Frail and suffering after being on fast for more than 12 years, Irom Sharmila proclaims she will die on hunger strike unless India repeals the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) .
The AFSPA gives security forces sweeping powers,including the power to shoot people dead on mere suspicion, while operating in areas afflicted by rebellions – like in Sharmila’s Manipur state on India’s far eastern border with Myanmar (Burma).
“How can men in uniform enjoy such powers in a democracy which they so often misuse? This Act must be repealed if India is serious about its democracy. Or else, I will continue my hunger-strike until I die,” says the frail Sharmila , who turned 40 on March 14 this year.
On November 2, 2000, troops of India’s elite counter-insurgency force Assam Rifles opened indiscriminate fire on a market at Malom near Manipur’s state capital Imphal. Ten civilians were killed on the spot – among them a 60-year-old woman and three teenage boys, one of whom had won the Prime Minister’s Award for Bravery.
The Assam Rifles forces were upset after one of Manipur’s more than a dozen rebel groups attacked one of their patrols – but the people they killed in retaliation were innocent civilians who had no involvement in the attack.
“That was a Thursday, the day I used to fast every week. I was so shocked by the massacre at Malom that I just decided to continue my fast unless the draconian law was repealed,” Sharmila said, lying on her bed in the Imphal hospital, where she is held in “judicial custody” and force-fed every day through a tube in her nose to keep her alive.
“This is a symbolic fight for the people of Manipur who have suffered so much at the hands of the security forces. Hundreds of our boys and girls have been killed on mere suspicion of being rebels. This is possible because the
AFSPA gives so much power to the security forces. This Act must go,” she said.
Brother Irom Singhajit Singh recalls that his sister had one last supper with pastries and sweets, then touched her mother’s feet to seek her blessings to begin the epic fast.
Hunger strike has been a popular weapon of protest in India since Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, popularised it during the anti-colonial struggle. But nobody has been on fast longer than Sharmila.
Manipur has been ravaged by four decades of separatist insurgency, with close to a dozen groups involved in fighting Indian forces and, often, amongst themselves. Thousands have died – among them, many young men and women killed on mere suspicion of involvement with the rebel groups.
Once in a while, Manipur has erupted over such killings, as it happened eight years ago, when another young girl Thangjam Manorama was allegedly raped and shot by the Assam Rifles soldiers and left to die on a village road.
The Indian federal government set up a high power committee to look into the popular demand of scrapping the AFSPA, perhaps to pacify the people’s anger.
“The government has just one agenda now. To keep Sharmila alive , because if she dies, there may be an uproar.”
– Babloo Loithongbam, Human Rights activist
The five-member committee, headed by former Supreme Court judge Jeevan Reddy, unanimously recommended for repeal of the draconian AFSPA.
But under severe pressure from the Army and the para-military forces, the federal government backed off, even refusing to place the committee’s report for discussion in the parliament.
The Army says that it cannot operate against armed rebels unless covered by this AFSPA.
“Either keep the AFSPA and allow us to use it or don’t involve us in counter-insurgency operations. We will be happy to be back in our barracks,” says former Indian Army chief General Shankar Roychowdhury .
For the past 50 years, the Indian army and its para-military troops have battled scores of rebel groups in the country’s troubled Northeastern states, a region considered strategic by Delhi because it is hemmed in between Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Nepal and Bhutan.
Last year, a group of 25 civil rights activists from across the country, went on a long march from the rebellion-scarred state of Jammu and Kashmir all the way to Manipur on the India-Myanmar border to draw attention to Sharmila’s epic fast and the cause for which she has sacrificed her youth.
The protest march attracted global media attention and rights activists across the world came out to express solidarity with Sharmila’s epic hunger strike to demand scrapping of the controversial AFSPA.
But it had no effect on Delhi as the Indian government conveniently turned the other way, retaining the AFSPA and ignoring the march and the world’s longest hunger strike.
“The government has just one agenda now. To keep Sharmila alive, because if she dies, there may be an uproar,” says Manipur’s leading human rights activist Babloo Loithongbam.
The ‘Iron Lady of Manipur‘
Three days after she started her hunger strike, Irom Sharmila was arrested and charged with “attempting to commit suicide”. Since then, she has been force-fed through a tube in her nose. Every year, she is released once and then promptly re-arrested on the same charges and the routine goes on.
Back in her heavily-guarded hospital ward, Sharmila is unmoved and determined to carry forward her struggle.
“I fast until the AFSPA goes. I have not wasted 12 years of my life to back off. Either my people live with respect or I don’t eat,” says Irom Sharmila, now called the “Iron Lady of Manipur” for her historic feat.
Brother Singhajit remembers his sister as being “always different “.
“She was always modest with few friends, never liked to dress up or use jewellery. She read religious books, practiced yoga and naturopathy,” he says. “She has not changed a bit.”
In her years of hunger strike, Sharmila has won many awards, including one for lifetime achievement from the Asian Human Rights Commission.
Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi has promised to take up her case before the United Nations.
“I will do my duty, I will do what I have to for my people, without really bothering what happens.”
– Irom Sharmila
Two Indian politicial parties, the Trinamul Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI(M-L), have supported Sharmila’s cause and her hunger strike, joining the chorus for scrapping the controversial AFSPA.
But while the Trinamul Congress rules the eastern state of West Bengal and has some lawmakers in northeastern states like Sharmila’s home state Manipur, the CPI(M-L) is on the margins of Indian politics.
In recent weeks, the chief minister of the troubled northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, who represents the regional party, National Conference, has pitched in to support Sharmila’s demand for scrapping the AFSPA. Abdullah says the Act is often misused by security forces while fighting rebel groups and civilians end up as victims of their excesses.
But no major political party in India has so far come out in support of the “Iron Lady” who is making history by her unique protest.
That does not worry Sharmila much.
“I will do my duty, I will do what I have to for my people, without really bothering what happens,” says Sharmila.