Irom Sharmila — Beyond the Iron Lady

Blog post -On assignment for Hindustan Times

Irom Sharmila, at her room in Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, which is a testimony to the 16 years of her life spent in imprisonment

I came in awe of her when I first entered her ward in Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital (JNH) in Imphal along with a crew of TV journalists. By then Irom Sharmila had given ‘exclusive’ interviews for a few hours. The interviews went on and though the media organisations changed, the questions didn’t. Yet, not for a moment did Sharmila seem mechanical.

Almost 16 years of fast and force-feeding had made her so weak that she couldn’t even get up from the chair on her own — women personnel of the Manipur Police assist her in moving around.

Irom Sharmila arrives at the Cheirap Court, Imphal on August 10, 2016

A day before, on August 9, when Sharmila arrived at the Cheirap court in the city, she must have been surprised to see the amount of media that had descended upon Imphal.

Under trial for attempted suicide, her visits to the court — a fortnightly affair for the past 16 years — would see a tiny gathering of local journalists. In such hearings she would be asked if she would continue the fast? She would say yes, and make humble demands such as getting her newspaper changed or ordering some books. She would be then taken back to her ward, which doubles-up as her cell because force-feeding is not possible in jails.

Attempted suicide is how the Indian judiciary looks at Sharmila’s fast. She, however, calls it a hunger strike, which she resorted to in November 2000 to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) repealed in Manipur. And her struggle against the draconian legislation, which is still applicable in most parts of Manipur, earned her the title of ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’.

But the August 9 court presentation was different. The question of whether she was going to continue her fast was to elicit a negative response. Sharmila was going to end the longest-ever hunger strike in human history.

Irom Sharmila amidst chaos, trying to speak with the media

Her appearance at the court continued for two long hours with the media waiting outside. Post the hearing, she could barely walk to a small room in Cheirap court, where she was to address the media. Before she could say anything substantial, she had to be rushed into an ambulance. The room was too small and the media too eager.

Later in the afternoon, at a brief notice, she decided to step out of her ward and break her fast with a drop of honey.

On August 10, media houses were armed with a written permission from the medical superintendant of JNH to meet Sharmila. Despite her weakness, she was gracefully obliging. “She desired this communication with the media and the outside world. She wanted to talk about her struggle. Being in prison she wasn’t able to do that,” a local journalist had shared.

Due to the overload of requests, individual meetings were restricted to a brief five minutes. I figured it was too less to get a comprehensive story so I convinced a TV journalist to sneak me in.

Sitting on one edge of the bed, Sharmila greeted us with a feeble smile. On the bed was a blanket along with some soft-toys and a few books. Over her head hung a Christmas cap, bells and a map in a corner.

During the interviews, she would answer some questions and evade others. When the journalist asked “Has Gandhi’s Satyagraha failed in Manipur,” she looked away, gently push the mike while shaking her head, and held her knees close to her chest. I paused at this gesture. I hadn’t seen a public figure exude such vulnerability on camera. This certainly wasn’t the gesture I was expecting from a 44-year-old woman whose moniker was ‘Iron Lady’.

The Iron Lady breaks down in between the conversation

As I walked out of the ward, I tried to relate the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ as depicted in the news all these years with the person I had just seen.

An hour later, I entered her ward again, this time for my organisation’s legitimate turn for an interview. This time, I tried to make more sense of her surroundings.

The only window in the room was covered with creepers that blocked lot of light from coming into the room. This would be the window she would turn to when lying sideways. On her left was a huge spread of books, their spine turned towards the wall, so that one could only see stacks of white sheets.

We were greeted with another smile in the room: that of Nelson Mandela, from the front page of The Irish Times pasted on the wall behind her. Accompanying Mandela were other memorabilia such as cards, sketches, newspaper cuttings of drawings by children and a few posters. One in particular depicted Types of Birds. The creeper plants’ stems were taped to it so that they grow along this wall. Looking at her from the opposite wall were posters and magazine clippings.

I photographed Sharmila as she talked to the reporter. She seemed very vulnerable and was easily moved to tears. The five minutes passed quickly and we prepared to leave. I ensured I got a photo and a parting hug.

Later that evening, I re-visited the day’s photos again. Sharmila smiling, disapproving, teary-eyed, pensive. This was a woman who had achieved a feat few people could imagine. And yet she didn’t seem to be made of iron. She was human, and more sensitive than most people I know.

I visited Sharmila’s elder brother Irom Singhajit the next day. He described Sharmila as a simple girl, with few friends. She surrounded herself in books. Her house was simple. I peeked into one of the rooms of the house. Like the verandah where I was sitting, this too was devoid of any decorations or memories — it revealed too little about the people inhabiting it. This was in stark contrast to Sharmila’s room at the hospital, which revealed too much.

Sharmila’s struggle has been a lone battle. She is not known to have close associates except some activists, who too could not guess that Sharmila would end her fast. “When I started my fast at Malom and sat in the verandah, people came in thousands to see me as if it were a street play,” Sharmila had said during the interview.

As I left her room, and subsequently Imphal, I kept thinking about the walls of her ward. She treasures memories, gifts, people and love. Here and there, perched in corners of her room were a few acknowledgements and awards. There was a photo of Jesus too. Her ward did not talk of her struggle. And yet, we all know, that this room is witness to the 16 years of her life’s sacrifice which we know so little about.