Manipur’s Iron Lady, Irom Sharmila, visited NLSIU this May and spoke about the politics in Manipur, her protest, and her reflections on her decision to end her strike and contest the Legislative Assembly elections. The Quirk team was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview her and her partner, Desmond Coutinho. See below some excerpts:
This interview was conducted by Prannv Dhawan (Batch of 2022), Vignesh Ramakrishnan (Batch of 2022), Spoorthi Cotha (Batch of 2020), and Mukta Joshi (Batch of 2019).
Q: What are your plans for politics, do you plan to contest again?
IS: No more contesting again. I felt very disheartened after the elections. I will not be entering politics. When the PRJA was formed, it was so different from the other parties. I feel that although it was formed in my name, the ideologies are just so far away from my thoughts. Even the campaign, it became no different from the other political parties. Regardless of what happens to it, I think I dissociate myself from that.
Q: What is your opinion on Indian democracy?
IS: In India, democracy exists only in name. There is no real democracy. Elections do happen, but they are tainted by corruption, money and so on. Leaders are elected on the basis of money and muscle power. These leaders are not our democratic leaders.
Q: What motivated you to take such a drastic decision (the hunger strike) in life?
IS: I used to go on a bicycle, trying to reach out to every nook and corner of our state – so many atrocities (especially the) torture of a rickshaw puller by the army moved me. That thrashing motivated me to do something and I took this crucial decision.
Q: Was there any specific incident?
IS: It was after the Malom Massacre (in the year) 2000. My mind was always occupied with the vulnerable state we citizens were in. The massacre was an incident. It was basically meeting with the gang rape victim and the torture victim. That was gruesome as the army inserted rods and his intestines were damaged. That gruesome incident shocked me to the core. He could not even stand erect. Those graphic details just forced (me) to fight against this impunity of the armed forces. The helplessness of my people and their frustration was the tipping point of my outrage.
Q: How do you think conflicts affect women specifically?
IS: One incident in West Manipur, the combing operation involved gang rape of women in front of her children. These harsh examples show the nature of burden women face. I just wondered if that ever happened to me. That realization forced me to take action. My socialization had evolved me into a person who took challenges up. I do not wish to take up labels of feminist as my action is as a humanist against these grave crimes against humanity. As a conscientious human being, I oppose such draconian laws in a democratic republic. Laws are meant to serve people, but it is harming us. I always had this realization of suffering that the hunger strike would entail. I don’t wish to compartmentalize it (as) men, women and child.
Q: How do you view our justice system and the legal system after having a 16-year long tumultuous relationship with it?
IS: The justice system is toothless. The army major Ajay Chaudhary was arrested for having drugs worth crores once. In a few days, he was bailed out. Justice system didn’t bring army to book for its atrocities. Mere transfers and promotions continued even as perpetrators continued to commit crimes. They were rather bestowed with gallantry awards. (With regard to the legal system,) just revisiting the root of the AFSPA, which is the colonial past. Though the colonial past is over, the AFSPA still applies in full force in an independent country, on its own people. Maybe looking at the ICC to bring these people to justice and International law to solve the problems.
DC: I have some small things to add. The first time I met her was because of a kind magistrate. He was promoted out but the nasty ones stayed. A Tamil scribe came and took up our cause and got small concessions. The National Human Rights Commission intervened after a former Chief Justice of India was insulted by a junior policeman when he was investigating. The NHRC judgment criticized them. The government lawyer brought up the Assam Prison Manual in the high court. The humanitarian allowance of 20 minutes meeting every two weeks was allowed. The judge allowed us to meet with her in court. At the court she is free. Such small acts of humanity were done. They finally let her have a computer after lot of safeguards.
Q: How was the attitude of judges in Delhi? Were they sympathetic to the cause?
DC: Akash Jain was the main man. He was very sensitive and kind. Once, I had a letter from her asking me to come. He was there, trying to figure out how I could get representation. Unfortunately it was the HRA that let everyone down. They had an opportunity to have a show-trial in Delhi. You ask any Manipuri, they’ll tell you the same. They said bring down Dr. Sen, get him to talk about WHO recommendations, on what Doctors should do, when there are hunger strikers. Medha Patkar was also someone who was very kind about the entire thing. So, I just want to say, if you’re a prosecutor or a Magistrate, you can do your job and still be a decent human to people. All that matters is how you ensure that you do both.
Q: What do you think is a lawyer’s role with regard to conflict resolution?
IS: In Manipur also, a lot of young lawyers, intern in the courts, sit and watch the trials, but they rarely have any enthusiasm regarding the AFSPA issues, all the atrocities that’s been going on for the past 60 long years. If they have some enthusiasm regarding the entire thing and a little more dedication, they can do a lot, I think. By using their influence to convince people to join the right side, by showing unity at the right time, they instil that sense of commitment into people.
Q: What, in your opinion, has been the most legitimate criticism of your struggle? How would you respond to that?
IS: With my conscience, as long as I felt what I was doing was right, I felt I didn’t have to bother with others’ criticism. I just had to carry on with my struggle regardless of what others said.
Q: What would be your messages for students and law students, especially?
IS: Apart from looking at things from a purely professional standpoint, also holding on to your belief systems and using the profession to try and bring about a change in society. The law is ours. In a democratic society, the government is the servant and we are the rulers. In a good democracy, the supreme power lies with the people. It depends upon you and your mindset, every reaction to what we get from others, depends upon our behaviour. Don’t just study without learning practical implementation. We don’t care enough for the environment. Students need to study and learn with a sense of purpose.