The journey of Irom Chanu Sharmila, an Indian civil rights activist, political activist, and poet, is a clear depiction of how a martyr came back to life from a 16-year-long hunger strike. Youngest of nine siblings, Irom was born in a Meitei family in Imphal, Manipur. Living an ordinary life, a tragic incident of the Malom massacre that happened in November 2000, when she was 28, brought about an unexpected turn in her life. On November 2, 2000, 10 civilians were gunned down by the 8th Assam Rifles at Malom Makha Leikai in Imphal in lieu of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958. As an act of protest against the act, Irom began a hunger strike against the atrocities in Malom, which gradually developed into a prolonged hunger strike against the AFSPA.
Irom Chanu Sharmila’s protest named her the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ or ‘Mengoubi’ (the fair one). She started the hunger strike on November 5, 2000. Three days into her fast, she was arrested for ’attempting suicide’ and remained in police custody for 16 years, as she continued her fasting. Amnesty International had declared Irom as a prisoner of conscience. Having refused food and water for more than 500 weeks, she had to be nasally force-fed through Ryles tube on August 9, 2017, which marked the end to this ‘world’s longest hunger strike.’
This end was voluntary, as she felt that the strike made almost a negligible impact on the government, and just as the strike continued, so did the AFSPA attempts. MSN poll voted her as India’s top woman icon on international women’s day in 2014. She was also asked by two parties in the same year to stand in the national election, but she declined. Not willing to stop, she decided to change her way and said, “I will join politics and my fight will continue.”
In October 2016, she launched a political party, Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance to contest two assembly constituencies of Khurai and Khangabok. Irom received the fewest votes in the 2017 Manipur Legislative Assembly Election, therefore she left politics on grounds of the dirtiness involved in the process.
On August 17, 2017, Irom got married to Desmond Coutinho, a Goan-born British national, and gave birth to twin daughters, Nix Shakhi and Autumn Tara on May 12, 2019. This marriage was widely opposed by the Manipur people and her family.
Irom Chanu Sharmila’s life and struggles were deeply penned by Deepti Priya Mehrotra in her book, ‘Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur’ and was also depicted by Ojas S V, a theater artist from Pune, in his mono-play titled, Le Mashale (Take the torch).
Irom was awarded the Gwangju Prize for human rights in 2007 for being an outstanding person, active in the promotion and advocacy of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights, Mayillama award in 2009 for the achievement of her nonviolent struggle in Manipur, and the lifetime achievement award from Asian Human Rights Commission in 2010.