Forty five years old Irom Sharmila, the ‘Iron’ woman is known for her 16-year hunger strike in protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in the northeast. She had vowed never to eat or drink — she was forced-fed to keep her alive — until it was repealed in the state. However, in August 2016, Sharmila broke her fast and subsequently announced her entry into the political fray. She formed the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance Party and contested the Manipur Assembly elections in March. The party, however, received only 90 votes. Manipuris acknowledge the existence of Irom as an empty icon. They really don’t know or care about what she stands for. They will organize a bundh blockade or a beating for everyday reasons in Manipur or for none, but she has never had any real support from among them. Manipuris just get on with their own lives; head tucked down, and in practice leave Irom to the NGOs that are all fronts for other groups—insurgents, police, army, drug dealers or general criminal types. They are fairly apathetic and cowardly. Well this is the reason that she could not make it to corridors of power but she herself is one of the most powerful women of our nation.
Desmond Coutinho, an Irish national/citizen of Goan origin, fell in love with the 45-year-old, for her grit and determination to fight injustice. Desmond, her 55-year-old fiance, has visited her every year since their first meeting in 2011, which took place in the presence of a judge, H H Roland Keishing, privately. Until that meeting, the two had been corresponding through letters and emails.
Amusingly, every time he has visited Manipur Manipuri police has held him for his own protection. Irom’s ‘supporters’ were not in favour of their icon getting married. Her supporters and activists always wanted her to remain single and protest against government till her death. Her newfound love was really not welcomed in Manipur. They would have gone to any extent to damage her. But still he maintained that closeness with her keeping miles away. His admiration for Irom and the stand she has taken has only grown over the years. To him, Irom is a woman who doesn’t seek self-aggrandizement and who has not sold out at the first opportunity “especially in today’s India which has become a land of ersatz (fake) hunger strikes, where after 45 minutes of fasting, a minister will be taken to hospital in ‘critical’ condition and within 10 minutes be drinking rice water from the CM who will have backed down to a prearranged script.
Desmond was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where his uncle, Wolf J Dourado, served as attorney general, retiring as a high court judge, and his father was a chief town planner. He is now a legal resident of the Republic of Ireland where he “lives off sensible investments”.
He was in Bengaluru in 2009 when he read a review of Irom’s biography, ‘Burning Bright’, by Deepti Priya Mehrotra, and was moved by the story. Her story was both repulsive and attractive. Her photo… something about the image of this frail woman struck a chord. The review mentioned that she liked reading. But books weren’t always passed on to her. They had also published her full address, so he sent her Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ and St Exuperty’s ‘Little Prince’ and told her he would send her books every month,” Desmond shared his feelings in an interview to Indian newspaper.
Their love blossomed, and for a while now they have been married. Despite the formalities being completed under the Hindu Marriage Act, the couple was told by the sub-registrar that they would be granted permission only after they have registered it under the Special Marriage Act, as their marriage is inter-religious. This requires a 30-day notice period. Desmond plans to sponsor Irom for further education after marriage, so that if she wishes to return to India, she will be among the best educated in her state. We wish happy married life to our iron lady.
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