From The Iron Lady by Shubh Mathur, Guernica
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.
[ ... ]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.