"Irom Sharmila is in Delhi. Please do come to Manipur Bhawan today at 5:30 PM." A terse facebook status update by one of my friends informed me of only the second visit by Irom Sharmila, the Iron lady of Manipur, to the national capital. To students like me, people like Irom Sharmila are a great source of inspiration. While those who claim to be Gandhian capture public imagination one day and fizzle out the next day, this woman on the other hand has been continuing her indefinite fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) away from the media glare in the remote state of Manipur for the last 12 years. She has been awarded by organizations and countries abroad, but back at home, she remains relatively unknown by a media whose sight is restricted only to events happening in Delhi and Mumbai.
Sharmila last came to Delhi in 2006. Back then she stayed here for six months and sat at Jantar Mantar to continue her (by then) 6 year long hunger strike. As she started attracting editorial comment and significant news coverage, she was picked up from there by security agencies, force fed and transported back to Manipur after being booked under IPC for attempt to suicide. I was not here in Delhi back in 2006. But I was here now when she was coming back for the court hearing of the case lodged against her and I was determined not to miss the opportunity.
Manipur Bhavan, located near Assam Bhavan on Kautilya Marg in Central Delhi, bore a deserted look as I arrived there. There was a solitary guard standing outside smoking a cheap cigarette. I went up to him and inquired about the event. "The event is already over. Some students just left" he said in an attempt to shoo me away. "No No" I insisted "This event is taking place at 5:30. Irom Sharmila is coming. You know Irom Sharmila?" "No. I don't know her. But there is no event at 5:30. Are you sure you are not confusing Manipur House with Manipur Bhavan?" In confusion, I called up my friend who had posted the status update who in turn gave me the number of another person who was accompanying Irom from the airport. After speaking with him I got to know that the event was scheduled in Manipur House and not Manipur Bhavan. Heaving a sigh of relief, I began looking for an auto to go to Manipur House. But to my dismay, there was some auto rickshaw union strike due to which no auto wallah was ready to drop me to the desired destination. Finally, I woke up an auto wallah who was sleeping inside his auto and coaxed and cajoled him to drop me. At last he thankfully agreed and I was able to reach the venue in time. Having dropped me to the guest house, the auto wallah parked his auto outside and slept again.
A couple of media vans and half a dozen students loitering outside the gates of Manipur House assured me that this was indeed the venue. To confirm, I just asked one of the students whether he too was waiting for Irom Sharmila. He replied in affirmative. I strolled inside the guest house to pass my time somehow while the cavalcade made its way from the airport to the venue. I checked the time: 4:30. I loitered around, made small talk wwith some of the media persons already there and started messaging all my friends and others who might be interested in meeting her. Sitting under the statue of Bir Tikendrajit Singh, erstwhile Prince of the Independent State of Manipur who was hanged by the British in 1891 for rebelling against the queen, I tried to order my thoughts and think of the one question I would like to ask if I got an opportunity to speak with her.
As we waited, more media vans started trickling in. Some local news channels were already present when I arrived around 4:30, but soon the national media came calling. Times Now, NDTV, ANI etc. all rolled in their swanky OB vans. Meanwhile, news reached that the cavalcade had started from the airport for the guest house. I looked at my watch again: 5:45. Just started? Why such delay? Someone informed me that Irom had to wait for more than an hour at the airport while transportation as being arranged for her. This stuck me as odd and insulting at the same moment. Had it been a VIP, VVIP or a media celebrity, there would have been a jet of swanky cars and heavy security 2 hours beforehand at the airport. Yet, Irom Sharmila was no VIP or media celebrity and hence she had to wait at the airport because the administration here hadn't bothered to make sure that all the arrangements were in place. Still lost in such thoughts, I saw the guards at the guest house requesting everyone to move out of the premises as they had to close down the gates. No one was allowed inside. Not even the media.
We all sat outside as media persons kept trickling in. One well known anchor came and asked in panic "Has she arrived yet? Thank god! I would have been so screwed. Can somebody get me some water?" I kept speaking to my own group of bechara student people who were present here out of a mix of sheer respect and curiosity. As the media persons fixed their cameras on their tripods, rolled out python length cables and shouted at and jostled with one another for some space, we heard a group of people arriving while chanting slogans. "Long Live Sharmila!" "Repeal AFSPA!" chants filled the air as these motely group of 10-15 people made their way to the guest house. The media immediately thrust their mikes in front of their previously agitated and currently intimidated faces.
I strolled around, listening one moment to the questions the media persons were asking to those protesters, going back to my group the next moment and then strolling away towards the road to look out for the cavalcade the very next. It was around 6:30 that finally a couple of Meru Cabs took the turn towards the guest house and someone shouted "She is here!" and there was a huge commotion in which cameras was uprooted from their tripods and space was made for the cars to pass and students were pushed to one side and gates were thrown open that we saw Irom Sharmila, with a tube attached to her nose for feeding, sitting shyly in the rear seat of the second car, sandwiched between two intimidating plain clothes police women. As soon as the cars entered the guest house again, the gates were again closed and everyone who had wandered in was forcibly pushed out. Cameras were on tripods again now as she got out with some difficulty from the car and glanced shyly once towards the cameras before going inside.
"That's it? Isn't she going to come and speak to us?" One of us asked. Others murmured indistinctively. The crowd outside the gates was now divided into two camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The Pessimists were obviously in the majority. "She won't be allowed to come and speak to us. We should have known this earlier" one of the students whispered in my ear. "Let's wait. Don't jump to conclusions" someone else replied. Meanwhile, some of the protesters succeeded in speaking to one of the main guards accompanying Sharmila. Being from Manipur, they all spoke rapidly in Meitei, the local language, while others like me waited for the conversation to get over. Finally after about 15 minutes, the conversation got over and I, like others, crowded around Rojesh, the person who was speaking to the guard. "He says that they are going to force feed her and that it may take some time. Only then will she be allowed to speak to the media." More wait.
It was around 7:30 that the weak figure of Irom Sharmila finally appeared on the entrance of the guest house. There were shouts and chants in which media persons pushed everyone behind (again) and kicked and jostled with each other for the best possible shot. The gates were to remain closed, the guard informed us. There was a small table and a chair that was set up behind the gates from where she was to address the Press Conference. Finally at around 7:45, the Press Conference started.
One thing that I noticed about her was her extremely frail and weak state coupled with a girly giggle that came out every two sentences. One normally expects political activists as being serious and angry, but here she was, 12 years on the hunger strike and yet unchanged by the circumstances around her. I won't go into the details of the Press Conference as it has been widely reported in various media outlets and elsewhere. But I got to see firsthand how some irresponsible sections of the electronic media misquote people. During the course of the briefing, Sharmila said that "the attempt to gain political legitimacy by the use of army in Manipur is very terrible". There was a journalist standing right next to me who was tweeting at the same time. He tweeted "Irom Sharmila says that the use of Army in Manipur is very terrific". Almost instinctively, I grabbed his hand and said "Terrible. She said Terrible." The guy was looking at me for some time while he sent out the tweet.
The Press Conference ended about half an hour later. As the media persons dispersed, we students and other non-accredited people finally got an opportunity to speak to her. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of smiling faces and people wished her best of luck. Finally, I got a chance to speak to her. "You are a huge source of inspiration for people like me. What advice would you give to people of my generation?" Her eyes lit up. She smiled and giggled while answering. "The People of younger generation are the future political citizens of this country. They should set an example for others through their conduct. They are my only hope for change." I smiled back. Others murmured in agreement. Finally, the guard shouted "Okay. Enough. Now she has to go back inside."
Feeling happy for having met her but miserable for the state she was in, all of us dispersed for the night. The autowallah who dropped me to the venue slept soundly in his auto outside.