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In India, love tests world's longest hunger strike

Irom Sharmila vows to keep up her fast, now in its 11th year, to protest a law granting legal immunity to India's armed forces. But Irom, who has a suitor, also dreams of a normal life, and love.

November 04, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Supporters tend to Irom Sharmila in New Delhi in 2006. Irom, whose hunger strike is now in its 11th year, is protesting legal immunity for Indian troops.
Supporters tend to Irom Sharmila in New Delhi in 2006. Irom, whose hunger… (Gurinder Osan, Associated…)

Reporting from Imphal, India — Irom Sharmila's mother has a simple dream: sitting down to a meal with her daughter.

Irom hasn't willingly ingested food or water for 11 years, in protest of a law granting legal immunity to the armed forces for human rights abuses. As the anniversary of her hunger strike nears, her mother imagines what might be.

"I'm still waiting for her to come home," said Shakhi Devi, 78, holding an album of her daughter's photos. She rarely visits the 39-year-old, the world's longest-serving hunger striker, because it's too painful.

"I only cry. The distance is so near, but so far. I want her to come for me and we'll share a meal together."

Septuagenarian anticorruption activist Anna Hazare drew huge crowds during a 12-day hunger strike this summer in New Delhi, but Irom has been largely ignored outside this remote corner of northeastern India where a disparate collection of insurgent groups has for decades been fighting for independence.

Force-fed by the government through a nose tube, she languishes in a guarded hospital ward here in Manipur state, charged with attempted suicide. This carries a maximum one-year sentence, so every year she's released and rearrested.

Every 15 days, a judge asks her whether she'll eat. Her answer, repeated more than 200 times: no, not until the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is repealed. The national law, passed in 1958 and applied to Manipur in 1980, was envisioned as a short-term measure. But it remains in effect.

Now insular Manipur has been rattled by a complication in the lonely crusade of a woman who is the symbol of its battle against the Indian government: Irom, who is single, has received a marriage proposal from a man she has met only once, during a brief court appearance.

Her family and local activists are opposed to the relationship, arguing that the struggle comes before romance. Some suggest that her suitor is a government spy sent to weaken her resolve.

Others say her inner circle is putting its own interests above hers.

"They're worried their symbol will be gone," said Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, a civic group. "She has every right to get married, and wear a beautiful Manipur wedding dress."

As for Irom, even as she vows to continue her fast, she also dreams of a normal life, and love.

"I'm an ordinary human being," Irom said during a brief visit, with tears in her eyes and her nose tube slung behind her ear like a grocer's pencil. Some of the activists are "very mean," she said. "After fulfilling my demands, I want to live just as other common people."

During the visit and in written comments, the gaunt woman with tussled jet-black hair grapples with finding the balance between love and mission.

"Life without romance cannot be called a social being's life," she said. "I struggle as a human for humanity's sake, not as a role model."

Few would have bet on Irom becoming a role model. The youngest of nine children, the introverted girl occasionally wandered off unnoticed amid the family bustle, relatives say.

But there also were hints of resolve. In the eighth grade, she swore off all animal products — her Meitei Hindu community traditionally eats fish and milk products — and a few years later started fasting every Thursday.

She left high school without graduating, worked at odd jobs and, in the late 1990s, started attending human rights meetings.

Then, on Nov. 2, 2000, a roadside bomb exploded near a passing paramilitary vehicle outside Imphal, the state capital. Although no one was hurt, battalion members reportedly returned and shot and killed 10 residents, ages 17 to 62. Many were standing at a bus stop. Paramilitary members later said they acted in self-defense, although a judicial inquiry found no supporting evidence. The law precluded any prosecution.

Two days later, an incensed Irom sought her mother's blessing and quietly started fasting. As word spread, state authorities arrested her. Two weeks later, with Irom's strength failing, then-Manipur Human Rights Commission member Yambem Laba recommended a feeding tube. "I told her, 'Don't die for Manipur, live for Manipur,'" he said.

For 11 years, in addition to refusing food or water, she hasn't washed her shoulder-length hair or cut her nails, giving her a look that scares children. She's stopped menstruating. She cleans her teeth with cotton balls and practices yoga, paces the hallway, reads and writes.

Irom's feeding tube, about a foot long, is attached to her nose with tape. The other end can be easily detached from the feeding apparatus, allowing her to move around with it dangling. In the early years, the contraption caused her discomfort, but that's all but disappeared with time.

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