Why Is Irom Chanu Sharmila ‘The Iron Lady’ of Manipur?

Irom Chanu Sharmila exemplifies the transformative impact that women can have in society when they choose to stand up and protest.

In the northeastern state of Manipur, India, there exists a story of remarkable determination and unwavering resolve. It is the story of Irom Chanu Sharmila, a woman whose life embodies courage and sacrifice, earning her the moniker, “The Iron Lady of Manipur.”

Born in 1972 in Imphal, Manipur, Sharmila’s early life was far from privileged. Her family’s modest means were overshadowed by the political turmoil that gripped the region. Her journey, however, took an extraordinary turn in November 2000, when Manipur was scarred by the tragic Malom Massacre. This incident, where ten innocent lives were lost, would serve as the catalyst for an unwavering commitment that would span over a decade and a half.

On November 5, 2000, Sharmila embarked on a hunger strike, a solemn pledge to abstain from sustenance until the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was repealed. This colonial-era law granted virtual impunity to Indian military personnel stationed in Manipur, fostering an environment marred by human rights violations.

Sharmila’s resolve, grounded in the principles of non-violence, transformed her into a symbol of resistance. Her arduous journey, punctuated by force-feedings and imprisonment, would test the limits of human endurance and dedication.

Irom Chanu Sharmila lives an extraordinary life, one that transcends adjectives and extols the virtues of courage, resilience, and the indomitable spirit of a woman who dares to challenge the status quo in pursuit of justice.’

It is not just a recounting of her life’s milestones; it is a journey into the heart of a woman who fought tirelessly for a cause she believed in.

Irom Chanu Sharmila

Early Life of Irom Chanu Sharmila and the Malom Massacre

Irom Sharmila grew up in a family of modest means, where every dream was nurtured against the backdrop of economic hardships. The defining moment of her life occurred on a fateful November day in 2000. Manipur, a land marked by ethnic divisions and anti-Indian insurgencies, was in turmoil. The infamous Malom Massacre, where ten innocent civilians lost their lives, shook the very foundations of the state.

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Sharmila, then a 28-year-old intern with a human rights group, was profoundly affected by the bloodshed she witnessed. She had been documenting cases of alleged abuse by Indian soldiers, listening to the harrowing stories of women who had survived brutal gang rapes and grieving parents who had lost their children to the conflict.

Her heart cried out for justice.

In the wake of the Malom Massacre, she made a life-altering decision. On November 5, 2000, under a clear Manipuri sky, Sharmila began a hunger strike, a vow that she would not break until the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was repealed. AFSPA granted virtual immunity from prosecution to Indian military personnel stationed in Manipur, leading to a cycle of violence and human rights abuses.

Why Irom Chanu Sharmila began the ‘16–year’ Long Fast?

Irom Sharmila

Her resolve was not born out of anger, but rather, an overwhelming sense of duty to her people and her land. She believed in the power of non-violence and Gandhi’s ideals of peaceful protest. Sharmila embarked on her fast, fully aware of the magnitude of her commitment, and prepared to endure the greatest of sacrifices for the cause she held dear.

Over the course of 5,574 days, Sharmila’s hunger strike would test her mettle, pushing her to the brink of physical and emotional endurance. Force-fed through a nasal tube and imprisoned in a government hospital, she became the face of the struggle against AFSPA. Her unwavering determination earned her international acclaim, with organizations like Amnesty International declaring her a prisoner of conscience and her poster-adorned homes across Manipur.

She became a symbol of peaceful resistance, drawing attention not only from the people of Manipur, but also from human rights activists and organizations worldwide. Her non-violent protest echoed the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and her steely determination drew parallels with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

However, Manipuri society was initially perplexed by her audacious undertaking. How could a seemingly ordinary woman from humble beginnings challenge an oppressive law that had persisted for decades? Yet, Sharmila’s resolve remained unbroken, a silent beacon of hope amidst the chaos.

A turning point: love and opposition

In 2007, Desmond Coutinho, a British-Indian, entered Sharmila’s life.

He had read about her hunger strike and was deeply moved. He began sending her letters and books, sparking a profound connection that transcended geographical boundaries. As their correspondence deepened, a strong bond developed between them, and Sharmila’s heart began to soften.

However, this newfound love was met with resistance from various quarters. The activist mothers who had surrounded Sharmila, as well as some of her family members, raised objections to the relationship. Sharmila’s desire for a normal family life and her deepening relationship with Coutinho led to resentment among those who had once revered her.

The decision to end the fast and pursue politics

Irom  Sharmila

In August 2016, Sharmila took a momentous step. She ended her hunger strike, not because her mission was accomplished, but because she realized the need to change her strategy. She recognized that her long fast had captured the world’s attention, but it had not led to the repeal of AFSPA.

Sharmila decided to shift her focus from personal sacrifice to political action. This decision was met with scepticism by some, who believed that her spiritual power required a more extensive infrastructure to translate into political influence. Sharmila, however, remained steadfast in her determination to bring about change through the democratic process.

In the Manipur Legislative Assembly elections of 2017, she launched her political career by forming the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) party. Although she did not win a seat, her foray into politics marked a new chapter in her activism. Sharmila chose the path of democracy to continue her battle against AFSPA, aiming to bring about change from within the system.

Life beyond the fast

Today, Irom Chanu Sharmila resides in a flat on the outskirts of Bangalore. Her journey has been marked by sacrifice, love, resistance, and transformation. However, Sharmila has never returned to Manipur, and there is uncertainty about whether she will be welcomed back.

Her journey from a determined hunger striker to a married woman pursuing a different path in life has stirred a range of emotions and opinions.

Irom Chanu Sharmila’s life story is a testament to the power of one woman’s unyielding commitment to justice. Her journey from an ordinary girl to an extraordinary symbol of resistance in Manipur serves as a profound source of inspiration for feminists and civil rights activists worldwide.

It reminds us that even in the face of monumental challenges, the unbreakable spirit of one person can ignite the flames of change and illuminate the path to a better tomorrow.

The “Iron Lady of Manipur” exemplifies the transformative impact that women can have in society when they choose to stand up and challenge the status quo. Sharmila’s enduring legacy reminds us all, especially women, that we have the power to bring about change and that our voices, no matter how small they may seem, can contribute to the greater good.


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Image source: The Guardian, Frontline, and Wikipedia, edited on CanvaPro

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About the Author

Suruchi Kumari

Hello! I am a feminist and an aspiring journalist. I'm all about dedicating myself to ensure unheard(ignored) and everyday stories of people find a regular place in your feed, through pen or mic; read more...

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