The Fast is a profound weapon in the arsenal of nonviolent action and protest. It was used by Gandhi for two purposes: firstly, deep communion with the indwelling reality within him and all around him, what he called God, and secondly:
“I Fasted to reform those who loved me. You cannot Fast against a tyrant.”... The word 'tyrant' and 'lover have also a general application. The one who does an injustice is styled 'tyrant'. ... The one who is in sympathy with you is the 'lover'.” (Young India, 1.5.1924.)
In just a few short hours, less than a day, perhaps by the time you read this, the iconic champion of human rights in Manipur ends her epic, monumental and resoundingly successful 16 year long protest against the senseless violence in Manipur caused by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958. Her protest took the form of an unending fast, which she described for many years as her 'bounden duty'. She has been charge-sheeted annually for 16 years with attempted suicide and force fed some sort of gruel through a tube in her nose, since November 5th, 2000.
She has repeatedly maintained that she was following the footsteps of Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and saw no other recourse given the circumstances she and the people of Manipur are faced with. In a 2007 video interview with Kavita Joshi, she declared, “God helps me.”
Throughout her Fast she has called for a people's response to arise, knowing that her solitary and silenced voice was not enough. One of those people, for the people, she appealed again and again, every moment of every day, through muted suffering, for unified participation in freeing Manipur from violence. She knew the fear and apathy. As her effort garnered international attention and support, Sharmila's fast reached millions of lovers, across the planet.
Truth cuts away our ignorance, and is likened to a razor. Love removes the false perception of distance we hold between us, to feel ourselves for what we really are: members of one planetary life. Love creates an instantaneous and deep concern. It burns in us like fire. Sharmila's protest for many years did both for those who came to know of her.
All Manipuri people know who Irom Sharmila is, and she has the deep respect of almost all of them. Groups of people arose united in response to feeling that call; seemingly powerless people, without title and money. They became lovers who felt they knew her calling. As the years and almost generations wore on, seeing her determination did not wane, feeling it was not possible for a mere human to be so determined, some hailed her their Goddess of Emancipation and Purity. For them, she became the ideal in human flesh. It was a position of idolization that Gandhi also detested, along with the title 'Mahatma'.
Throughout those long years, Sharmila was hauled in front of a local magistrate in Imphal every 2 weeks, literally hundreds of times, to ascertain if she would give up her protest or not. Legally, as an 'attempted suicide' the state can only imprison or hospitalize her for one years duration. Once a year, she was 'free' for a few hours or even days before being re-arrested on suicide charges. Up until July 16th, 2016, Sharmila refused to renounce her chosen path.
She was a woman, without title or wealth, without connections to people who would use their title and wealth to support her cause. Manipur knew, but most of the 'outside world' and 'wider India' did not. For so many hard, unbearably hard years, she suffered. We cannot imagine, we are not called, are perhaps not true enough to ourselves, and would not do it. Hence, we idolize.
Yet love is a fire. In 2006, in an historic attempt to draw government leadership attention to her simple demand, as a truly fair-minded and trusting daughter of India, we saw her fly to Delhi on her yearly 'suicide charge reprieve' continuing her Fast at a tomb that holds Gandhi's ashes. The concern showered upon her by people, drew the press, and Shirin Ebadi who happened to be in Delhi. Ebadi fearlessly charged the government with responsibility for Sharmila's death, if her appeal as a person (and prisoner) of conscience was neglected.
Who is Ebadi? A 2003 Nobel Peace Prize recipient from Iran, honoured for her deep and practically expressed concern for the rights of all people, especially women, children, refugees. She was Sharmila's first connection to a person of title and wealth who threw their support behind her. Ebadi's support galvanized international attention to Sharmila's effort, and mushroomed awareness of her around the planet. The United Nations, Amnesty International, and numerous human rights and peace groups have called upon the Indian government to heed her voice. To release her from the jail hospital.
That call for Sharmila's freedom from the hospital ward at the jail in Imphal, was a two edged sword. If she was unconditionally freed, she would, as she had always done, continue her fast. Her lovers wanted her freedom, and at the same time, we needed to know that more food would be going down that tube, that obnoxious tube that has distorts the muscles of her beautiful face, so that she would be fed, she would receive the imprisoned sustenance to keep her silent voice with us all some more time. More time, until something could change. Something.
When I first learned of Irom Sharmila, I was living in an ashram/community in South India. I somehow came across news of her, perhaps it was a newspaper brief on her bi-monthly magistrate appearance. Her use of the Fast, her sincere and prayerful effort to effect change by emulating Mahatma Gandhi immediately drew my attention.
Seeing the tremendous apathy of the press, the sheer inability of governments not only India but the entire world, to acknowledge her (and 16 years is a long time, its been every shade of political party in between, world wide), to feel the frustration of her situation; all who learn about Sharmila are enjoined in that voiceless, choking misery.
Around 2012, as I carefully studied every available photo of her from her visits to court, I noticed she was becoming noticeably frailer. By 2013, I was becoming alarmed. I tried contacting her legal representative in India, and the National Human Rights Commission in India. I spoke of her at talks and held events to further awareness of her in Europe. I felt like a candle in the wind of a cold, cruel indifference, and numbing apathy.
There were times I wished she would just stop. Stop letting them torture her, not give them their mind-drugging satisfaction. When one of us, who is truly true to all of us suffers on our behalf, we feel it.
Some reports have described Sharmila as going for walks, reading and writing, as though she is on a holiday in the hospital ward section of that jail in Manipur. Getting permission to visit her, even to be guaranteed that written communication would reach her, was impossible for many. Only the most 'whos-who-ey' got in. There were no open doors to her and never have been all this time. I wrote, and sent messages to her through several channels. I was incredibly happy to receive a long letter from her, to 'read-hear' her voice, in her own hand. I held it for a long time to my heart. My other messages and packages received no response, I do not know if they reached her.
What does 16 years of near constant isolation do to a person, a person who loves truth, justice, a person who feels for her country people as for her own self, and would willingly take on suffering for their benefit? It does something, we can't pretend it doesn't. Who amongst us cares enough?
Meanwhile Sharmila was also given many awards, some with significant financial attachments. The money allowed the set up of a group to promote her ideas for peace and unity in Manipur society.
Sharmila found the group wasn't working as she wanted and needed. She asked for the group to stop accepting awards in her name. They didn't. She asked for the money to be given entirely to the needy in Manipur and the group closed down. It wasn't.
Enter Desmond Coutinho, 2009. Correspondence between Sharmila and Coutinho began and somehow, their letters and communications got through to each other. That he was allowed to communicate with her when others were not, is itself a question to many. Coutinho boldly declared that he was her chosen spokesperson. He was thrashed. Yet my letter from Sharmila verified many statements he made. Sharmila, living openly and honestly, announced that she had a fiancée. This was met with great perturbation. The group suggested publicly that her mind was not normal.
She asserted publicly that those around her wanted to control her, use the award monies for their own enhancements, in her name, and that people refused to see that she was an ordinary human, like all of us.
Some may see Coutinho as an eccentric mad-cap, a spy sent to derail Sharmila's efforts, but let's be real. Where were those efforts going? How much longer can a human live like this? To what end? A unity in death? or would it be just a sigh?
On July 16, 2016 Sharmila announced she would definitely cease her fast and would now address the issue through electoral processes. By the time you read this, the Goddess of Manipur will have insistently (like Gandhi) stepped down from the throne. Her concern for the people, the suffering lovers still remains.
For us lovers, the torture will be over. She will live! To taste food, see people, share her love, speak to us, laugh with us! She will gather us together in her great heart for a better outcome than seeing her dry up and shrivel unto death before our eyes. Her lovers will be relieved and happy. Those who are disappointed about her decision, will appear to be tyrants.
May all her lovers, all her admirers and well wishers, if they be that, offer her their unconditional support in the new directions she sees for herself in her noble intention, to ease the suffering in Manipur, to help the Manipuri people.
P.K. Willey, Ph.D., University of Connecticut, USA, is the author of several books on Gandhi's Earth ethics, and the role that ethics play in our lives.
UPDATE: Manipur's violence and corruption problems are not confined to AFSPA, although, being from the State, and state as protective power for the people, was the reason that Sharmila could address its corruption through her long Fast. The long decades of corruption have infiltrated many aspects of social life, local outlooks and even groups meant to support her have reacted against her. Sharmila found no place to stay on her first night out of the jail hospital. She was turned away from family and supporters. There is suspicion that threats from groups that want her to continue the fast, and disapprove of her boyfriend, may have a part in the fear people have to accommodate her. She is considering a move to wider India, perhaps to an ashram somewhere.
Sharmila is now back in the jail hospital room where she has spent the last 16 years, being slowly introduced to digesting normal food under the supervision of a doctor. The courts have not yet unconditionally dropped charges against her, she has a hearing on August 23, 2016.
There is nothing in the news that I could find about her fiancee, nothing about his practical support for her now that she has broken her monumental fast.