After being on fast for the last 16 years demanding repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Manipur’s ‘Iron Lady’ Irom Chanu Sharmila is all set to end her fast today. Sharmila will be produced before a judicial magistrate and the court will release her from judicial custody after she breaks her fast as she had announced a fortnight ago. Though, a large number of her supporters and women activists under the forum of Sharmila Kunba Lup will be meeting her as she starts her new journey. The family and her supporters, who have not been able to meet her since July 26 when she announced her decision to end her fast and enter politics to ensure that AFSPA is repealed through political means, have no idea where she is going to stay from now on.
For long 16 years, she was on a hunger strike. Her illusion gave her reply, which the peaceful protest is no longer going to work. If Sharmila has to bring change, she should enter politics. Her peaceful and painful act of protest and self-denial would push the state towards diminishing the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur. Sharmila, who was 28 at the time of Malom Massacre, began to fast in protest. Her primary demand to the Indian government has been the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). She began her fast in Malom on 5 November that year, and vowed not to eat, drink, comb her hair or look in a mirror until AFSPA was repealed.
Three days after Sharmila began her strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with an “attempt to commit suicide”, which was unlawful under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) at that time, and was later transferred to judicial custody. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and nasogastric intubation was forced on her from 21 November in order to keep her alive while under arrest. Sharmila has been regularly released and re-arrested every year since her hunger strike began.
By 2004, Sharmila had become an “icon of public resistance”. Following her procedural release on 2 October 2006 Irom went to Raj Ghat, New Delhi. Later that evening, Sharmila headed towards Jantar Mantar for a protest demonstration where she was joined by students, human rights activists and other concerned citizens. Thirty women protested naked in support of Sharmila in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters. They held a banner saying “Indian Army rape us” and all of them were imprisoned for three months.
On 6 October, she was re-arrested by the Delhi police for attempting suicide and was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where she wrote letters to the then Prime Minister, then President, and then Home Minister. At this time, she met and won the support of Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, who promised her to take up her cause at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In 2011, she invited Anna Hazare to visit Manipur. Hazare sent two of his representatives to meet her but he was not presented there physically.
In October 2011, the Manipur Pradesh All India Trinamool Congress announced their support for Sharmila and called on party Chief Mamata Banerjee to help repeal the AFSPA. The Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI ML) also stated its support for her and for repeal of AFSPA, calling for nationwide agitation. In November, at the end of the eleventh year of her fast, Sharmila again called on then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to repeal the law. On 3rd November, 100 women formed a human chain in Ambari to show support for Sharmila, while other civil society groups staged a 24-hour fast in a show of solidarity. She has only met her mother once since the start of the fast as seeing her mother’s anguish may break her resolve. On March 28, 2016, she was released from judicial custody as a local court in Imphal rejected a charge against her. Her battle between court, jail and protest continued till today but now that has taken a new twist. Finally, she ended her fast for the cause and to contest Manipur election.
All these years, the issue she raised is quick to be forgotten by the media and the people of this country by and large with very few exceptions. I hope, she realizes her goals through the electoral process and improves the lives of Manipur’s people.
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