Monday, September 26, 2011

IROM SHARMILA: The Unlikely Outlaw

The immensity of Irom Sharmila Chanu's now six-year-old protest is matched only by the paralysing indifference of the State and the national media, says Shoma Chaudhury
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 can be bounden duty in an India bursting with the excitements of its economic boom?

You are tempted to walk away. You are busy and the voice is not violent in its beckoning. But then an image starts to take shape. A frail, fair woman on a hospital bed. A tousled head of jet black curls. A plastic tube thrust into the nose. Slim, clean hands. Intent, almond eyes. And the halting, haunting voice. Speaking of bounden duty.

That’s when the enormous story of Irom Sharmila begins to seep in. You are in the presence of something historic. Something unparalleled in the history of political protest anywhere in the world ever. Yet you have been oblivious of it. A hundred TV channels. An unprecedented age of media. Yet you are oblivious of it.

Irom Sharmila, 34, has not eaten anything, or drunk a single drop of water for six years. Six years. She has been forcibly kept alive by a drip thrust down her nose by the Indian State. For six years, nothing solid has entered her body. Not a drop of water has touched her lips. She has not combed her hair. She cleans her teeth with dry cotton and her lips with dry spirit so she will not sully her fast. Her body is wasted inside. Her menstrual cycles have stopped. Yet she is resolute. Whenever she can, she removes the tube from her nose. It is her bounden duty, she says, to make her voice heard in “the most reasonable and peaceful way”.

Yet we have remained oblivious to it. The Indian State has remained oblivious to it.