It has been 10 days since the “Iron Lady of Manipur”, Irom Chanu Sharmila ended her hunger strike which she began on November 5th, 2000, when the Assam Rifles military forces shot and killed 10 innocent civilians at a bus stop in a small town called Malom. ‘Malom Massacre’ triggered Irom Sharmila to go on a hunger strike against AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Power Act).
She wanted the Indian Government to repeal the AFSPA which gave the army extra powers in Manipur. The AFSPA in Manipur has provided impunity for perpetrators of grave human rights violations, including extra judicial executions, enforced disappearances, rape, torture, other ill treatment and excessive use of force.
Her hunger strike over the last 16 years has been a testament to her passion for human rights in which she was arrested several times for the attempt of suicide, got confined to a hospital room and often subjected to being force-fed, this happening for 16 years seemingly to break her will. She was repeatedly charged but never convicted.
In 2011, when activist Anna Hazare fasted for an Anti-corruption law at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, Sharmila was in the 11 years of her fast. It took the Central Government 87-odd hours to respond to Hazare. At this Sharmila was urged to join his protest but as she was not a free Indian at that time, she refused to come to New Delhi. Of course the target of Hazare and Irom was not the same.
Hazare was simply refusing to live his life, and the longer he went on with his fast the more death intruded itself upon his life. His fast was thus a contradiction. On the other side, the forcefully administered nasal tube that fed Sharmila was meant to save her life, but had become the biggest contradiction to her fast. It became an easy status quo that allowed the government to do nothing, not even think about what charge they can hold her on except for section 309.
A fasting Sharmila being force-fed under the supervision of government and guarded hospital room was at best a moral noose around the government’s neck, but certainly no serious threat. It ensured she doesn’t die, she lives and that was enough.
The World Medical Association’s distinction enabled the government to label the action of the former as a suicide. The boundary between the suicide and political protest in Sharmila’s case was sometimes blurred. The force-feeding effectively blunted her freedom, her struggle. Her statement that she won’t eat anything till she achieves her aim, meant nothing, as long as she carried the tube with her.
Sharmila’s hunger strike got international attention and members of the European Parliament too wrote to the Indian government seeking modification of the Act. Two parties came to her support in 2014 and requested that she contest in the Lok Sabha Elections, but the government had kept her in prison hence she was even denied the right to vote.
Even after writing to the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then to his successor Narendra Modi, the repeal of AFSPA is still a distant dream. Irom Sharmila after being released from judicial custody decided to keep her vow of not going to her house until the government repealed AFSPA.
Sharmila’s decision to break her hunger strike gives India another chance to start a dialogue and realise how the AFSPA has alienated Manipur for over 35 years. Moreover her indication that she would contest the State Election in Manipur next year will prove as a boon to her protest which she will continue after the election results, while the Indian government’s action in future remain unpredictable.