Irom Sharmila Chanu – The Little Known Iron Lady of Manipur

Irom Sharmila Chanu
Irom Sharmila Chanu

Irom Sharmila Chanu

While everyone of us is aware of Anna Hazare, the Gandhian who went on a fast for 12 days demanding a stringent anti-corruption law, not many of us is aware of Irom Sharmila Chanu, the young lady of a remote town in Manipur, who has been on fast for the last 13 years.

Irom Sharmila Chanu was in the news recently for being released from a prison hospital after finding no evidence against her for the alleged charges of attempted suicide by refusing to take food. She was protesting against army atrocities in her home state Manipur by going on an indefinite-hunger strike. She was being nose-fed by the Manipur State Government to keep her alive, all these years. For these last 13 years, she has been on fast and she will continue to do so, even after her release, till her demands are met.

Who is Irom Sharmila Chanu

Irom Sharmila Chanu is an Indian human rights activist of Manipur. She is also known as the Iron Lady of Manipur. In Manipur, everyone calls her Mengoubi, the fair one. She has also been called “the world’s longest hunger striker” for her indefinite fast. On the International Women’s Day this year, she was declared the top woman icon of India by MSN Poll voters. In 2007, Sharmila was awarded Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. This award is given to a person who gives an outstanding support in the promotion of democracy, peace and human rights. The Asian Human Rights Commission awarded her a lifetime achievement award in 2010 for her non-violent struggle. She also won the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize and the Sarva Gunah Sampannah “Award for Peace and Harmony” .

What is her demand?

Iron Sharmila Chanu is demanding the repeal of the Armed (Forces Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) as applicable in the North Eastern India. This Act, modelled on a British India law, was passed in Parliament in 1958 and subsequently its scope was extended to the whole of north-east. It gives the Army unquestioned special powers in areas declared as disturbed. However, there has been lot of criticism against this Act because the unquestioned powers of the armed forces have resulted in human rights violations in various regions, including Manipur.

The Act allows an officer of the armed forces powers to arrest without warrant anyone or even shoot a person who is suspected to be acting against law and order in an area declared as disturbed by the Governor in the north-east. The army enjoys immunity and they cannot be prosecuted.

Sharmila began her fast on November 2, 2000

It was a Thursday. Like every other Thursday, Sharmila started her fast religiously, little did she know it will go on even today. Her religious fast turned out to be a fast against army atrocities on innocent people. That day, November 2, 2000, the army had killed 10 civilians at a bus stop in Malon, a town close to Manipur’s capital city of Imphal. The killings included an 18-year old 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. It was a sad incident for the people of Manipur. The Army was blamed and police registered a case but no arrests were made. In protect against this, Sharmila did not break her Thursday fast that day. She continued her fast indefinitely. She chose the Gandhian route. She was 28 years old then. It’s been more than 13 years now and she is continuing her fast…

“There was no other means to stop further violations by the armed forces against innocent people. I thought that peace rally and inquiry commissions would be meaningless. Unless I do something to change the situation.” Sharmila

Arrest and release of Irom Sharmila Chanu

Sensing trouble, her indefinite fast was charged as an “attempt at suicide” by the state government and she was arrested three days later. Suicide is considered a criminal offence under the Indian law but the maximum imprisonment is up to 1 year. She has never been convicted. So she has been arrested and released off and on from judicial custody ever since her fast began in 2000. She has since been forcibly fed by a tube attached to her nose to keep her vital organs alive and to keep her live.

On August 19, 2014, Sharmila was ordered to be released from the prison hospital in Manipur. According to the Manipur East Sessions Court, the authorities had failed to prove that Sharmila had intended to commit suicide. The court also stated that her hunger strike was a “political demand through a lawful means”.

After her release, she said that her fast will go on till the Government meets her demand on repealing the AFSPA. She also said that this time, she should not be forcibly fed through pipes unless she is arrested again. S. Indira Devi, a government-appointed lawyer involved in the case, said that Sharmila is a free citizen and there has been no move from the state government to challenge Sharmila’s release order.

‘We salute this Iron Lady of Manipur’

The National Human Rights Commission declared that she was a “Prisoner of Conscience”. Her release will definitely re-ignite the debate over the AFSPA, which is in force in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir and in the north-eastern states.

It is strange that she is largely out of mainstream news and majority of Indians do not know her. Sharmila’s 13-year silent protest should not be ignored. She is still going strong. She is a woman of strong will and determination and she is fighting for a good cause. Her protest should not fade to the background. Let us salute this Iron Lady of Manipur!!!