The year is 2006. An ordinary November evening in Delhi. A slow, halting voice breaks into your consciousness. “How shall I explain? It is not a punishment, but my bounden duty…” A haunting phrase in a haunting voice, made slow with pain yet magnetic in its moral force. “My bounden duty.” What could be “bounden duty” in an India bursting with the excitements of its economic boom?
I have always been concerned as to how a State treats protests; any State, whether it may be the U.S. or India. Years ago my Diploma project was on Amnesty International. Only a few students and close friends saw it (I did not take part in the Diploma show); the issues that touched me was the level of brutality inflicted upon our fellowmen in the name of law and order, on prisoners — well, because they deserve it, or prisoners of conscience — because what right do they have to have an opinion to question the political framework or for that matter, machinations of state, and heaven forbid formulating consensus. We have no need for Chanakya (c. 350-283 BCE), leave alone a future Nana Phadnavis (1741-1800 CE). The larger congeries of citizens would rather lead an existence that is essentially illusory.
The story of Irom Chanu Sharmila is a thought for our awareness, for our times when most of us are concerned about — what we mistakenly see as the cake getting smaller, and so hasten to get what we perceive as our bounden share and more ever at any price to others, as indeed unwittingly to ourselves. But what is thankfully clear is that we still have Indians who are made of better stuff although our souls have hardened. In seeing them just perhaps we make think and feel a little differently.
For young Irom Sharmila, things came to a head on November 2, 2000. A day earlier, an insurgent group had bombed an Assam Rifles column. The enraged battalion retaliated by gunning down 10 innocent civilians at a bus-stand in Malom. The local papers published brutal pictures of the bodies the next day, including one of a 62-year old woman, Leisangbam Ibetomi, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. Extraordinarily stirred, on November 4, Sharmila, then only 28, began her fast.
Irom Sharmila’s story should be part of Universal Folklore. In the tenth year of her epic fast, Shoma Chaudhury tells you why.