Face-to-face with Irom Sharmila on a day of general strike


It is indeed an irony that I landed in Imphal on September 2 to try and interview the 'iron lady' Irom Sharmila Chanu on a day when lifein the otherwise bustling capital city of Manipur was standstill. Thatwas because the outlawed People's Liberation Army (PLA) had called a general strike to protest the alleged disappearance of a youth who was said to have been picked up by the Army a few days ago, something which the men in olive deny. But such cases of men disappearing from custodyis not uncommon in Manipur, one of South Asia's hottest insurgency theatres, a state where more than 40 militant groups are active. The PLA was saying the youth was in the Army's custody and the Army was apparently saying that man was never in their custody. So what happens? Anger just grows because individuals and groups in Manipur are disgusted with the continued imposition of the stringent Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act that gives the armed forces sweeping powers to deal with militants or suspected militants.
My first stop was the Chief Secretary's office. Contrary to my expectation, my formal request foran interview with Irom Sharmila was processed with speed. After I was handed over the written permission to interview Irom Sharmila, who is in judicial custody, I rushed to the office of the Inspector General (Prisons), Manipur. Some more formalities and an officer was deputed to accompany me to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Science where Sharmila is being lodged for several years now. I was a bit apprehensive. How would our meeting go? Would she speak freely? After all, this 38-year-old lady has been on forced nasal feed for more than a decade now. It was in November 2000, after soldiers of the paramilitary Assam Rifles shot and killed ten bystanders in Imphal, that Sharmila began her fast, demanding repeal of the draconian AFSPA. That fast goes onwith the nation and the Government largely ignoring the peaceful Gandhian protest being carried on by this lady.
"Yes, I am hopeful. Someday, the Government will have to listen to my voice of silence," Sharmila said. She has heard of Anna Hazareand how his movement against corruption has drawn nationwide support, ultimately forcing Parliament to bow to his wishes and agree to introduce a strong Lokpal Bill. "Why not, I support Anna (Hazare) wholeheartedly…Corruption is a malaise across the nation and Manipur is no exception…Anna knows how to organize protest…I will welcome Anna if he comes to Manipur," she went on. Then camea very significant comment. "The Government should not discriminate between Anna and me. My fast will go on until my demand is met…"
"Will you be willing to sit and talk to the Government if New Delhi comes forward to discuss on your demand for repeal of the AFSPA?" Iask her. "This is the most opportune time for the Government to take a decision on the AFSPA," she said. But would she be willing to talk to the Government? "The Government is aware of my position. It is up to them…There is no need for me to convince them (Government)…the ball is in their (Government's court)…" In case the Government were to concede her demand, would she call off her fast and playpeace broker, bringing the militant groups and the Government to talk to each other? "No, I have no power to change anything…"
It was time to leave. I ask her about the Assamese gamosa slungon her shoulder. "A photojournalist from Assam had given it to me…" Well, I was curious to know how she was passing her time in her hospital room. "I write poetry…meditate a bit..." Beneath her calm demeanour, is a very strong woman. No wonder she is called Manipur's 'iron lady.' (SentinelAssam)

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