The News Minute | August 22, 2014 | 2.20 pm IST
As Irom Sharmila is arrested for the umpteenth time for “attempting to commit suicide”, the poster of a black woman protesting Michael Brown’s killing in the Unites States resonates with the travesty of Sharmila’s situation.
One version of the photo has been re-tweeted over 3,000 times, Alternet reported. France Francois held up her sign during a protest in Malcolm X Park in Washington DC on August 14. It read: I Cannot believe I still have to protest this shit!! #toomanynames #ferguson #sontshoot #michaelbrown". The word "still" was underlined.
On Friday, news channels telecast footage of Manipur police arresting Sharmila, forcefully carrying her away as she struggled to free herself. Again, the charge against her has been that she is attempting to commit suicide under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. She has not eaten solid food for over 12 years. She began her protest in November, after she witnessed the Assam Rifles gun down 10 villagers in Malom, on the outskirts of Imphal. Sharmila is now 41 years old.
Manipuri’s have been demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which has been in force in the state since 1980. Recently, the Supreme Court ordered the Manipur government to make public its report on encounter deaths in the state.
Francois told Alternet that she had debated whether her sign was appropriate, and then after thinking about it, realised that this was what she and many others were feeling: “For me, it goes back to the idea that we're not allowed to feel these sentiments. We always have to be stoic. We always have to make certain people comfortable and I really didn't want to make anyone comfortable at that time. I felt angry. I felt fearful for my young brother and my younger cousin. And I currently feel fearful for the son I might have and I wasn't trying to make people feel comfortable because I don't feel like this is a moment where we should feel comfortable. We should be questioning the fact that this continues to happen and I wanted that to be expressed.”
Francois, who is 28, told Alternet that as a student of Florida State University she was one of those who protested the killing of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson who was beaten severely and succumbed to his injuries. The police had been silent for months.
She also told Alternet that as she stood holding her sign, an elderly woman introduced herself as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and told her that she had been protesting the same kind of injustice for 70 years.
Francois said: “It was both humbling and troubling at the same time," Francois said, "because how far have we come? Really, as a nation, how far have we come?”
Thousands of kilometres away in her home state of Manipur, Irom Sharmila has been asking much the same question. On Thursday, after she was released by the Manipur police, Sharmila had gone to Imphal’s Ima Keithel (women’s market). The New Indian Express quoted her as saying: “I want to eat. Help me. Join my struggle. Let us bring a solution to the problem of AFSPA so that we can live together; eat, sleep and drink together. I am not a martyr. I am a common person. I also want to eat.”
While some news channels in the country thought of her as a footnote in their coverage of the day's news, The Indian Express quotes Sharmila asking for some attention from the prime minister to her state's problems: "My appeal to Prime Minister Modi is that while he himself never talked of repealing AFSPA, this is the platform used by the BJP here to fight the elections. They had said that if the BJP came to power they would get it repealed. They must honour this commitment."
A day after this public statement, Sharmila has been arrested again on charges of attempting to kill herself.
While Francois' words expressed her anger, Sharmila's tears come from an unprecedented task she embarked on 14 years ago. Is anyone listening, in New Delhi or in Washington?