Irom Sharmila always smiles. But on Wednesday, for the first time, I saw her smile reach her eyes. This, when the grill gate at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences was pulled open at 5.45 pm Wednesday and the Iron Lady of Manipur allowed to step into freedom after 14 years of incarceration.
Less than an hour before she was released, I had walked into the hospital where Irom Sharmila has spent the last 14 years. A left turn into the Special Ward and there she was, pacing the corridor impatiently, the trademark tube hanging from her nose. The tube used to forcibly feed the woman who refused food and water for over a decade to protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSAP, which allows soldiers sweeping powers in areas identified as "disturbed" on account of insurgency.
"You know you are to be released?" I asked her as she clasped my hands. "Yes, I have heard and I am so happy," she said. "What are you going to do now, I asked?" "I will continue my fast till the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is repealed," she said.
Then a bunch of policewomen in plainclothes marched up to me, "Do you have official permission to speak to Sharmila?" they asked. I said I had no permission or anything. And that was that. I was gently pushed out of the Special Ward, Sharmila's home for 14 years.
Not long after, Irom Sharmila walked out of the hospital. She was smiling but there were tears in her eyes. "Tears of emotion," she sobbed. "This is all God's will".
Questions were hurled at her as she walked away from her home of 14 years. Her destination: a rough shack made of tin sheets, open in the front, about 500 metres from the hospital. That's where her supporters have been camping over the last several months. That's where Irom Sharmila is spending the first day of her independence.
"I will not touch food or water," she says. "I want a mass uprising on the AFSPA issue. I don't want people to glorify me. I want them to come forward and support my cause, my protest against AFSPA. It's a draconian law that has widowed many women, robbed women of sons, husbands and fathers. It must be repealed.
The Constitution, after all, is made for the people, by the people and of the people and the people's can force a change to repeal the AFSPA that gives the military too much control over our lives."
Today is hot and dusty and members of the Just Peace Foundation, set up some years ago with money that Sharmila got as awards, are gathered at the dharna site. They plan a closed door meeting with her on how to take the movement forward.
There is a buzz that the government may go to the High Court to appeal against Tuesday's order that set Sharmila free, the order that said there was no evidence that Sharmila was trying to commit suicide by going on an indefinite fast.
In its order, however, the court has said if Sharmila continues her fast, the state "may take up appropriate measures for her health and safety, such as, nose feeding etc."
But the question is, how can the state nose-feed Sharmila unless she is arrested? And how can she be arrested? She hasn't committed any crime.
All through this, Irom Sharmila sits quietly, leaning against a cushion resting against a bamboo pole. In front of her is a brass tumbler full of flowers. As people chatter around her, her hand reaches out and caresses the petals.
The logistics are of little interest to her. What matters is that her one-woman movement to repeal AFSPA must now be supported by multitudes. The 14 years in a jail hospital were hard. But Irom knows the road ahead could be rockier.
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