep for days together.

I had the privilege to represent these victims of Indian armed forces and filed a writ petition in 1987 and the final arguments were heard in 1991. But the Guwahati High Court has failed to give its judgment till today. L Khola will not get justice.

The conflicts between the different communities within Manipur are as sharp as the conflicts between the people and the state. However, the fight against human rights violations could have brought them together. It has not. Sharmila, not by her choosing, became a symbol only of Meitei resistance.

From being an icon, she can become a leader of a peoples’ resistance against injustice. She has shown tremendous courage by announcing her decision to stop being a goddess and break through the prison walls, both physical and spiritual.

Once Sharmila breaks her fast, gets her strength back, is nourished by the love of her to-be husband and can move around freely, perhaps she will take on the task of uniting the various communities within Manipur around the common issues of injustice and oppression. And maybe, we can all contribute to that movement to make India a more democratic place to live in, thereby fulfilling the dreams of our freedom fighters who called upon the British to Quit India on August 9, 1942.