One woman's silent quest for peace on India's wild frontier

For 50 years Manipur has been riven by a bloody feud between militants and the state. For the last 10, Sharmila Irom has starved herself in a bid to stop it

Andrew Buncombe
Monday 04 March 2013 17:26

Sharmila Irom, a young woman from the Indian state of Manipur, has not eaten for almost 10 years. She is too angry to eat, too upset, too disgusted by the violence that surrounds her, too disturbed by her helplessness to do anything about it. She is hungry for justice, not for food.

So, three times a day for the past decade, two nurses have poured a liquified mixture of vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins and laxatives into a plastic feeding-tube, which enters her nose, attached by a grubby piece of white tape. Initially this force-feeding was uncomfortable, but now she no longer feels a thing.

Sharmila Irom is the world's longest-running hunger striker, and yet both she and the cause for which she is fasting are barely known outside her home state, let alone beyond India's borders. Physically and mentally, her sacrifice is immense. The 38-year-old has not seen her elderly mother since 2000, believing that doing so might weaken her resolve. Yet when I meet her in her room in the secure wing of a hospital in the city of Imphal – her face and hands ghostly pale from her forced incarceration – she says with a smile: "I am standing on the threshold of success."

Manipur is India's wild East. For almost 50 years, the former independent kingdom on the border with Burma has been plagued by violence perpetrated by insurgent groups and the security forces. More than 40 separate armed groups carry out attacks on police and soldiers, and routinely extort money from the population as part of what they say is a struggle to win independence from India. Such has been their reach that every month all businesses, shopkeepers and even government workers pay a fixed percentage of their earnings or salaries to the militants.

The authorities have responded with a devastating display of force, sending in troops, police and paramilitaries in such numbers that there is now one member of the security personnel for every 38 civilians. Heavily armed troops are posted at major junctions, or zip around in the backs of jeeps, automatic weapons ever ready. Some have their faces covered with masks or scarves. The result is a society that has been eaten away by an ugly violence that has somehow become normality. Campaigners say the security forces act with impunity, often shooting suspects on sight and killing and torturing innocent people without being held responsible. Such is their swagger, they will even carry out "fake encounters" in public view.

Many people dare not go out after dark. Development and economic growth has been paralysed, unemployment is massive, while anecdotal evidence suggests the rates of mental health problems, even among children, are abnormally high. Sadly most of those with an opportunity to leave – for Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or overseas – take it.

The Indian government has done what it can to cover up this dirty war, according a "restricted area status" to Manipur and several other north-eastern states, which is strictly enforced. It took a full nine months for The Independent to obtain perm-ission to travel here, and it required the signature of at least seven officials to meet Sharmila. At the very centre of Manipur's turmoil is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a draconian piece of legislation which the federal authorities started applying to India's seven "disturbed" north-eastern states back in 1958. The act gives the armed forces the unhindered right to arrest people and enter any building without a warrant and "fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law". Outside of the North-east, the act has only ever been extended to Kashmir.

The Indian state has previously had to confront a major insurrection in the Punjab, and is facing Maoist rebels in perhaps a quarter of its states – an insurgency described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the biggest single threat to the country's security. But the government knows that applying the AFSP Act would be unacceptable to politicians and powerful interests in "mainland" India. Amnesty International says the act "provides impunity for perpetrators of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, rape and torture". It is this law that Sharmila is seeking to overturn through her hunger strike.

Amerjit Khumbongmayum hands me a folded piece of paper. It is a colour photocopy showing gruesome images of a dead man, his face and head caked in dried blood, his body lying on a stretcher that has been set down on a concrete floor. In one image, the young's man shirt has been pulled up and his chest exposed, revealing at least four bullet wounds. Another shows his damaged left hand, on which the tips of several fingers are missing, as if ripped or shot off. They are not the sort of images you would choose to look at, but do so, awkwardly, out of respect for the dead man's family.

Mr Khumbongmayum's 18-year- old brother, Orsonjit, had gone out on the morning of 16 March this year to repair his scooter. That evening, the family were watching the television news when they were confronted with the image of a young man's body lying in the city's mortuary. They recognised Orsonjit immediately.

Police claimed that the teenager, who worked for a company erecting mobile-phone towers, was an insurgent who had attacked a patrol with a gun and that they had defended themselves and shot him. The family says there is nothing to indicate that Orsonjit had links to the insurgents, and believe the police got the wrong person. "He was shot in the head and body eight to 10 times and he was tortured badly," despairs the dead man's brother, a student in Delhi, as his father stands and stares listlessly into the middle distance. "There is no rule of law in Manipur. If I want to get something at night, I dare not go out ... The police think they can just do anything."

Less than 20 minutes away, the family of Irengbam Gunindro are holding special prayers. It is 13 days since the labourer was taken away by four men in a white van, only for his family to learn later the following day that his bullet-ridden body had been discovered. This time it was the paramilitaries who had struck, claiming that the 30-year-old was a suspected insurgent. His family were outraged, and refused to receive his body in protest, insisting that he had no links to the underground groups. They have now demanded an inquiry.

Following Hindu tradition, the men of the young man's family are wearing white robes of mourning, many with shaved heads. "The police had never been looking for him," mutters his brother, Birren, his eyes red and raw.

At least 300 people were shot dead in Manipur by the security forces last year. The authorities say all were suspected insurgents; campaigners argue that any suspects should be arrested and questioned instead. They also say there is a lack of transparency as links between some of the insurgent groups, criminal gangs and security forces have become so blurred that it is sometimes unclear whether people are being killed to settle scores or for political reasons.

For local journalists, such suspect encounters are now so common as to barely count as front-page news. "The trouble with the AFSP Act is that it creates a situation of utter impunity. The security forces think they can do anything," says Babloo Loitongbam, head of the Manipur-based Human Rights Alert.

The most shocking example of his extrajudicial execution, say campaigners, took place last summer when police commandos shot dead a former insurgent inside a chemist's shop in a market in the centre of Imphal. The police claimed that the former insurgent, Chungkham Sanjit, had killed a pregnant woman and that they had then pursued him and killed him in a shoot-out. How-ever, photographs published in a weekly news magazine, Tehelka, clearly show the heavily armed commandos marching the man into the store and then emerging with his corpse. Many suspect that the commandos accidentally killed the woman themselves and, realising they needed an excuse, faked the encounter with Sanjit. In the subsequent outcry, seven police were suspended. The matter is now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, India's equivalent of the FBI. The family told human rights activists the state government had offered the equivalent of £15,000 – a huge sum in Manipur – if they stopped pursuing the case.

It is something of a surprise the case is even being investigated. Campaigners say that although, since 2006, it is mandatory for all deaths in custody to be followed by a judicial inquiry, this rarely happens in Manipur. And even when such inquiries are carried out, they are never made public.

Sharmila Irom stopped eating on 3 November 2000. The previous day, 10 people waiting for a bus at the village of Malom on the outskirts of Imphal, had been shot dead by a unit of paramilitaries belonging to the Assam Rifles.

Earlier, insurgents had attacked the paramilitaries' base. There was nothing to suggest that any of the 10 people, aged from 18 to 60, were in any way linked to the insurgents, but the paramilitaries simply wanted revenge. It was nothing less than an execution of innocents.

Today, the bus stop has been transformed into a small memorial, sitting among the quiet rice fields and surrounded by mountains, with the names of the victims inscribed on a white block. Nimai Tsokchom, a farmer, lives in a shack opposite.

He had a fever and was lying in bed when the paramilitaries struck. "The paramilitaries came inside and I was badly beaten," he remembers.

Sharmila, the youngest of five brothers and four sisters, was deeply disturbed by the killings. The following day she spoke with her mother, ate some food her mother had prepared and – having asked for her blessing – announced that she was launching a fast.

Sharmila had always been different to other young women, say her family. She had just two or three friends, she scorned the use of make-up and channelled much of her energy into journalism and poetry. She read the Bible, the Koran and Hindu texts. When she was born, her mother had been unable to breast-feed so one of her brothers took her to other local women with newborn children who would act as wet nurses. The deal was that the brother did the women's chores while they fed his baby sister.

After she announced her fast, the family were unsure what would happen, but they knew they could not dissuade her. It was then that Sharmila and her mother decided they could no longer see each other.

"If I meet with her, she might lose her courage," says Sharmila's mother, Shakhi Devi, huddled over a steel bucket of glowing embers at the family's simple home, less than a mile from the hospital where her daughter is detained. "So I will not meet her unless she gets her wish. I will meet her after getting our demand."

The authorities – unsure how to respond to Sharmila's actions – arrested her and charged her with attempted suicide, an offence for which she can only be jailed for a year. As a result, since late 2000, Sharmila has been repeatedly detained, force-fed and then set free for a day before being re-arrested.

All this time, she has not eaten or drunk a thing, nor washed her hair, which is now matted and twisted. Her fast has caused her to stop menstruating, while some reports say her internal organs have been damaged. She uses dry cotton to wipe her teeth, insistent that water will not pass her lips. Held in a shabby, peeling room that measures 20ft by 12ft, she spends her days reading books, newspapers and letters from well-wishers. She sometimes does yoga. She has made cardboard models from a kit of famous structures of the world, among them the Empire State Building and London Bridge.

She insists she is not bored and is accustomed to her room. Yet she misses the fresh air and sunlight. For their own reasons, the authorities refuse to allow her to go outside. And when she is permitted to speak with journalists or campaigners, officials from the hospital and a plainclothes policeman often sit in. "They treat me like a criminal," she says.

Manipur's chief minister, Okram Ibobi – who has an image of India's most famous hunger striker, Mahatma Gandhi, on his office wall – says law and order is his number one priority, followed by development. It is no wonder. Other than the security forces, his state is barely functioning. In Imphal there is often electricity for just two hours a day, there are constant water shortages, rubbish is rarely collected and roads are broken. Asked why there are no peace talks with insurgents in the Imphal Valley, as has happened both in the Manipur hills and in neighbouring Nagaland, Mr Ibobi says efforts are under way. He says he would like to lift the ASFP Act, but that is dependent on an improved security situation. On Sharmila – whose death, even through her own actions, would trigger massive unrest – he says: "We have no option but to feed her". Yet asked, twice, why she has to be shut off from the outside world, he has no answer. As to the allegations of fake encounters and torture, such allegations are "totally wrong. But anywhere in the world, if there is conflict between the army and an armed force, there might be some omissions or commissions that happen accidentally or intentionally."

Maibam Ratan Kumar, who teaches history at a girl's college, thought he was going to die when soldiers dragged him from his home in the night and tortured him. He was blindfolded, beaten, water-boarded, given electric shocks and repeatedly accused of being an insurgent. Then, as quickly as he had been seized, the soldiers appeared to realise their error, apologised and released him. "They said I had to confess to membership of the UG [underground]," he says, his face drawn. "I kept repeating that I had no relationship with those people."

During that long night in July 2007, he was tied up and given electric shocks via electrodes clipped to his toes. Yet the most terrifying aspect was when the soldiers covered his nose and mouth with a cloth and poured water over his face, creating a sensation akin to drowning. He could not breathe. The physical wounds of that night have healed, but Mr Kumar cannot forget what happened – events for which no one has ever been charged. "In my normal life, there are so many difficulties. Sometimes there are so many memories," he says. "Until now, I keep thinking that they are going to come back and do it again."

As it is, Mr Kumar recounts his story in the grounds of a temple owned by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a place infamous as the site of a grenade attack by insurgents in 2006 that left five people dead and injured dozens. As I wait for him to arrive, I wander among the shaven-headed devotees in the calm temple building.

I am approached by a friendly man in his sixties, who says he often comes in a search for serenity. It transpires that the man, Thangjam Karunamaya Singh, is a former inspector-general of police. He says that since he retired 12 years ago he has watched the police become increasingly violent and act with impunity.

"They are supposed to be defending the people, yet they are responsible for much of the violence," he says. "There are all these fake encounters in order to get gallantry medals, for monetary gain and to cover up extrajudicial killings. There is no security. How can we ever live with dignity?"

With all this killing, with all this anguish, it is little surprise that the people of Manipur – descendants of an ancient culture and whose forced integration into India in 1949 is still rejected by the state's various insurgent groups – suffer considerable mental health issues. Those who treat such problems say men, women and children are all suffering from the ubiquity of violence. Drug use is rife, and as a result the rate of HIV is reported to be the highest in India.

"The whole society here is emotionally disturbed," says Professor Akshay Kumar, head of clinical psychology at the National Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal, sitting beneath a slowly whirring fan at his home. He says he and other experts have seen the number of patients soar since the Eighties, when Mani-pur's violence worsened. "There are so many repressive laws, the military loitering on every corner. There is lots of communal violence, lots of ethnic clashes... There is the sense of threat, to the general population, either from the security forces or the insurgents," he adds. "People cannot sleep, they cannot eat, they have lost their sex drive. These are the common problems I am coming across."

Sharmila Irom sees herself as the latest in a line of defiant women from Manipur. Traditionally, women here enjoyed a collective right of appeal to the ruling monarch and when the British seized control in 1891 – this was the last territory to be incorporated into the Raj – it was women who led the protests, as they also did in 1904. In 1939 – when the authorities continued to transport rice out of Manipur despite widespread shortages – women launched a massive protest. Today there is a memorial to this "women's war" close to the office of the chief minister. More recently, as violence worsened in the Eighties, the meira paibis ("torch bearers"), groups of grassroots women protesters, led demonstrations for peace.

In 2004, when a 32-year-old woman was dragged from her house by troops and then raped and murdered, those same torch bearers marched to the troops' barracks, stripped naked and raised a banner that read: "Indian Army Rape Us". Even now, women in Imphal are holding a relay hunger strike in support of Sharmila, each fasting in turn in a makeshift shelter of bamboo and thatch located close to the young woman's hospital.

"There is long tradition of women in Manipur fighting against repression," says Sheelaramani Chungham, a professor of English, who, over coffee one morning in a newly built hotel, hands me a slim volume of Manipuri women's poetry she has edited. "We need a peace process. We, the people, are fed up with the violence," she says.

One of the poems, entitled "The Breast Swells" and written by a woman called Y. Roma, reads: "Who are you holding the torch/with the eyes of fire-ball mother,/ Bound fast with the waistband,/With mouth shut tight,/Who are you, the daring spirit?" Sharmila, herself a poet, believes the women of Manipur have had no option but to be strong and determined. "I think it might be due to our tradition: we are very simple, but we want justice, and I think that is in my blood," she says, sitting in her hospital bed, wrapped in a blanket. Before answering any question she always pauses and thinks.

For all her determination, she is also bright-spirited and humorous. At one point she laughs, when asked about a stuffed toy sitting on her bed that looks, as far as one can tell, like Orville the Duck. When the incongruity of the appearance in a hospital in Manipur of a ventriloquist's puppet, made famous on British TV in the Eighties, is explained to her, she giggles even more. "Everything is such a mess in Manipur right now. The politicians depend entirely on power, on physical power. They are power-hungry," she eventually continues. "[My struggle] is in the name of justice, peace and love. I am a very simple symbol of those things. My struggle is a very simple matter, it depends on spirit, sufferance."

Sharmila coyly suggests she has a boyfriend whom she intends to marry once her victory is won. She points to a wooden carving she says he has sent from Kerala.

No one can question the sacrifice she has made, the things she has had to forgo during her fast, the length of which is utterly unprecedented. Asked whether she might be more use to her cause working "on the outside", she replies that she is just a "simple woman" with little education and few qualifications to do anything else.


* One of the "Seven Sisters" that are India's north-eastern states, Manipur was seized by the British in 1891, the last part of modern India to be incorporated into the British Indian Empire.

* More than 40 insurgent groups are currently active in the state. They are seeking independence from India, arguing that the state's forced incorporation into independent India in 1949 was illegal and unjust.

* Local historians say Manipur's own status as an independent kingdom can be traced back 2,000 years. Before the British took control, it was a princely state.

* As with much of the North-east, Manipur is rich in ethnicities and languages. About 30 distinct languages and dialects have been identified.

* The state suffers from massive unemployment, drug abuse and one of highest rates of HIV infection in India.

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