In November 2000, in retaliation to an insurgent bombing, members of an Indian paramilitary force called the Assam Rifles shot and killed 10 innocent civilians waiting at a bus-stand in Manipur. And they did so with impunity granted by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Horrified by the incident, now remembered as the ‘Malom Massacre’, a 28-year-old peace activist by the name of Irom Sharmila began a fast to death in protest. She demanded that the government repeal the draconian AFSPA which had resulted, and continued to result, in atrocities being perpetrated by military personnel in the Seven Sister States in North-eastern India.
But death was not in store for Manipur's ‘Iron Lady’. Her hunger strike lasted 16 long years — during which she was arrested (for ‘attempting suicide’) and released numerous times. She didn't imbibe a drop of water or a morsel of food the whole time, sustained only by a nasal feed that the Indian State had forcibly administered on her. Realising the ineffectiveness of her demonstration, Sharmila ended her fast on August 9, 2016; she had decided that the only way to amend government policy is from within the government itself. So she, along with a few others, started the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) party and set her sights on the Chief Minister's seat. In an interview with YourStory last month, Sharmila explained her reason for doing so in the simplest terms: “I was looking at AFSPA as a human rights issue, but here it is a political issue. If the CM has the power to repeal AFSPA, I will become the CM.”
Irom Sharmila stands in a class of her own among the political protestors throughout history, not just in India, but in the entire world. For while the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr had the backing of millions, Sharmila doesn't even have the support of her entire home state. But ‘Menghaobi’ (The Fair One) as some people of Manipur still fondly call her, remains steadfast in her resolve to ameliorate life in the North-eastern states of India.
As she turns 45 years old today, we consolidate her interactions over the past decade in 12 quotes as an attempt to better understand what drives this brilliant woman.
On maintaining a hunger strike for 16 years
“I didn't question my decision. That's why I could do it for 16 years.”
On ending the hunger strike and entering politics
“I think one should change to bring about a change. So I hope that people will understand and cooperate, considering that I have already extended my hand for a joint movement.”
On the people who are doubting her motive to end the hunger strike
“People did not know why I quit my hunger strike, they thought Sharmila diverted from her struggle. I explain to people that I have just changed the strategy but the struggle is the same.”
On the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) party's vision for Manipur
“(We want to) build peace in Manipur among all the people from the valley and hills bringing them together.”
On her decision to crowdfund the PRJA's election campaign
“I am a simple person and want to fight elections with all my heart and honesty. I have no money and also don’t want to use money and muscle power in elections. They know that the party and I are honest, so they will support.”
On her supporters and critics
“Those who agree with me can join me. Those who don't agree with me, just release me.”
On her supporters' criticisms of her relationship with Desmond Coutinho
“My love is conditional. I cannot deviate from my first love — Manipur and her people. I will go away for love only if the people abandon me, or absolutely ignore me.”
On the seemingly endless India-Pakistan conflict:
“There are Hindu and Muslim families living on both sides, and I do not see why there should be enmity or quarrel. There should not be any war-mongering from India or Pakistan side.”
On her Gandhian philosophy of non-violent protests:
“There should be no aggression or a bid to show as to who is more powerful or wiser. We should work out peace through negotiations... If I was the PM, I would just say, people should just cool down.”
On Constitutional reform:
“The Constitution should be amended regularly as we are a multi-cultural nation. And, we are different in appearance, geography, so the amendments must be done accordingly.”
On her life and the message she wants to send:
“This is my life. I want equality... I am called the Iron Lady of Manipur and I want to live up to it.”
“My struggle is my message to the people.”
Want to make your startup journey smooth? YS Education brings a comprehensive Funding Course, where you also get a chance to pitch your business plan to top investors. Click here to know more.