A heroine after a 16-year fast, now spurned by many


(MMO) – In her makeshift campaign office, surrounded by plywood desks and a giant whiteboard, Irom Chanu Sharmila rambled a bit, talking about the nearly 16 years she fasted to protest abuses by the armed forces, about spending most of that time in a hospital ward being force-fed through a nose tube under a law in India criminalising suicide and about her reasons for ending the hunger strike and emerging to contest coming elections in Manipur state.

“I was yearning to meet the people,” she said, adjusting a white shawl over her thin shoulders, “so I had to find another way.”

In meeting them, however, Sharmila was in for a bit of a shock. She had been a heroine to many in the violence-scarred northeastern state of Manipur, the most recognisable face of a popular resistance to what residents say are the brutal tactics of the armed forces. Yet her decision to end her fast and run for office in a much-despised government said to be riddled with corruption was met not with the applause she expected but with anger and resentment.

“Her status was so high,” said Soibam Momon Leima, president of the now-disbanded Save Sharmila Campaign. “The Iron Lady. So beautiful, so strong.”

In November 2000, Sharmila, then 28, vowed to stop eating to protest a law that shields soldiers from prosecution for crimes, after a company of Assam Rifles killed 10 civilians.

People wrote songs about her, a Bollywood film on Manipur will feature a character based on her, and her image has graced posters and T-shirts and autorickshaws — her hair unruly, her face pale, a feeding tube attached to her nose. Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience. In 2006, Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian Nobel laureate, said that if Sharmila died, “the whole executive branch of this country” would be responsible. They called her the goddess of Manipur.

But in July, she said she would end her fast, declared her intention to unseat the powerful chief minister of the state, currently serving his third term, and announced her plans to get married, presumably to her boyfriend, Desmond Coutinho, a man described by local news media as a British citizen of Indian origin, about whom little is known.

On August 9, in front of a throng of journalists, she licked a dab of honey from her hand. After nearly 16 years, Sharmila, tired of being an icon and saying she did not want to be called a goddess, walked away from her hospital prison.

“They drew me in whatever imagery they wanted of me, and they just kept me there and worshipped me,” she said of the public.

That night, as she approached her new home, an angry crowd forced the ambulance carrying her and the police vehicles flanking it to stop. Some recall the crowd hurling abuse, although others maintain that it was a largely silent protest. Dr. Thiyam Suresh Singh, her would-be host, wove through the crowd and approached Sharmila’s window.

“I’m sorry. The people don’t want you to stay for the time being,” he said. “Forgive me.”

And so Sharmila was taken away, ending up for a night back in the hospital.

“The people were very angry,” said Ibomcha Sharma Phurailatpam, a 47-year-old government employee who was in the crowd that night. “She was taking so much responsibility for our society. And suddenly, she broke.”

Sharmila, who protested that her personal life should not concern society, looked pained when asked about the evening of August 9. But she had a message for her public.

“If I continued my fast, then I would have died,” she said in an interview in Imphal. “And if I stopped my fast and decide to change my strategy and you’re against me and you hate me for that, then let my blood wash away all this negativity.”

Shortly after that night, seven women came to her hospital room to ask if she might change her mind about abandoning her fast and entering politics. She refused.

“It broke my heart,” said Momon, who was a part of the group. “If a plant grows and has been groomed so nicely, and suddenly you crush it, it’s like that.”

For weeks after that meeting, Sharmila lived on the otherwise deserted third floor of an airy ashram on the outskirts of Imphal, at the edge of a dense forest. There she cooked her own meals, climbed the guava trees on the property and slept next to a plastic box encasing a pink teddy bear holding a heart inscribed with the words “I love you,” a gift from Coutinho, who she says is in Ireland.

“I have been in isolation for almost 16 years,” she said at the ashram. “It’s just also another part of the phase.” She then moved into a friend’s house in Imphal, before moving into her campaign office.

Momon, a kindly looking woman of 70, remembers Sharmila as a young woman, cycling to meetings in the late 1990s, when a group of women known as imas, or mothers, had taken to patrolling the neighbourhoods in Imphal, confiscating drugs and alcohol and destroying them in public.

Around the same time, Sharmila also worked as a volunteer for Babloo Loitongbam, a human rights lawyer who was working to document cases of extrajudicial killings.

But about a decade after she began her fast, a rift opened, said Loitongbam, coinciding with the arrival of Coutinho. Once, in December 2014 during one of her many court hearings over the years, Sharmila held his hand in the courtroom in front of the imas, a grave offense in traditional Manipuri society, Momon said.

“We weren’t happy,” Momon said. “Suddenly, a man shows up and Sharmila was not showing respect to us.”

The conflict culminated in a confrontation in the court complex after the hearing. The imas said that Coutinho was insulting Sharmila’s lawyer, and they went to confront him. When he ran, they roughed him up, Momon said. Sharmila was angry.

“I don’t know why they were so violent,” said Sharmila, who said that the imas “misunderstood” her intentions, that they never really knew her for who she was. Coutinho did not return an email message requesting comment.

Loitongbam said the rift was not just about Coutinho. There were also disagreements about how to use money from human rights prizes Sharmila was awarded. She wanted to fund global humanitarian causes, and the activist community in Manipur wanted to spend it locally, he said.

“We really don’t know what is happening in her mind,” Loitongbam said.

Even Sharmila’s family does not seem happy about the turn her life has taken. “It seems a nonlocal man came and put a venom on Sharmila,” said her mother, Irom Sakhi, adding that “things have been twisted” since he came on the scene. “Things like she’s going to contest elections. Who will support her? How will she win?”

Some in Imphal do support Sharmila’s decision. Young, educated people, disillusioned by the stagnation from years of corruption, see hope in her candidacy, said Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press, a daily newspaper. Her party has confirmed four candidates for the coming elections, with Sharmila contesting seats in two different constituencies.

But she has plenty of detractors. In an open-air market in Imphal where imas sell fruit, vegetables and fermented fish, Moirangtham Anita Devi sat in front of mounds of betel nuts and said she was “not happy” with Sharmila’s decision.

“She was the goddess of Manipur,” she said. “Now, she is just like any other being. Like me.”