Iron Lady of Manipur to end world’s longest hunger strike

Photo by: Reuters (Archive)

Indian human rights campaigner Irom Chanu Sharmila announced Tuesday she will end her record 16-year-long hunger strike to focus on contesting upcoming elections in the country’s remote, underdeveloped northeast.

Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur for her unwavering and nonviolent protest against rights abuses in the region, said she would break her fast on August 9. Manipur is surrounded by Nagaland in the north, Mizoram in the south, and Assam in the west; Burma lies to its east

Sharmila has been kept in judicial custody almost since she began fasting in 2000 to back her demand for the withdrawal of special powers wielded by security forces in the insurgency-wracked region.

She has been confined to a hospital ward in Manipur’s main city Imphal on criminal charges of attempted suicide and is force fed via a plastic nasal drip several times a day.

Iranian Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi, holds a poster demanding the release of Indian Nobel Peace Prize 2005 nominee, Irom Chanu Sharmila, outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, India, Sunday. November 26, 2006.

“I have decided to end my 16-year fast on August 9 and contest the 2017 state elections as an independent candidate,” the 44-year-old said outside a magistrate’s court in Imphal.

“My fight so far has been all alone and so I have decided to wage a war against the act [supporting special powers] democratically by becoming a lawmaker instead of continuing with my fast,” she said.

‘Special powers’

In November 2000, Sharmila stopped eating and drinking after allegedly witnessing the army kill 10 people at a bus stop near her home in Manipur, which is subject to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

The act, which is applicable over large parts of the northeast and the restive state of Kashmir, gives Indian forces sweeping powers to search, enter property and shoot on sight, and is seen by critics as a cover for human rights abuses

The government says security forces need the powers to help them battle multiple rebel groups whose long-standing demands range from secession to greater autonomy and land rights.

Her decision to end her protest against the AFSPA comes at a time when the federal government has asked its forces to exercise restraint in responding to protests in disputed Kashmir, a northern state where the army has shoot-to-kill powers to fight militants.

Indian policemen stand guard during a curfew in Srinagar, on July 25, 2016. [Reuters]

Sharmila has often been released from custody after appearing in court flanked by police – only to be re-arrested almost immediately on fresh charges of trying to kill herself.

The maximum punishment for attempting suicide is one year in prison.

Sharmila’s brother Singhajit said her family backed her new fight.

“Whatever she does we will support her as a family. Even our mother is hoping for the day when the Act is abolished and Sharmila wins the cause she has been fighting for,” Singhajit, who uses one name, told AFP by phone.

“Sharmila will fight the battle to free the state from the clutches of the army on the streets of Manipur,” said Babloo Loitongbam, a close associate of Sharmila.

Indian armed forces take security measures in Imphal in early February 2014 before India’s Narendra Modi arrives for a rally. [Reuters]

Iron lady of Manipur

Sharmila was born in 1972 in Manipur, which is one of the Seven Sister States in north-eastern India. Her state has long suffered from tribal infighting and armed violence between Indian security forces and rebel groups.

At least 5,500 people have lost their lives in Manipur as a result of armed clashes just during the last decade according to the New Delhi-based South Asia Terrorism Portal.

In 1958, the Indian government passed the AFSPA which grants security forces to use deadly force against civilians if there is “reasonable suspicion.”

Sharmila was active in local protests in Manipur against human rights abuses before the November shootings in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley of the state. The civilian killings were allegedly committed by the Assam Rifles, one of the paramilitary forces backed by Indian government in Manipur.

Among the victims was a 62-year-old woman, Leisangbam Ibetombi, as well as 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, who won the National Bravery Award as a child in 1988.

After the incident, Sharmila decided to launch her hunger strike against army brutality against locals in Manipur. Her protest has gained a worldwide recognition, with Amnesty International describing her as a prisoner of conscience because she “is being held solely for a peaceful expression of her beliefs.”

In 2014, an MSN Poll selected her the top female symbol of India on the occasion of International Women’s Day. Before then, she received several other awards from human rights organisations for her consistent non-violent struggle for universal human rights.

Her ideal was Mahatma Gandhi, another Indian icon of non-violent public resistance against government actions.

Mahatma Gandhi shown acknowledging cheers from the crowds which greeted him on his arrival after being released from prison in Poona, January 20, 1931, Bombay, India. [AP]

Since the beginning of her hunger strike, she has seen her mother just once on the grounds that her decisive stand could be broken if her mother’s sorrow becomes visible to her.

“The day AFSPA is repealed I will eat rice from my mother’s hand,” she would say.

  “The day AFSPA is repealed I will eat rice from my mother’s hand,” she would say.

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