The eleven-year fast of Irom Sharmila and the battle for freedom in India’s borderlands.
Photograph via Flickr by Akshay Mahajan
Only images and fragments of stories trickle out from the prison ward in Imphal, capital of the Indian state of Manipur, where Irom Sharmila has been in solitary confinement since November 2000. Very few reporters, photographers, or filmmakers manage to pass the bureaucratic and physical barriers that keep her incarcerated. Photographer Gauri Gill wrote: “I had the feeling I was in the presence of someone so gentle, so alive to injustice and suffering, that she would not be able to survive the world… Through our ninety-minute interview, she was unfailingly kind to the guards, the hospital attendants, and the doctors who came and went.” Sharmila asked the documentary filmmaker Kavita Joshi for a copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, as she has no access to books, newspapers, or the Internet. She still writes poetry, which her supporters circulate online.
The 39-year-old Sharmila has been fasting for eleven years to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been in effect in her home state of Manipur since 1958. AFSPA gives the Indian military absolute powers of search, seizure, arrest, and the use of deadly force, and provides impunity to military personnel accused of abuses against the civilian population. It is the foundation of a regime of military terror that has overshadowed daily life in Manipur, and other border states in the northeast—the triangle of land between Bangladesh, Burma, and China that is only connected to the Indian diamond by a narrow corridor to West Bengal—and in Kashmir. The Indian government has interpreted Sharmila’s fast as a suicide attempt, for which the maximum sentence is a one-year jail term. Each year for the past eleven years, she has been arrested, kept in a security ward, and force-fed a mixture of vitamins and nutrients twice a day through a nose tube. At the end of each year, she is released, and then arrested the next day. Her physical frame and strength are diminished to alarming levels, but her resolve is not.
Sharmila began her fast in 2000, in response to a massacre in the town of Malom, where Indian soldiers gunned down ten civilians. A roadside mine exploded as an Indian army patrol drove by, and as revenge, the soldiers opened fire indiscriminately. The people killed were waiting at a bus stop, working in the fields, and passing by. Such incidents, and the crackdowns that follow to stifle protest, have become routine. Sharmila was in Malom that day preparing for a peace rally. In a 2006 interview, she told filmmaker Joshi: “I had gone there to attend a meeting. The meeting was towards planning a peace rally that would be held in a few days. I was very shocked to see the dead bodies on the front pages of the newspapers. That strengthened me to step on this very threshold of death. Because there was no other means to stop further violations by the armed forces against innocent people. I thought then that the peace rally would be meaningless for me, unless I were to do something to change the situation.”
“They stamped on both my thighs while two persons held my feet while another man sat on my head…”
At the time Sharmila was a human rights activist, meeting torture victims and the families of the disappeared. Like all Manipuris, she was familiar with the impunity with which the Indian military and paramilitaries carried out such crimes. In 1997, the Indian Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to AFSPA, stating that it was an essential element of Indian governance in the border regions of the northeast and Kashmir. Her fast was thus a considered decision, when all other options had been tried and had failed to deliver justice. Despite her emphasis on Gandhian tactics, and occasional stories in the Indian media, Sharmila and her fast have gone largely unnoticed both within and outside India. In December 2006, on her release, her brother Singhajit and other supporters helped her travel secretly to Delhi, where she visited Rajghat, the memorial to Gandhi, and then resumed her fast at Jantar Mantar, the location in central Delhi where political protests are confined. She hoped to make a direct appeal to the conscience of the Indian people, but was ignored by media and civil society and within a couple of days, she was re-arrested and returned to Imphal.
Sharmila’s silent struggle in the security ward mirrors the conflict between two different claims to life and death enacted throughout Kashmir and the seven northeast states—where military force and military laws enforce the rule of democratic India. Like Sharmila, these borderlands exist on the “very threshold of death.” They have witnessed the full range of military abuses against the civilian population, carried out with impunity. Disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions are common occurrences. In 2008, Human Rights Watch recorded the testimony of a fourteen-year-old Manipuri child tortured by Indian forces: “They kept on pouring water into my nostrils until the water came out in my ears; it felt warm inside my ears. Then they stamped on both my thighs while two persons held my feet while another man sat on my head… They touched the wires’ ends to my chest and gave me shocks three times. Each time I felt as if my whole body had contracted… I keep remembering how they used to beat me and see everything that happened to me vividly.” An extra-judicial killing carried out in 2009 in the heart of Imphal was recorded on film by an anonymous photographer, who for his own safety cannot publish the pictures in Manipur. Clandestine videos of abuse and crackdowns make their way to YouTube, where they have a brief existence before Indian netizens, paid and unpaid, in the service of the nation, flag them as unsuitable and have them removed. The videos show army patrols and convoys storming into homesteads and paddy fields, rounding up young men and boys and beating them. The prisoners are trampled into the mud and have blanks fired into their faces. Other videos show police, army, and paramilitaries dispersing peaceful demonstrations, with tear gas, bullets and baton charges. The protests are often led by women who are the literal torchbearers of the movement for peace and justice in Manipur.
Along with Sharmila, the fate of another young woman, Manorama Thangjam, has come to symbolize for Manipuris their condition under the lawlessness of Indian army rule. On the night of July 11, 2004, 32-year-old Manorama was taken from her home by soldiers of the Assam Rifles paramilitary under suspicion of being a guerrilla sympathizer—Manipur has more than thirty armed militant groups fighting for causes including independence from India, ethnic turf wars, and sometimes just plain extortion, a pattern of conflict deriving from six decades of a divide and rule policy directed from New Delhi.
Manorama was first tortured in front of her own home, while soldiers held her family at gunpoint. According to Human Rights Watch, one of the soldiers came inside the house and took from the kitchen a knife, a towel and a bucket of water. The soldiers gave the family a signed arrest memo, a measure intended to prevent disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings. It did not help. Her bullet-ridden and mutilated body was found in a field near the road a few hours later. She had been tortured and raped; her body was marked by knife slashes, and her lower body shredded with gunfire to cover the evidence of rape.
“We shed our clothes and stood before the army.” We said, “We mothers have come. Drink our blood. Eat our flesh.”
The Indian response to the widespread protests that followed was also routine: tear-gas and gunfire against the protesters, round-ups and arrests of young men and boys, increased repression. It did not stop the protests. In a spectacular demonstration of their helplessness before military terror, a small group of women, elderly mothers and grandmothers, staged a protest at the headquarters of the Assam Rifles in Imphal. Carrying banners saying “Indian Army rape me” and “Indian Army take my flesh,” they stripped naked at the gates and proclaimed “We are all Manorama’s mothers.” One protester, L. Gyaneshori, told Human Rights Watch: “Manorama’s killing broke our hearts. We had campaigned for the arrest memo to protect people from torture after arrest. Yet, it did not stop the soldiers from raping and killing her. They mutilated her body and shot her in the vagina. We mothers were weeping, ‘Now our daughters can be raped. They can be subjected to such cruelty. Every girl is at risk.’ We shed our clothes and stood before the army. We said, ‘We mothers have come. Drink our blood. Eat our flesh. Maybe this way you can spare our daughters.’ But nothing has been done to punish those soldiers. The women of Manipur were disrobed by AFSPA. We are still naked.” The twelve women were arrested and detained for three months and accused of having links to insurgents. They have become revered figures in Manipur. Sharmila said of their protest, “Very shocking, when I saw the mothers naked… I wept very long. Our government is… totally… dumb… and deaf… and blind. What is the purpose of their governance?“
These testimonies of abuse and impunity in Manipur mirror the stories I heard in the course of my research on human rights. In Kashmir the AFSPA has been in force since 1990, and along with a whole range of similar laws like the Public Safety Act and the Disturbed Areas Act it has produced a regime of military terror which is not accountable to civilian or judicial authority. AFSPA is based on the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance enacted in 1942 by the British colonial government to suppress the Quit India movement, the mass uprising that sought to throw off British rule once and for all. With barely any changes, it was introduced in the Indian Parliament in 1958, to give the army unrestricted powers to deal with the insurgency in Nagaland. The Indian Parliament debated for exactly half an hour before passing it. Indian President Rajendra Prasad signed it into force on September 11, 1958. It is both archaic and incompatible with India’s claims on modern democracy, yet it has been in force in the northeast continuously since 1958 and in Kashmir since 1990. Its survival and continued deployment are no accident; in 2007, a Supreme Court judgment in the case of Masood Parveen v. Union of India upheld the validity of the law, declaring it an essential element in Indian rule in these border regions.
For the peoples of the border regions of the northeast and Kashmir, Indian citizenship thus confers not the rights and privileges of citizenship in a democracy, but conversely the full force of repressive laws which deprive them of basic human rights and liberties. The moment of Independence in 1947 ironically became the moment of the denial of the basic human right of self-determination to the peoples of these borderlands—now home to more than 57 million people according to the 2011 census—who all had distinct histories, identities and notions of what they wanted to do with their own futures. Their aspirations drowned in the righteous narrative of Indian nationhood and nation-building, which viewed cultural difference as dangerous, independent political activity as treason, and the demand for self-determination as secession. The long and continuing history of military interventions began with the Nagas in 1953, and is still far from over as the newly independent nation saw itself–and to some degree still sees itself–as the rightful inheritor of the territories and concerns of the British empire in South Asia. In Manipur, as in Kashmir, years of military rule and political repression buried local aspirations for democracy, constitutionalism and self-rule.
India’s hidden wars of counterinsurgency, are coeval and coterminous with the sixty-four years of Indian independence and cannot be dismissed as temporary lapses from democratic rule. They represent a consistent policy for dealing with the religious and ethnic minorities who inhabit the northeast borderlands. That these policies have rarely been challenged—despite the existence in India of a free press, an independent judiciary and thriving civil society institutions—speaks of a consensus in Indian society that cuts across political lines. Indian acquiescence in the maintenance of authoritarian rule in the border regions overlooks the very real danger that the principle of absolute power will not remain confined there, but has in fact already moved to the Indian heartland, as a method for dealing with tribal and agricultural populations who stand in the way of “economic development.”
The protests of the Manipuri women mirror those of Kashmiri mothers and wives calling the army to account for their disappeared sons and husbands.
The full story of abuses under AFSPA will likely never be told; those remembered by the Manipuris, the Nagas, the Kashmiris and others are unknown. A recent booklet put together by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (Manipur) on the Manipuri experience under AFSPA brings together a remarkable collection of documents: debates in the Indian Parliament on AFSPA with nearly unanimous support for unchecked military power; letters from the first Home Minister of independent India, Sardar Patel, to Nehru which record Patel’s view of the inhabitants of northeastern states as untrustworthy on account of “Mongoloid” sympathies; the destruction of villages and crops by the Indian army, torture, forced labor, exile, rape and the haunting letter written to her boyfriend by Chanu Rose, a young woman who committed suicide after she was gang-raped by Indian army officers in 1974. Together they evoke the continuous struggle by the people of Manipur for a life of peace and dignity. It shows how military violence, intended to terrorize a population into submission, has achieved the opposite. In this compendium, memory and lived experience merge to produce a resolve to end state terror and the political conditions that support it.
Indifference and silence, within and outside India, have been the strongest weapons supporting these policies. After generations of silence, the stories of abuse and violence in Kashmir and Manipur are finally being told. They have struggled to gain attention in India where the typical reaction is denial, boredom, self-pity and justification. Abroad the international community remains entranced by what anthropologist Cynthia Mahmood has called “an Alice in Wonderland” image of the country’s mystic pacifism. In much political commentary on South Asia, Pakistan is derided and dismissed as a failed state. It remains to be recognized that the success of the Indian state in controlling border regions through military force and in covering the traces of its violence makes it a danger to those it claims as its citizens and to regional peace and stability.
In October, Sharmila’s supporters launched a new campaign to repeal AFSPA, by traveling from Srinagar, in Kashmir, to Imphal. This marks the beginning of a new politics where the people of the borderlands, separated from each other by geography, culture, and language, recognize their common experience under Indian military rule. The protests of the Manipuri women mirror those of Kashmiri mothers and wives calling the army to account for their disappeared sons and husbands. By juxtaposing their vulnerability to the power of the military, they expose its stark immorality and foreshadow its ultimate defeat.
The media has called Sharmila the Iron Lady of Manipur. She might be better understood as the lady of the flowers who will face down the military. As in many of the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, the terms of the struggle are not defined by relative power and military strength. Unarmed people confronting an armed state, putting their bodies and lives on the line to reclaim their own spaces and their own narratives, pose a moral challenge which military force cannot always subdue or even withstand. The final outcome is not in doubt. While the Indian state, society, and military continue to try and bludgeon and bully the peoples of the borderlands, the last word will belong to the poet:
When life comes to its end
You, please transport
My lifeless body
Place it on the soil of Father Koubru
To reduce my dead body
To cinders amidst the flames
Chopping it with axe and spade
Fills my mind with revulsion
The outer cover is sure to dry out
Let it rot under the ground
Let it be of some use to future generations
Let it transform into ore in the mine
I’ll spread the fragrance of peace
From Kanglei, my birthplace
In the ages to come
It will spread all over the world.
—lrom Sharmila, “The Fragrance of Peace”
Shubh Mathur is an Indian anthropologist whose work concerns human rights, nations and borders, violence, minorities, immigration and Muslim communities in the United States, gender, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean world. She has conducted fieldwork in India, New York City, and Kashmir. Her first book, Everyday Life of Hindu Nationalism, was published by the Three Essays Collective press. She is currently working on a collaborative ethnography with the families of the disappeared in Kashmir.