Iron lady unshackled

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Freedom at last Irom Sharmila steps out of the Imphal hospital where she was being held, Photo: AFP

On the evening of 20 August, Irom Sharmila Chanu finally walked free from a hospital in Manipur’s capital Imphal, where she had been kept under “protective custody” by the police and force-fed. Also known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, the 42-year-old has been on a hunger strike for the past 14 years with a single demand — the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, which gives the security forces immunity from prosecution in cases of atrocities in insurgency-hit regions. In effect, the Act gives the military sweeping powers to search, arrest and even shoot at will.

Sharmila was released after a sessions court in Imphal acquitted her of the charge of attempting to commit suicide — a crime under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. The police had filed the chargesheet in the attempted suicide case against her on 9 May. It was filed in the court of the chief judicial magistrate of Imphal East. While pronouncing the verdict of acquittal on 19 August, the sessions judge observed that the prosecution could not prove she was trying to commit suicide, the reason why she was being kept under “protective custody”. That opened the door for her eventual release.

In the 14 years since she started the hunger strike, Sharmila’s epic struggle has drawn the attention of people across the country and got her global recognition as well.

Cut to 2 November 2000, a Thursday. It was that day of the week when Sharmila used to fast; something she had been doing regularly since her childhood. But that Thursday was different. Something happened that would change the course of her life and turn her from a simple 28-year-old Meitei girl, who used to love writing poems, to the widely revered mascot of a movement against atrocities by the armed forces.

That day, a patrolling party of the Assam Rifles opened fire at a few people who were waiting at a bus stop in Malom on the outskirts of Imphal. Ten civilians were killed in the firing. The Malom massacre, as the incident came to be known as across Manipur, left Sharmila baffled and disturbed. Moved by the incident, she decided to continue her fast until the repeal of AFSPA, which many people in the Northeast saw as a law that made possible atrocities like the Malom massacre.

The Manipur Police arrested her within three days of starting the hunger strike and accused her of attempting to commit suicide. She was kept in a special cabin in the security ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS), near her residence in Imphal, under what the police claimed to be “protective custody” and force-fed through her nose.

In the first few years after she was arrested, she would be released every March after her one-year “jail term” — the maximum penalty under Section 309 — got over. But as she continued with her hunger strike every time, the police would arrest her again within one or two days and take her back to the security ward in the hospital. In the past few years, the ritual had been speeded up and she was being released once every fortnight or three weeks, only to be rearrested soon after.

After the sessions court’s verdict, senior advocate and human rights activist Khaidem Mani said, “It has been a long legal battle, but finally we have won because it was clear from the beginning that the legal action against her was a political gimmick aimed at diverting the people’s attention from the core issue of AFSPA.” Mani was Sharmila’s legal counsel all these years.

As Sharmila came out of the hospital after being released, it was the culmination of a long campaign involving activists from across the country. Women activists from the Save Sharmila campaign came forward to hug her in a celebration of the spirit of solidarity.

“It is god’s will,” an emotional Sharmila told TEHELKA. “But I will not stop here. I will continue with the struggle.”

Even as people celebrate the release of the iconic torchbearer of non-violent struggle, concerns have been raised over whether she would be able to lead a normal life. Even if she gives up her hunger strike, doctors doubt if she can eat normal food. “She will need regular check-ups and constant medical care,” says a doctor at the JNIMS who has treated her all these years. “It will be more difficult now that she is no longer in the hospital. The government was incurring huge expenses to keep her alive. Who will provide that kind of costly healthcare support now?”

The Manipur government had been spending around Rs 10,000 every day to provide her essential nutrients, including vitamins, through her nose.

“We cannot say whether she will continue to fast. That is a decision only she can take,” says Sharmila’s long-time close associate and noted human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam, who is also a trustee of Sharmila’s Just Peace Foundation. “As for her health, it is entirely up to her and the state government to continue with the life support care. But, notwithstanding what she decides about the future course of her struggle, we will always oppose AFSPA, which is the core issue. Until this Act is repealed, the movement against such unjust and coercive use of authority will continue.”

Today, the people of Manipur are anxious to know how Sharmila would continue her struggle, and how she will survive if she refuses to take food. “She should have been released long back as her protest was the manifestation of the resentment among all of us towards being suppressed by the extreme violence of the security forces,” says Ima Shakhi Devi, a prominent member of Sharmila Kunba Lup, a civil society group comprising women who have been involved in relay hunger strikes to show solidarity towards Sharmila’s protest. “Now, we can renew this struggle with a newfound exuberance. After all, Sharmila’s goal is to give hope and bring peace, which is also the people’s mandate.”

As for members of Sharmila’s family, her release means a lot to them, but they are quick to point out that in way does it overshadow the significance of what she has been fighting for. “The government knows that it would be committing a big blunder if something goes wrong with her,” says Irom Singhajit, Sharmila’s brother. “And I know for sure that my sister will carry on with the protest until her demand is met. If that requires more of her absence, we will deal with it as we have been doing for nearly 14 years.”

The political significance of Sharmila’s acquittal in the attempted suicide case lies in furthering the legitimacy of hunger strike as a form of democratic struggle. Even earlier, in February 2012, the Supreme Court had observed in its judgment in the Ram Lila Maidan Incident versus Home Secretary, Union of India and Others case that hunger strike is a form of protest that has been accepted in our constitutional jurisprudence. International medical opinion on the issue, embodied in the World Medical Association’s Malta Declaration on Hunger Strikers, also rejects the notion that hunger strike is akin to attempting suicide on the grounds that the individuals concerned do intend to survive.

“Sharmila should never have been arrested in the first place. Instead, the authorities should pay attention to the issues she has raised,” says Shailesh Rai, Programmes Director at Amnesty International India.

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TEHELKA COVERAGE

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