When someone famous, like the former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, goes on a hunger strike, the whole world knows about it, but Irom Sharmila Chanu, an ordinary woman from India, has been on a political fast for the last 12 years, and hardly anyone even knows she exists.
Irom Sharmila Chanu, also known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, went on a hunger strike on November 4, 2000 in an effort to have the Government of India withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) from Manipur and other parts of India. This draconian act practically gives the military the power to do as they wish, as it prohibits any legal or judicial proceedings against army personnel without the previous sanction of the Central Government. It has taken away the people’s right to protest against atrocities or engage in any lawful democratic activity. Simple civilians can easily be labeled as ‘terrorists’ or ‘suspects’ and taken into custody. According to official figures, 25,000 people have been killed in Manipur alone, since this Act came into force, in 1980. Back then, there were only four insurgent groups in the area, now there are 25 on the army’s watch list.
Sharmila had joined the anti-AFSPA movement just two weeks before she began her long-term hunger strike. She was a volunteer in the workshops and discussions organized by Justice H Suresh, who went around India listening to tales of violence from victims. The 28-year-old woman was particularly impressed by the story of a young girl who had been raped by security forces at Lamden village. On November 1st, 2000, a group of insurgents bombed an army column, and the military retaliated by gunning down 10 civilians at a bus station in Malom. The young activist could not bare to see the blood spilled on the street in what is now remembered as the Malom Massacre, so she went and asked her mother for permission ‘to do something for the people’. So on November 4, she returned to the site of the blood bath and announced her intention to fast until death or untill AFSPA forces withdraw.
“I was shocked to see the dead bodies. There was no means to stop further violations by the armed forces…. It (fast) is the most effective way because it is based on a spiritual fight… My fast is on behalf of the people of Manipur. This is not a personal battle, it is symbolic. It is a symbol of truth, love and peace”, Irom Sharmila Chanu says. After just three days of fasting, the police arrested Chanu for attempted suicide, which is punishable according to Indian Penal Code. The administration started force-feeding her via nasal tubes and confined her to the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal. Because the maximum sentence for an ‘attempt to suicide’ cannot exceed one year, Irom Sharmila Chanu is released on completion of one year, and re-arrested after 2-3 days, on the same charges. This has been going on for the last 12 years.
The Iron Lady of Manipur hasn’t eaten a single bite, or drung a drop of water since her 12-year hunger strike began. She also hasn’t combed her hair, or looked in the mirror, and only cleans her teeth with a dry piece of cotton. Authorities have been force-feeding her nasally for over a decade, but she tries to remove the tubes every chance she gets. As you can imagine, this kind of long-term nasal diet has been taking a heavy toll on Chanu’s health. According to a 2006 BBC report ‘doctors say her fasting is now having a direct impact on her body’s normal functioning – her bones have become brittle and she has developed other medical problems too. “
Indian authorities don’t seem at all intimidated by the plight of Irom Sharmila Chanu, but the activist certainly has lost a lot during her 12-year hunger strike. Apart from medical complications, she has had to witness her family’s bankruptcy, her brother losing a job because he chose to support her, and hasn’t seen her mother since 2000. With tears in her eyes, Irom Sakhi, Sharmila’s mother, told a correspondent “it is just possible that my getting emotional on seeing her may weaken her resolve. And I do not want that my daughter lose in this battle, which is for the betterment of humanity.”
Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Laureate and human rights activist, has also supported Sharmila’s cause and said to a group of journalists : “If Sharmila dies, Parliament is directly responsible. If she dies, courts and judiciary are responsible, the military is responsible… If she dies, the executive, the PM and President are responsible for doing nothing… If she dies, each one of you journalists is responsible because you did not do your duty…”
But the Indian Government doesn’t seem impressed, and in 2004, the defense minister said it is impossible to repeal the Act, because the military can’t function properly without the powers it provides. Meanwhile, Irom Sharmila Chanu continues the longest political protest in history…