Manipur's 'Iron Lady' ends hunger strike after 16 years

Ms Sharmila says she wants to become the chief minister of Manipur and remove a controversial law which gives soldiers the right to enter houses and shoot on sight with impunity.
Ms Sharmila says she wants to become the chief minister of Manipur and remove a controversial law which gives soldiers the right to enter houses and shoot on sight with impunity.PHOTO: REUTERS

She wants 'a normal life' after long protest against army law that saw civilians killed

An Indian human-rights activist who went on a 16-year hunger strike against a controversial army law ended it yesterday with a lick of honey.

But Ms Irom Chanu Sharmila, 44, often known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, would continue her fight by contesting next year's elections in the north-eastern state.

Ms Sharmila has been seeking the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa), which gives soldiers the right to enter houses and shoot on sight with impunity, in her home state of Manipur.

Surrounded by doctors and police, she was asked at a televised press conference in the state capital Imphal how she felt about ending her hunger strike. "I will never forget this moment," said Ms Sharmila, finally seen without a nasal feeding tube, before she licked some honey from the palm of her hand.

She said she wanted to live "a normal life" after having spent most of her time during the hunger strike either in hospital to be force-fed or in court. Attempted suicide is an offence in India.

"I am a real embodiment of revolution and I want to be the chief minister of Manipur... and remove this draconian law," she said.

Ms Sharmila said she would contest the elections as an independent candidate. She also invited people to take part in the elections so that they can form the state government if they win.

The activist, who is known for her unwavering political struggle, was earlier released from judicial custody after furnishing a bail bond of 10,000 rupees (S$200).

She started her hunger strike in November 2000 after paramilitary forces killed 10 civilians standing at a bus stop in her state.

The controversial law is imposed in parts of India's north-east as well as Jammu and Kashmir to counter insurgent and terror activities.

The army has maintained that the Act is necessary to help it fight insurgency. But the Supreme Court last month said that 1,528 cases of alleged extrajudicial executions by security forces from 1979 to 2012 in Manipur would be investigated.

Ms Sharmila's extraordinary struggle has made her a household name in a country that gained its independence through non-violent protests. India will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its independence on Monday. Yesterday, the country also marked the 75th anniversary of the Quit India Movement, a civil disobedience movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi.

Ms Sharmila, one of nine children of a government worker, had harboured dreams of studying medicine, though she never made it to college.

Her decision to end her hunger strike is said to have taken her family and supporters by surprise, triggering speculation that she had been persuaded by Mr Desmond Coutinho, a British writer and activist of Indian origin, to do so.

The two had corresponded by letter for a year before meeting in 2011. She hinted recently that she had plans to get married.

Ms Sharmila's decision to end her hunger strike led an insurgent group, Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup, to issue an open letter. It tried to get her to change her mind, noting that some former insurgents who won a seat in the state assembly had been assassinated.

Ms Sharmila, who some have called a goddess, has said in past interviews that she never saw herself as being heroic and did not want people "singing my glory". Instead, she said, she wanted them to support her cause.

She is due to appear in court on Aug 23.

Human-rights group Amnesty International, whose representative was present in court, called on the Indian authorities to drop all charges against her and take steps to repeal the Afspa.

"Irom Sharmila's decision to break her hunger strike gives India another chance to start a dialogue and recognise how the Afspa has alienated Manipur for over 35 years," said Mr Abhirr V. P., a senior campaigner with Amnesty International India.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Manipur's 'Iron Lady' ends hunger strike after 16 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe