Irom Chanu Sharmila, affectionately known as the "Iron Lady of Manipur," is a name etched in the annals of India's civil rights movement. Born on March 14, 1972, in the northeastern state of Manipur, Sharmila's life story is one of unwavering determination, resilience, and an unyielding commitment to justice and human rights. Often referred to as "Mengoubi," meaning "the fair one," Sharmila's journey is a testament to the power of nonviolent protest and the resilience of the human spirit.
On November 5, 2000, a pivotal moment occurred in Sharmila's life that would alter the course of her destiny. In response to the deeply controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), which bestowed sweeping powers upon Indian armed forces to maintain order in seven states, including Manipur, Sharmila embarked on a hunger strike. The AFSPA allowed security forces to conduct searches without warrants, make arrests, and use deadly force based on "reasonable suspicion" of actions against the state. This law had long been a source of discontent and concern among the people of Manipur.
Sharmila's hunger strike was not a mere protest; it was a relentless, nonviolent battle to have the AFSPA repealed. She vowed not to eat, drink, comb her hair, or even look in a mirror until her demand was met. Her steadfast resolve to bring about change led to her arrest, charged with "attempt to commit suicide," an offence under the Indian Penal Code at the time. She was transferred to judicial custody, and in order to keep her alive during her arrest, she was subjected to nasogastric intubation to receive nourishment.
Despite her repeated arrests and releases, Sharmila's determination remained unshaken. The years turned into a decade, and then another. She continued to press for the repeal of AFSPA while her physical health deteriorated due to the prolonged fast. By 2004, Sharmila had become an icon of public resistance. Her dedication to her cause won her supporters, including Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, who pledged to raise Sharmila's case at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Sharmila's struggle resonated with people both in India and across the world. She was awarded the 2007 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, recognising her efforts in promoting peace, democracy, and human rights. The Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign (SSSC) was established to highlight her journey and struggle, and Pune University announced a scholarship program in her honour.
Sharmila's life during the fast was one of self-imposed isolation from her family and the world. She met her mother just once, fearing that her mother's anguish might break her resolve. She pledged that the day AFSPA was repealed, she would break her fast by eating rice from her mother's hand.
On July 26, 2016, Irom Sharmila, who had been on a hunger strike for an astonishing 16 years, made a momentous announcement. She declared that she would end her fast on August 9, 2016, and expressed her intention to enter politics. Her goal was clear: to continue the fight for the repeal of AFSPA from within the political arena.
International attention and acclaim have followed Sharmila's journey. Amnesty International declared her a Prisoner of Conscience, emphasising that her detention was solely due to her peaceful expression of beliefs.
Sharmila indeed entered politics by launching the "Peoples' Resurgence and Justice Alliance," and she contested in the Manipur Legislative Assembly election. While her political journey faced significant challenges, her struggle remains an indomitable symbol of peaceful resistance and an unwavering call for justice.
Irom Chanu Sharmila's story is not just an account of personal endurance but a saga of hope, resilience, and determination. Her nonviolent protest brought attention to the issues faced by the people of Manipur and other areas where the AFSPA is enforced. Her transition from a hunger striker to a political aspirant exemplifies her enduring commitment to justice and her belief in the power of peaceful resistance.
Sharmila's legacy serves as a reminder that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, one person's unwavering determination can be a catalyst for change. The "Iron Lady of Manipur" has left an indelible mark on India's civil rights history, inspiring generations to come.