2 October 2016 | One can find Irom on at least twelve walls of JNU. Yesterday, the activist was here in the campus addressing the students in person. The usually secluded area of Shipra lawn saw a thousand students huddled together, who had started pouring in as early as seven in the evening to hear Irom Chanu Sharmila speak. It was an emotional moment for hundreds of activists who admire her as a symbol of resistance against state repression, for scores of artivists who have tried to portray her indomitable willpower on the red sandstone walls of the campus. And for innumerable students, both within and outside the campus; who have known her as the one to have steadfastly opposed the state imposed AFSPA through non-violent means making even powerful leaders take note of her and her cause.
Irom, for some is also Mengoubi or the fair one, as she is popularly known.
One could sense the excitement in the air; students who had occupied front rows early demanding late comers trying to squeeze in to move to backseats. There were North-East students who had come from outside to have a glimpse of her. Frequently some section would break into loud cries of ‘laal salaams.’ While the recent recruits of DSF (the organizer for the event) shuffled around the place with tambourines, to make sure their voice rang the loudest during the naarebazi sessions, the older activists on the other hand in vain tried to keep things (read: people) in order.
The entire place was alit and you could see the amount of love and affection people in the campus have for the iron-willed woman. You could see it on the balconies and terrace of Shipra, on the walls around the badminton court, on the branches of babool trees nearby, and in the gathering assembled under the night sky. The speakers: Papori Bora, Vrinda Grover and Irom Sharmila sat overwhelmed amidst all the adulation.
Pushpika Bara, SIS Councillor welcomed the speakers and spoke about Irom’s hunger strike that lasted some sixteen years. She said students of JNU salute her iconic struggle and welcome her decision to end her hunger strike and fight through electoral means. Irom Sharmila had declared on 9 August 2016 after ending her hunger strike that she will contest Manipur Assembly Elections 2017. After which Pushpika added that JNU condemns the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 or AFSPA that grants security forces the power to search properties or arrest people without a warrant; to use deadly force against individuals if there is “reasonable suspicion” that a person is acting against the state; calling it “draconian” and “fascist.” It is shameful for the government to use violence against its own citizens she said. The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been reeling under the same draconian law.
Papori Bora, professor at Centre for Women and Gender Studies JNU, reminded students about the extraordinariness of her strike, stressing on the fact that it’s a lone democratic voice amidst tens of thousands of armed struggles in the Northeast. She expressed her disappointment with the state that has “failed to acknowledge Irom’s struggle;” and questioned the disparity that lies between India and the so-called “Indian” Northeast.
“Coexistence of AFSPA within representative democracy in Manipur is ironical. The Indian Union tries to ‘protect’ [Irom] under Section 309 of Indian Penal Code, thus including her as a citizen when at the same time excludes her by denying to acknowledge her struggle and fast. All her attempts to engage in a dialogue with the state have failed. This exclusion within an inclusion has forced her into a non-space…. Irom truly personifies the Northeast,” she said.
The human rights activist, Vrinda Grover was identfied by Times magazine as one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ in 2013 for her “determination to force an often recalcitrant political and legal system to change” and for raising her “loud, uncompromising” voice for justice and equality. She spoke at length about the repercussions of AFSPA and about the growing tensions in the country. Taking a dig at the rambunctious theatre of Indian media, she expressed her dismay at the violence being perpetuated by the regime, and its indifference which is as dangerous as the former.
“Satyagraha is a political tool, one amongst many many political expressions that overthrew the Britsh raj in India. It compelled the British to leave India. But Irom’s satyagraha has not received an ear from the government. AFSPA has not yet been repealed after sixteen years of Irom’s satyagraha. Let’s think which is more oppressive. Let’s question the State and the regime,” she exhorted to the crowd present.
A small token was presented to Irom – her portrait sketched by the students. It was a face that has not seen a mirror for the last sixteen years. It was time for Irom to address the audience which sat eagerly to hear her words. She first spoke in Manipuri and then later took to English.
“Thank you all,” she began, sitting on her chair in a white top, a blue phanek and a woolen black innaphi.
Three times they changed the interpreters; the first two tried but gave up. The third one managed better.
For most parts of her speech, she spoke about the potentials of the youth and their role in the society. On several occasions during her speech, she stressed on the unity that is needed among the people.
She then got up, stepped ahead and continued:
“For sixteen long years I followed Gandhian principles and requested governments to repeal AFSPA so that we are given the right to live. My protest has fallen on deaf ears. Now I wish to convey that I want to change my tactic, I will fight in a new way. I will take this to [the] ballot. My fight is not mine alone. It is for Manipur. We live on the same brown planet. When there is a volcano, typhoon, flood: it affects us all. When there is an unjust system, it affects us all… The people’s power can defeat the most unjust forces.”
Twice she asked if she should speak more, and “yes!” bellowed the crowd.
She paused, and then she continued:
“It is my belief that the students are the mirror of the society. It is said that when spring comes, it is full of hope and promise. When a bud blooms, it is full of hope and promise. It is my hope, a deep conviction that there is spring in the unity of the youth. If the youth is united, then we can defeat all the evils of the society.”
She conveyed such conviction and faith in the promise of a better future through her presence and gestures that one could sense her ideas taking shape among the audience across linguistic barriers. And when she started in English, slow and broken, those beliefs were further affirmed:
“I appeal to you all, the mirror of the world. Such kind of a unity [that is here in JNU] is not in my native land, full of problems, without any solution, without any guide. When those who are meant to serve us [do not do so], I have to step into the dangerous position and awaken the minds of people…ahead of my announcing the break of my fast, a BJP leader told me that if I have to stand in elections from their party I would need an average of 36 crores. In such dirty system, people are blindly indulged in traps… I hope the whole system of politics need[s] to be modified now.”
She ended, “I wish you all come to Manipur one day,” and then joked, “just ahead of the next elections.”
A wave of slogans in support of Irom’s struggle filled the night air.
“Irom ke sangharsh ko Jai Bheem Laal Salaam.”
The azaadi ones followed too.
“Irom waali azaadi, Manipur me bhi azaadi, AFSPA se lenge azaadi.”
Kumar Prashant is a BA student at CRS and works for The Informer. Sunaina is a research scholar at SIS and works for the Photography Pool.