OFMI: This is Steve Macias with the Organization for Minorities of India, and today we have a very special guest, the fiancé of the longest held political prisoner in India today, who’s been called the participant of the world’s longest hunger-strike.
Now this particular character, her name is Irom Sharmila, and she has been on a hunger strike for over 500 weeks. And this is a particularly disturbing offense on the Indian state’s behalf on their continued infringements of human rights. And so we have her fiancé here to tell her story, to give us some information about the plight of Indian minorities, and really allow the American audience to see a part of India that’s not shown when we just see the face of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, or the platitudes of Indian constitution. This is an opportunity for us to see how real Indian people live their life, and what this fake democracy has created and how its affected the lives of people and deprived them of their basic human rights.
So, my friend, I am glad to have you with me today. This is Desi Coutinho. He is the fiancé officially, and hopefully soon to be married, assuming the Indian state gets their act together — married to Irom Sharmila. So I would like to just have some basic background. How did this hunger strike begin? And how has it continued for so long?
Desi Coutinho: Okay. Just to clarify for our records, because I don’t want to sound like a fraud, because obviously you can’t survive without food or water I think for a few weeks, so she has been force fed. That’s how she stays alive. She’s not a guru or a wonder worker. She started 15 years ago. November, I think it was November the 4th or 5th. Basically they have an Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in India, which is meant to be a temporary emergency law to protect the state from invasion and insurgency. What happened was actually, a similar law was brought in by the British in 1942 in Japan was about to invade India from Burma.
Coutinho: And they didn’t want to have a war on two fronts. So they brought in the Armed Forces Special Ordinances Act, and in that act it needed an officer, a captain or above, to sign the order saying, “Now we’re suspending. We’re basically introducing Martial Law. I will order my shoot troops to shoot, kill whatever. And no one will ever be held to account for anything that happens after I sign this order.”
So for the British, the greatest thing you could do was put a letter to the time saying, “This officer, captain so-and-so, gave this order on that date, and has forfeited the right to be a gentleman, but you could not prosecute anyone.” Unfortunately, India took over these areas, what they called the borderlands, which are not fully Indian… Well, and I’m not trying to defend India because I think the more you attack a genuine democracy, the more it it’s likely to change.
But I’ve just seen Selma, and Americans should know certainly in the South, black people were given technically the right to vote, Civil war, whatever. But in practice, nobody gives the poor power. Nobody gives, in a democracy, no one gives you democratic rights. You have to suffer for it. The thing was done in the 60s, and I think Americans have shown the Indians, if you want democracy, if you want to cherish it, the piece of paper, the constitution is worthless, unless those people are prepared to fight, die for an end.
The method she’s using is the same Martin Luther King used, which is non-violent, non-confrontation. So what she’s saying is, “I will not eat or drink again until this law… until…” If a paramilitary rapes or murders, at least he should be investigated. At least there should be a trial, if there is evidence. That’s all. You’ll never get a conviction. She’s not asking for convictions. Just make Indian paramilitaries on their soil accountable in a way that India wants to make Italian Marines accountable outside of India, or anti-piracy patrols. And good for them. But can they not do that for their own people? And for now, because of traditional reasons I guess, there isn’t any sense to this law. There’s absolute immunity, she said. It was actually in response to a drive-by shooting.
OFMI: So is this drive-by shooting, is this the principle moment when she decided?
Coutinho: That’s the trigger. So she had been — it had been going to hell, basically — Manipur — since it had been taken over. It’s one of the least developed parts of India. The money that gets pumped through goes to various mafia-type organizations. They’re not mafia because they’re not organized. They’re criminal gangs. Well, the drug trade comes in through the Golden Triangle… and that’s what the “Look East” policy means. You can trade with the Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, through this corridor, and shipped down to Chennai. And it feeds then India and then Europe from Chennai. Where do you think you get your heroin from? This is from Manipur. It comes through — I’m sorry. America needs drugs. If you don’t give your addicts drugs, they will create a hell, so it’s — but these are the people making money. These are the people who become the only ones who can afford the bribes to become police officers.
Now, although her campaign is against this AFSPA, I think — and I hope people will speak — I’m told she’ll be in Delhi the 5th and 6th in June, but no one wants to speak to her. And she’s earned that right by 15 years in prison. People say, “Okay, she’s not really a hunger-striker.” She hasn’t eaten or tasted food. And she is kept alive in this room. I can go out now. You can go out. I don’t have to… I can bugger off now, I don’t have to talk to you.
OFMI: Right. And she’s been deprived that right of eating.
Coutinho: And Third-World prisons are not nice places, even though she is now treated slightly better than other prisoners.
2000 Malom Massacre Inspired Hunger-Strike
OFMI: So come back to this drive-by shooting. How did she witness this? What exactly happened?
Coutinho: Basically, for a month, people…. I would say she was… she hadn’t found her place in life. She’s 28. She tried different things. She did a one-month internship with… well, what would they call, a controversial figure. Mr. Babloo Loitongbam. And he set up a people’s court. He wanted to have one every year. What they look into: rape allegations, murders, survivors of crime. And he brought a retired judge to look into that. She was doing translations for Manipuri into English for this committee of rape victims, and terrific things.
If you give armed men the right to do anything and tell them, “Nothing will ever happen to you,” and they’re frightened young men, they’ve come from other states, they don’t speak the language, they’re in a jungle, they don’t know the area, it’s like Americans in Vietnam. They’re terrified and they don’t know who they can trust, so after 90 days, a disciplined army gets out of control. This is not a disciplined army.
So what happened was, yes, an IED was what they call it… then Improvised Explosive Devices. Now they’re bought from paramilitaries. Everybody has them. They’re military-grade explosives now. But they were set off near the barracks of the Assam Rifles. So these kids freaked out. They go around, they’re beating up people. And then I guess a lot of them are on drugs. They’re high and certainly — high as kites. And what did they did — they shot at people standing in a new bus stop that had nothing to do with anything. They killed ten people. What was it? Some were children, some were very elderly, and nothing could happen. There was nothing anyone could do about it. That’s the sadness of this.
India was oppressed by so many nations. And last one were the British, and the British weren’t nice. The British would do the same thing. So many massacres, they were done. And this is their own people doing this. There’s nothing could be done. You can complain to the same officers who did the drive-by, and they’ll find themselves not guilty.
OFMI: And they’re protected by this law you’re talking about that’s similar to the imperial law.
Coutinho: Since she’s done this one-month thing and she thought about this law… what can I do? This an old tradition. For her it would be Gandhiji — the Mahatma Gandhi. They say India’s past has now become more uncertain than its future. Revisionist history people don’t like Gandhiji so much anymore, but he followed a movement of peaceful, non-violent protest. It doesn’t mean passive resistance. But to ake it to suffer, and hopefully convert people by not reacting, not confronting, but saying, just showing them that they are human too. They are your brothers and sisters. They know what India suffered. They did not take the job of a soldier so they could bully and murder their own people. That’s not why they signed up.
So why is this happening? She believes if you can connect with that, and if Manipuri should come together… Now one thing I noticed watching and reading books about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers, if you don’t have people supporting you, you are now relying or becoming a prophet now. You’re relying on God alone, and he takes a long time to do anything.
She doesn’t have that people’s movement in Manipur. People of Manipur are broken now.
On Torture of Irom Sharmila
Coutinho: Can I say a little about the torture of Sharmila? It’s all been psychological, but she has been tortured. And two rulings now on that, that she has been tortured. That’s a sad thing.
OFMI: I think force feeding alone should be considered torture. When you force feed someone against their will, that is absolutely a violation of their basic human rights.
Coutinho: Now, this is really important because I think I would distinguish between the types of force feeding. Now, there’s the Guantanamo — strap someone into a chair, immobilize his head because he is resisting and he will bite off his tongue if necessary, he will spit out, he will vomit. So they do everything possible so that — you’re basically lifeless, you’re stuck there, and that is frightening.
What she’s doing is different. The legal term is she’s giving permission, not consent. So she won’t resist. She doesn’t ask for food. If you don’t feed her, that’s fine. In fact, she went through a period since I was there, where she’s had three feedings a day, but she said, “I’m not taking the middle one.” So if you look at pictures of her, she was losing a lot of weight.
Then they got worried, and they just bumped up the other feedings. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not torture. It’s not nice to be stuck in a prison and have this pipe which is always there, food coming down to you. There’ll probably be problems when she, when the pipe is taken out, how to readjust to the world and all the rest of it. But right now, I am backing 100% the continuing of force feeding because if that stops, and she is definitely 100%, in her mind, she will not eat or drink again until this law is unpassed. She trusts in God.
Now, I would have thought I was mediumly spiritual. I would have said I was quite spiritual until I met Sharmila. I’m not. I don’t believe God’s going to save her. I think God is going to let her die because God rejoices in the death of His saints. I don’t want her to die. I am 100% behind the State continuing to keep her alive. Use this time to negotiate, because if you stop the force feeding now she’ll be dead.
The two rulings on torture was that the Supreme Court ruled given that she’s a hunger striker, given that you are force feeding her, you shouldn’t then prepare food in front of her and — mmm, mmm — start eating. Basically for the first year, that’s what they did, and they had to go to the Supreme Court to have them stop doing that.
OFMI: They’re trying to pressure her to break the strike.
Coutinho: But they’re doing it again, so the Supreme Court is ignored. The second ruling — and HRC ruled this— is you can’t keep her in isolation. You can’t keep her there. And for months, no one would see her, and that can be quite devastating to a person; not to have human contact, not to be allowed to contact other people. And the only people who would come would be government interrogators from time to time. Now the HRC ruled this is a form of mental and emotional torture designed to break her spirit. It must stop. Nothing changed.
What they did was — a journalist came around. Based on that judgment, he went to the High Court and the government backed down, and now they allow 20 minutes a fortnight if you can go to Manipur, and are not frightened to give you a name, and stay somewhere there where you feel safe, because you could still be attacked by the police. They don’t really respect the law that much.
OFMI: And going there, kind of aligns yourself with her movement.
India has “Wish to Kill” Irom Sharmila
OFMI: You mentioned that the conditions of a Third-World prison (and I hate using that term because I think it’s kind of dehumanizing to the Indian people), but what are the conditions over…?
Coutinho: I’ve been there now, I don’t care, that’s what it is. I could have been very politically correct about how we talk about developing countries and all this nonsense, Jesus Christ. Now I think you know…
OFMI: Yeah, I completely understand. So tell me more about the conditions. What has she experienced over these last 500 weeks in these prisons and in these conditions? What is it like? What has the State done to her as a result of this hunger strike?
Coutinho: Now, it’s an odd thing with her, and nothing is purely black and white. I love her to bits. Even she will say you cannot elevate someone to a goddess status. You have to see people for who they are. I think, early on, she was adopted by local groups there for their own reason, so they could use her…. Bapu Surat Singh is going to allow her to die. And if they wanted her dead, they could have killed her off 15 years ago saying, “Okay, starve to death. Not our problem.” Or they could have arranged an accident in prison, and no one would have cared.
But it took six years for her to get to Delhi, where there’s slightly more attention, and then it took several years to get Europeans involved and now Americans. There are things happening, but they could get rid of her certainly. I think until very recently, they didn’t want to kill her, and I think they’ve changed the policy. Now they do wish to kill her, but they don’t want to do it with the bright torch light on them.
The most surreal thing of being in Manipur is noticing that the truth doesn’t really matter. It’s so surreal. Whether there are press there, cameras going on, nothing is going to be reported, except whoever the local gangster decides has to be reported. If you look at news reports, what they do, what happened is, even a decent editor, one day he’ll get a report from one group saying, “You have to publish this,” and another group turns out, “If you publish this again, we will shoot.” So in the end, every few weeks they say, “We’re not publishing anything because everybody’s threatened to shoot us, whether we do or don’t do anything.”
There is no free press in Manipur.
The best one in the world, even a decent editor, and I think I’m harsher. I am harsh on them because I’m a spoiled brat. But they do try to leak some information. That’s how I get a lot of the information about corrupt officials there, because they do try and release a little bit at a time before they get beat and killed, and they do happen to die quite a lot in Manipur, more than the rest of India. In India, they just strip you naked and rape you.
OFMI: Well, I know from our experience with Bapu Surat that getting any information from the Indian State is nearly impossible from our side, and even when I was having conversations with the Embassy, they were having a very difficult time communicating with the Indian State. And so, I sympathize on that side with the media. But it is showing how this is not a free state, very contrary to what their constitution makes us, or wants us, to believe.
Coutinho: 1960s. Look at what you Americans did to Bobby Seale too. Any of these people not killed, Bobby Seale, who is supposed to be the terrorist, you don’t kill. You kill Martin Luther King, who was peaceful, nonviolent. You kill Malcolm X, who, in his personal life, was probably a saint. Changed from violent to more peaceful because it’s not going to work. He tried to work with everyone, and before he died, he said, “They’re going to kill me.” And we know he’s been taped, we know he was being watched by the FBI.
J. Edgar Hoover? My God! You put J. Edgar Hoover in charge of protecting yourself, my God, that’s insanity. One man can’t completely protect the mafia because I mean… Jesus. The beauty of America is, after 50 years you publish everything, knowing full well after 50 years no one cares. It’s history now for schools if you want to study it. There’s no one to protect anymore.
I think you’re being — be harsh on democracy. I think the problem with India and Manipur is someone has to die, someone has to suffer. So, unfortunately, for Bapu Surat Singh, even though he has support there, the way of this world is there’s an insanity to humanity. Until people suffer, people will prepare to die for this, you don’t get the changes.
What are Sharmila’s Demands?
OFMI: What exactly are her talking points, as far as, “I will stop this activism when these particular things happen.” What are you guys trying to happen?
Coutinho: She’s a very simple person. She’s not a great intellect. Loads of great intellects they’re sending out. Very simple idea: if you remove this law and make everyone equal it will be the first step to restoring the rule of law, she feels then things will look up. But that’s all she wants. If you can’t do this, then what’s the point? Remove this. All she is asking… people think she is anti-army. I will back helicopter gunships, you get drones, get things that cost money. How is giving absolute immunity, for one, crimes of sexual violence — the Justice Verma report was not allowed to look into the rape laws in India, which are, you know, they don’t treat women well there.
OFMI: Right. I have heard it described that they treat their cows better than women in India.
Coutinho: Yeah, but you speak to an Indian woman who’s in California, she’s obviously got money that she can travel there. So she’s going to get offended now and say, “Of course not. That’s not how it is. I have plenty of servants, and I have loads of personal body guards. I’m never troubled.” But we mean low-caste women, ordinary women, not people who can afford the travel.
But they get embarrassed and they’re sitting there in their first class, and all in their suite in the Marriott, and they have to defend themselves against that. And they know, we have nuclear weapons and all sorts. But it’s a small minority who have the power there.
But if you could just get rid of this law so that soldiers are now accountable — they’re never going to be arrested, prosecuted, nothing is going to happen to them, but it’s a small step to try normalize and restore sense of accountability. No one has it now.
On Coutinho’s Detention in Manipur
OFMI: Have you spent time being detained in Manipur?
Coutinho: I spent 77 days in Sajiwa Jail, which is — they have two jails; they have a woman’s jail and a men’s jail. It’s a jail. I mean I’m willing to… That’s the odd thing. Obviously I was with child rapists, murderers, wife murderers, insurgents, armed robbers; the most indecent people I’ve ever met.
OFMI: Any trumped up charge they could come up with.
Coutinho: Once you’re in there — they’ve been there for many years. They have to get along. Until then, I’ve seen only what they see on TV — Prison Break and all these strange things. The superficial stuff is similar, but people are people. The first time I found really decent people there, and they are not perfect. But they looked after me, they kept me alive. I only had two specific, which I would call formal torture, because the whole prison life is about sadism, abuse.
You said it wasn’t successful calling the embassy. My treatment improved dramatically when I was in prison, and I couldn’t — I thought they were going to release me. I couldn’t understand why they were being so polite for being — I thought they were taking a mickey. What happened was, a fuss was kicked up here in Portumna. A local TD (which is a lower-house Member of Parliament here in the Doyle), he contacted the Foreign Minister, the Foreign Minister contacted the Minister for External Affairs. All they did was start an enquiry, and that terrified them. Once you start an enquiry, and my God, someone is going to get held to account.
And the fear then usually is you kick a fuss at the biggest level, they’re going to get the lowest level officers. Usually it’s SI (Sub Inspector) or below. He is now finished. So some of those guys have Uncle Ji backing them, they’re going to go all the way to the top, and some of them, that’s their senior rank. They’re never going to go farther than that, and they’re dogs-bodies, but they’re the ones that gets thrown to the lions if there’s a problem.
And then they say one rotten apple is bad for business. That’s why they don’t like touching foreigners. They really don’t like doing it. You may think it’s difficult to get into an embassy. Everyone else is invisible. They’re finding dead bodies, rotting corpses in Manipur, and if somebody disappears, maybe he’s gone on a trip to Delhi and didn’t tell you, or maybe you’ll find him dead in the morgue. You don’t know. And it’s that sort of fear, that is why people don’t want to get involved.
But, of course, it’s still much better to be a foreign citizen. The only reason I cannot judge Manipuris is because I was scared too. Certainly at times, I thought they were going to kill me. And once I realized no, they’re not, I’d go back to being what they called, “showing bad,” I go back to being a free man. And I’ve never broken the law. I don’t see why I should be afraid of a soldier or the police over there. I haven’t actually done anything.
On Torture of Sharmila’s Fiance
OFMI: So what exactly would you say that the torture consisted of when you were arrested there?
Coutinho: Well, for me, the problem was, as I said, because I was taken by surprise, I didn’t think they were going to arrest me. I thought, “Why would they arrest a foreigner that actually brings…?” They weren’t going to try to ignore me. But okay, once I was arrested, I said I’m a political prisoner, I’m going on a satyagraha to support Irom Sharmila Chanu and her appeal of AFSPA, this is a political act. And because they couldn’t really allow that, they were told to start.
I got beaten. This is the thing. It’s a torture for me. It’s not about what they do, it’s about what you think their limits are. Basically, they were going to keep getting — at one stage, I thought, “Okay, this is it.” Worse case, I’ll lose a leg, but I can go with a bit of pain, because all I do is I’ll protest. They’ll then tie me down, shove some food in my mouth, and say, “Start eating.” I start eating, fine. But you have to force me because I have to be able to look him in the eye and say, “I’m not a coward.” I have to be able to marry this woman, and not be ashamed that I backed down so quickly. But I think most torturers know, I’m not trained. I’m not some Special Air Services guy who can take tortures here. They will break everyone. And in 1984, the real treachery is when you say, “Okay, don’t do it to me, do it to her. Do this to Sharmila.” That’s when they have broken you, and everybody breaks.
The only reason I got in trouble was they wouldn’t then send me for treatment. They refused to give the medication. But the prisoners looked after me. They were massaging, putting their own stuff on the thing, putting poultices. After three days, they got fed up with collective punishments on the other prisoners, rousting them at five in the morning, when it’s freezing. Everybody out, lined up. And when they’d come to punish, they come in huge force. Usually it’s done… the assumption is that a couple of guys there, if you’re stupid enough to take it, they’ll come back, and they will do whatever they like.
One prisoner died while I was there, the middle of the night. God know what he died of. No one cares, yeah? So the theory is — there was definitely one guy there, eyes bulging out, crazy eyes. The guy gone coke. He was a drug addict, and everybody knew he was a drug addict. He’s what they call an IO, a junior officer. If you have some psychopathic son and you don’t want to keep him, and he needs to do these things, give him a job here, pay the 2 million rupees, give him a job there, he can torture people that no one else likes and that’s okay. Better than having him bother people on the streets. So he is a prisoner too, but he gets to play with everyone there. Disgusting man.
Police Threaten Pogrom Against Catholics
Coutinho: I could have gone at any point, and they could say look, the… What they wanted was for me to get out town, leave, and they’re pushing this idea — it was we’ll drop all charges, we’ll stop the force feeding, this will be a great victory, she’ll be dead in 3 weeks.
And at that time, they were threatening (because I was kept by the Roman Catholic community, a small community there), they were threatening to start a program against the Catholics. Now once she’s dead, they’re definitely going to blame someone, because it won’t be them. You could blame Delhi or whoever. But then they’ll start a fake riot, burn a few convents down, rape a few novices, and drive out (as they did in Orissa), drive out the Catholic communities because they’re hill-tribals, and the people that run Manipur are from their valley.
So they’re a completely different religion, different they consider — this is the madness of humanity. One human race and even in that small area, they’re divided into maybe 50 or 60 different specific tribes, all who hate each other, and no one really knows who is fully a member of any tribe. It’s the nonsense of humanity. So for me, and I say it’s still a great honor, but I’m a nobody, and I have never done anything great in my life. I will never do anything great in my — the only thing I will do is is support Sharmila. If there’s any claim to fame, it’s because no one else is prepared to do it.
International Support for Irom Sharmila
Coutinho: Most people in Manipur want to set up for career. There have been supporters from throughout the world: artists, writers. There have been some amazing supporters that she would accept, and not just the ones who are many times writing to her, petitioning. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident. In Alcatraz prison, did you catch that thing? It somehow — he can’t leave Beijing, but he’s being featured in Alcatraz, and that was an amazing story. The power of modern art. I would never have been pushing modern art, but it’s not even modern art. It’s so obvious that this is a way that — real power. And it frightens governments.
Amnesty International “Did Not Help Sharmila”
OFMI: Irom has had some international attention. I know Amnesty International has paid attention. What are some things you’d want see?
Coutinho: You bring Amnesty International up. Amnesty International, 30 years ago, was run by volunteers, wrote letters, and it was found that everybody hated them. America thought they were too harsh, and that’s fantastic. Now I think Amnesty International, each area has its own agenda. Amnesty International in India is as corrupt as every other Indian organization. I don’t buy it.
I try to tell Amnesty International, “Look. Why can’t you get a case to open up access for her? Why can’t you get her to Delhi for trial?” Fifteen attempts to get it, because in Delhi, she gets the headquarters of every major media house, she gets access to politicians or you can embarrass them there. Why are you insisting that, one, she be kept in Imphal? They refuse to support any trial in Delhi. Two, stop the trials from happening. Amnesty were pushing for, “We want this.” What they’re claiming the outrage is is that she’s under arrest, and she should be free to die. There’s some medical reports, anything from 7 days to 20 days because of the state of her health. She won’t last long. How does Amnesty help her?
Case by case, if you’re saying Amnesty helped so and so, great. It did not help Sharmila. They only accepted her as a political prisoner last year by the way, and they’re too embarrassed to say that they’ve ignored her for 13 years. So you try and find a date when she was accepted as a political prisoner. When they accepted her, they said, “Oh, it’s clear that she’s a…” They’re too embarrassed to say they ignored her for 13 years. I think they’re being paid to provide a fig leaf so that when she is released without trial, without any accountability, and she dies in two weeks, they are given a fig leaf to whoever wanted her dead, saying it is the evil human rights brigade that got her killed.
I’m telling you now that doesn’t help. There are so many things you could do which would embarrass the government. Get her to trial for example, find out if… on the occasion of torture, get the torture allegations looked into. You’ve already got the rulings. There’s nothing to prove now. You’ve got two rulings. The NHRC’s a High Court, and the Supreme Court is obviously the Supreme Court. You’ve got the rulings, you have got the reasons. Why there is no follow on? Okay, they rule this. As you know, one of your presidents said, “Yes, the Supreme Court can make the decision. But how is he going to execute it?” They have no executive power. They’ve made the decision to support her. No one follows through.
Police Will Organize Riots if Sharmila Dies
Coutinho: How does it help her to have all charges dropped? Force feeding will end. If she will then, by any… look what you are saying. She will be dead within seven days to 20 days, and they’ve already said they’re going to have a riot. That’s the one thing they’re saying. They will have a riot, because Manipuris like to riot. That’s a police organized thing. They’ll burns some buildings.
How did Orissa start? A Hindu leader was killed and they blamed Christians. I don’t know whether they’ll blame the Catholics. The only reasons they blamed the Catholics is because, I say this as a guess. Usually they go for the Muslims. They’re called the Vishnupuris or the Pangal community there, because they believe your American friends will then say, “Oh, oh. Sorry. ISIS, did you say? We’re fully backing you now.” And that’s the joke of these things. You’re saying democracy. Democracy is the best of the worst systems we have, but you’re telling me we don’t sell out to protect our own? Of course we do.