Khelen Thokchom, TT, Imphal, July 26: Sharmila, a spiritual person, has fasted on Thursdays since childhood. It also turned out to be the day she began her marathon hunger strike nearly 16 years ago.
On November 2 in 2000, Sharmila was preparing to attend a peace rally in Imphal when she heard that 10 civilians had been killed by Assam Rifles troops at Malom near Tulihal airport in Imphal. She vowed to be on hunger strike till the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives the army wide-ranging powers, is repealed. It was a Thursday.
The Assam Rifles troops had opened fire on a group of people waiting at a bus stand near Malom, about 10km south of Imphal city, after militants exploded an improvised explosive device (IED) at Malom.
Sharmila was born on March 14, 1972, the year Manipur became a full-fledged state, in an impoverished family at Kongpal Kongkham Leikai in Imphal East district, about 5km from Imphal city. The youngest of nine siblings, Sharmila could not be adequately breastfed by her mother, Shakhi Devi, a homemaker, and was taken by her elder brother Irom Singhajit to lactating mothers in the neighbourhood. Perhaps this contributed to her love for the wellbeing of all. She has always been associated with organisations working for social causes.
Since childhood, Sharmila avoided festivals and cosmetics. She practised yoga and read the Bhagavad Gita. She was soft-spoken and frail but that delicate veneer covered a strong will, commitment and determination. She studied upto Class XII and would walk 2km to school everyday. She imbibed a love for animals from her father Irom Nanda, a Grade IV employee at the state veterinary department. She was extremely upset when her father died in 1980. Her mother is now 84.
She contributed articles and poems, mostly on peace and non-violence, in local vernacular dailies. In her poem, Be brave sister, she wrote, Why blame fate endlessly/prove your strength, sister. She has also written love poems. In A fortunate woman she wrote, Perhaps, I belong todayo another.
Her family said regular instances of violence in Manipur and reports of excesses committed by security forces in the name of fighting militants used to upset her. Manipur is a conflict-ridden state where more than 40 militant groups operate for various causes, including Manipur’s independence. Manipur had become a part of India in 1949 after the then Maharaja Bodhchandra Singh signed the merger agreement on September 21, 1949. It is alleged the king was coerced to sign the instrument of accession under house arrest in Shillong.
Sharmila was moved when she attended an Independent People’s Court held in Imphal one month ahead of the Malom killings. During the hearing of the people’s court, she heard the testimony of a woman who was raped by security forces during a search operation. “The incident greatly disturbed her,” Singhajit said.
When she is required to appear in court, Sharmila sits quietly and only answer questions asked by the court briefly.