Irom Chanu Sharmila, the world’s longest hunger-striker and a living legend in Manipur finally ties the knot to her British boyfriend Desmond Coutinho on August 17, 2017, at the sub registrar’s office in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, where she is currently residing.
The 45-year-old has been fasting for since 2000 till to have the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act repealed.
Desmond Coutinho, a 48-year-old writer, and activist met her in March 2011 after a year-long exchange of handwritten letters that Sharmila carefully keeps in a cardboard box by her bedside throughout her stay while fasting. Initially, some of her supporters found it hard to come to terms with the sudden and unexpected romance. Some of the resistance may have to do with social issues, too. “He is of Goan origin but a British citizen. That is why they are against the relationship,” Sharmila said.
They have met once, in March 2011. Desmond had arrived in Imphal in February but Sharmila’s supporters were probably put off by his disheveled appearance and talk about human rights — including his and Sharmila’s.
He had to wait for some time before the activists would relent and allow the meeting. Ironically, it was a two-day protest fast by Desmond that clinched it.
“(At first) they insulted him and threatened him,” Sharmila said. “It was a stormy night. He was sitting near the Meira Shang (women’s shelter) where the Meira Paibis (women activists) gather. They were hard-hearted.”
The couple met on March 9, 2011, at a court, just before she was released for a brief period. Sharmila requested the judge to provide him with security.
Had it not been for the security, “Desmond could have been beaten to death”, Sharmila said.
“They don’t like to appreciate our relationship. They are also very possessive, very mean, very one-sided,” she added without a trace of bitterness in her tone. It was during this meeting, Desmond gave his first gift to Sharmila; Apple MacBook air which she considered to be the most valuable asset in her life.
She had been 28, a Class XI-pass whose knowledge of shorthand had got her a job with a local daily, when she began her fast on November 2, 2000, after the Assam Rifles allegedly shot dead 10 civilians in Manipur.
She has spent years in hospital under police custody for “attempted suicide”, protesting a law, in force in certain northeastern states, that gives troops extraordinary powers to detain and even shoot at anyone they suspect to be a militant. Irom Sharmila, popularly known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, took a dab of honey to end her 16 years long fast at 4.25 pm on Aug 9, 2016; and became a free woman. It was the first time in 16 years that anything has passed Sharmila’s mouth. In her room at the special ward, she has been force fed through a Ryles tube.
Over the years, the tube, just like Sharmila, has become a symbol of Manipur’s resistance against AFSPA and the militarization of the state. She has been force fed juices and baby food such as Cerelac through her nose.
Sharmila said it was Desmond’s soulful letters and thoughts that made her fall in love with him. For a year, they kept in touch through letters, mostly written by the spiritual experimenter who has alternately delved into Christian evangelism and Buddhist Vipassana.
Many reports suggested that the anti-AFSPA activist lost people’s support with her decision to end her long hunger strike, which also kept her under house arrest for several years. And with the 2017 Assembly elections in Manipur result declared, there was no denying that the Iron Lady had little support. Sharmila, who was contesting against former Chief Minister and Congress candidate Okram Ibobi Singh in Thoubal, lost the election. A first-time candidate losing an election to a three-time CM might not be surprizing but the margin was quite shocking. Sharmila managed to garner less than 100 votes while Ibobi secured over 15,000 votes. The defeat is a huge blow to Sharmila’s aim to repeal AFSPA from the state and to bring about a change in politics. An emotional Irom Sharmila broke down after losing elections in Thoubal. Speaking to the press, the activist said that she will never contest elections again.
Post election, Sharmila decided to leave Manipur, traveling rest of India.
On the day of wedding
After waiting for nearly two months to complete the legal formalities, the two obtained their marriage papers under the ‘Special Marriage Act 1954’ from the office on Thursday morning. Their marriage was devoid of any fanfare as no invitation card was issued to anyone. Even the family members of both the bride and the bridegroom did not attend the wedding.
Before going to sub-registrar’s office on Thursday morning, Sharmila told the press on the phone on Wednesday: “I’ll call up my weak mother to seek her blessing for my marriage. We have not handed out any invitation cards for our marriage and none of our family members and relatives will come. Nevertheless, a documentarian from Kakching district will, however, attend it as part of his filming task.”
While a happy Desmond was dressed in a kurta and pair of pants, shawl, and a floral garland, Sharmila was dressed in the traditional pink and black striped phanek and top, sans a garland, with her hair kept as always, hanging loose over her face. The couple came walking holding hands to the registrar’s office, and it was found that the bridegroom had left his passport at home and went back for it. The registrar M Radhakrishnan registered the marriage. Both bride and bridegroom held floral bouquets and signed the marriage register at the Registrar’s office in Kodaikanal, with only documentary film maker Divya Bharathi present as special guest.
Divya, whose film on the failure to implement the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, has put the governments of Tamil Nadu and India in a fix. “I will stand by Divya; I hope you will do the same. I invite Divya to stand beside me at my wedding next week. At this moment, I cannot think of a finer Garland than the end of caste slavery,” Sharmila told reporters.
Many locals had gathered outside the registrar’s office along with a few human rights activists from Madurai and Dindigul. They then left for their home by car.
Click to watch the Irom Sharmila Marriage video
Asked about her post wedding plans, Sharmila said she will settle in Kodaikanal and embark on her new mission against AFSPA for bringing about peace and justice in the country.
She added that she will attend the South Asian Youth Summit, 2017 in Bhubaneswar next month. “I will give a 5-minute MS Power point presentation on AFSPA and the key issues gripping Manipur in the summit,” she said. “We are happy to know that she is getting married. I extend my best wishes to her,” said Mayengbam James, secretary of People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). Sharmila had floated PRJA and contested against former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh from Thoubal constituency under its banner in the assembly elections. However, she got only 90 votes. After her poll debacle, Sharmila made up her mind to quit politics and went to Kodaikanal.