India’s ‘Iron Lady’ to end fast, fight polls

Irom Sharmila, the legendary Manipuri woman who was on a 16-year struggle to get a draconian federal law repealed, is ending her epic fast to contest the upcoming state assembly elections as an independent candidate. Sharmila’s surprise decision is as powerful and praiseworthy as her long hunger strike. For her, it is a change of strategy to get the Armed Forces Special Powers Act repealed. Henceforth, her fight will not be from outside the system but as a part of it.

Indian activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike for almost 16 years to press for repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, is set to end her epic fast on August 9 to contest the upcoming Manipur state assembly elections as an independent candidate and marry her boyfriend.

Sharmila’s decision has taken many by surprise as she had maintained that she would not abandon her hunger strike until AFSPA was revoked.

Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila speaks to the media outside a prison hospital in Imphal

Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila speaks to the media outside a prison hospital in Imphal, August 20, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer/Files

She is doing so now although AFSPA has not been repealed or even reformed. Not only is this legislation in effect in several districts in India’s northeast and Kashmir but the area over which AFSPA’s writ runs may have expanded over the decades.

A draconian legislation, AFSPA vests sweeping powers on the armed forces to search properties, detain suspects without warrants and shoot on sight in areas that are declared “disturbed.” It provides the armed forces with complete immunity.

Section 6 of the Act says that “no prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act”.

In effect, AFSPA has enabled the armed forces to engage in gross violation of human rights in the northeast and Kashmir, all in the name of fighting insurgency.

It is this virtual license to kill that AFSPA gives the armed forces in ‘disturbed areas’ that Sharmila is protesting.

On November 3, 2000 Sharmila began her hunger strike against AFSPA in response to the brutal gunning down of ten civilians by troops of the Assam Rifles near a bus stop at Mallom, a suburb of Manipur’s capital, Imphal.

Sharmila was a witness to that killing. It transformed her profoundly, prompting her epic protest against AFSPA. She has never eaten since then and has been kept alive by the state through nasal feed.

Unlike several politicians and activists in contemporary India whose hunger strikes are rather farcical – a hunger strike by a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 2009 lasted between breakfast and lunch – and often accompanied by threats and blackmail, Sharmila’s protest has been sincere and non-violent.

She has never extended support to violent means or called for Manipur’s secession from India. Yet, authorities have often accused her of supporting the Northeast’s anti-India militancy.

In fact, her non-violent, single-point campaign against AFSPA has been criminalized by the state, which depicts her hunger strike as attempted suicide, which till recently was a criminal offence under Indian law.

Sharmila has repeatedly said that it is not her intention to die. It is hope for normalcy and a better life for herself and her people that prompted her campaign against AFSPA, she says.

Her decision to end the hunger strike has evoked mixed responses. While some have welcomed her decision, others, especially a section of activists in the Northeast, have accused her of betraying the cause. They fear that the anti-AFSPA campaign will lose momentum with the exit of Sharmila, its iconic mascot. Her decision to marry her British-Goan boyfriend, who many local Manipuris view as an ‘outsider’ wielding ‘excessive’ influence over Sharmila, has also drawn flak.

So has the ‘Iron Lady’ as Sharmila is widely known laid bare her feet of clay? Has her steely commitment to fighting AFSPA that was on display for 16 years rusted over time?

Right from the start of her hunger strike, Sharmila was uneasy with the deity status that the Manipuris conferred on her. She repeatedly said she was no God, just an ordinary woman craving for normalcy.

As for allegations that her commitment to fighting AFSPA has weakened, Sharmila has clarified that her ending the hunger strike only marks a change in tactics. She would continue to fight for AFSPA’s revocation in her new role as politician, she says.

Only henceforth her fight will not be from outside the system but as a part of it.

Some have interpreted Sharmila’s decision as a tame admission of the inefficacy of non-violent means. It is not. Although her hunger strike may not have been successful in achieving her stated goal of getting AFSPA revoked, her protest compelled discussion on the legislation. It drew attention to AFSPA and the plight of people living in areas where it is in force.

Importantly, Sharmila’s protest laid bare the brutal force that the state has unleashed on its citizens.

As Sharmila’s biographer Deepti Priya Mehrotra points out in an opinion piece in Indian Express, “It may seem that the state has won this round. But, in fact it has lost — whatever credibility it had. By giving up a fast which the state failed to respond to, Sharmila has displayed courage, not weakness. In proving impervious to the needs and demands of a humane, democratic polity, the state has turned out to be an even worse bully than she had initially imagined.”

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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