‘Iron Woman’ Irom Sharmila To End 16-Year Fast

Irom Sharmila Iron Woman of Manipur

Irom Sharmila Iron Woman of Manipur

It has been about 16 years since Irom Sharmila Chanu went on a hunger strike in Manipur. In November 2000, when 10 civilians from the state of Manipur were killed by Assam Rifles security forces near Imphal airport, Irom Sharmila, a poet and civil rights activist, decided to protest against the controversial AFSPA and embarked on a hunger strike. She was inspired by the Father of the Nation and followed his footsteps in her endeavour. She had said, “Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, had resorted to fasts while making certain demands.” For over a decade and half she has steadily declined food and water.

Despite having undertaken such a long and rigorous fast, the AFSPA is far from eradicated. Irom Sharmila has now decided to break her fast on 9 August, 2016. On 26 June, 2016, she informed a Manipur district court of her intention to break the fast and to contest assembly elections instead.

The Manipuri activist has been hailed as a symbol of protest against the draconian AFSPA and she has been awarded a number of honours for her non-violent agitation. In 2007, she was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, as she was designated “an outstanding person active in the promotion and advocacy of peace, democracy and human rights”. In 2010, Sharmila was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Asian Human Rights Commission. In 2014, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, a popular online poll declared her the top woman icon in the country.  Amnesty International, the popular human rights organization, calls her a ‘prisoner of conscience’, someone imprisoned for her non-violent protest over a contentious issue.

World’s Longest Fast

Irom Sharmila’s fast in protest of the AFSPA is now over 500 weeks long and is considered the “world’s longest hunger strike”. Irom was repeatedly charged under IPC section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) and imprisoned but the “Iron Lady of Manipur” refused to relent. For some time now she has been force-fed through a nasal tube and remains confined at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal. The ward that she is admitted to serves as a special arrangement prison for the activist.

Future Plans

Despite her decision to end her 16-year-long hunger strike, Irom Sharmila Chanu’s protest against the AFSPA is far from over. She has simply chosen a different course of action. Sharmila has declared her intention of contesting in the state assembly elections slated to be held next year. “I will join politics and my fight will continue,” she is reported to have said. This comes as a major surprise to many who have supported her over the years, including her family. More so, since she declined an offer from major parties (including the AAP) in 2014 to end the fast and run for a seat as an MP (in the Lok Sabha elections).

Apart from her political ambitions, 44-year-old Irom Sharmila also declared her intentions of getting married to her boyfriend who is a British national of Indian origin.

More About the AFSPA

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was passed in September 1958 granting special powers to the Indian Armed Forces in certain regions of the country which were considered “disturbed areas” at the time. The act granted the armed forces of the nation, a certain immunity for actions taken in the north eastern states and gave the forces virtually unlimited power. The act has, over the years, drawn a lot of flak from several groups and even from leading politicians who advocated their withdrawal.

Concerns were, that granting the armed forces such limitless power and protection would inevitably lead to its abuse and to human rights violation.

When the Armed Forces special powers ordinance was first introduced in 1958, it applied only to Assam and Manipur, areas which were under the influence of a violent Naga insurgency. Later, however, as the other north eastern states of India (Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura) came into being (in 1971) the act was amended and each of these states came under the purview of the act. The act is also applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. Punjab and Chandigarh, too, fell within the purview of the act between 1983 and 1997.

About 18 years after it was imposed, the state government of Tripura decided to withdraw the AFSPA. Citing law and order reviews done by the security forces and by the state’s council of ministers, the government said that terrorism in the state had been tamed considerably and the act would no longer be applicable. According to the AFSPA, state governments can recommend the application or withdrawal of the act. Section 3, however, empowers the state Governor to overrule such a recommendation.

Manipur Assembly Elections

The Manipur State Assembly Elections are scheduled to be held in 2017. There are some 60 assembly constituencies in the state and the Indian National Congress (INC) bagged about 42 seats in the 2012 state assembly elections, giving it a clear majority. In 2014,  the Manipur State Congress Party joined the ruling INC, adding 5 more seats to the INC’s strength. The BJP, having made a debut in the state by winning 2 seats in the 2016 assembly by-elections, is confident of turning the sway of the INC as it has in the state of Assam. BJP numbers have indeed been growing in this north eastern state and the NDA government has done much to woo the support of the vote bank in these states since 2014.

In Imphal Municipal Council election held in June 2016, BJP won 10 out of the 27 seats. Despite an INC victory (12 seats), this is a clear indication of the huge support gained by BJP with had one only one seat  in 2011.

The 2017 state assembly elections of Manipur should be an interesting one. Irom Sharmila is likely to be a strong candidate and will undoubtedly be wooed by major parties. It is also possible that she may choose to run as an independent candidate.