Irom Sharmila, 44, the Iron Lady of Manipur,a small state in north-east India, has ended her sixteen years old fast.
She started her fast unto death as a protest against the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) after troops of the Assam Rifles gunned down 10 civilians at Malom near Imphal airport on November 2, 2000.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) is considered to be one of the most draconian legislations that the Indian Parliament has ever passed. Under this Act, all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to “maintain the public order”.
The AFSPA gives the armed forces wide powers to shoot, arrest and search, all in the name of “aiding civil power.” It was first applied to the North Eastern states of Assam and Manipur and was amended in 1972 to extend to all the seven states in the north- eastern region of India. They are Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, also known as the “seven sisters”. The enforcement of the AFSPA has resulted in innumerable incidents of arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and looting by security personnel. This legislation is sought to be justified by the Government of India, on the plea that it is required to stop the North East states from seceding from the Indian Union. The law gives troops sweeping powers to kill even on suspicion and have immunity from prosecution.
She started her fast on November 5, 2000 and vowed not to eat or drink or comb her hair until the AFSPA is repealed in her state. She has been surviving on forced nasal feeding at the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal East for last 16 years under arrest.
In 2000 Irom Sharmila was one of many Manipuri women angry with excesses by security forces. By 2016 lrom Sharmila has become an icon of non violent resistance in the world, a new Gandhi. Many called her the goddess of Manipur. The Amnesty called her a prisoner of conscience. She received support from all over India and abroad. She got several awards. Two books were written about her and also a play. She breaking fast was broadcast live on national TV to billions of homes.
Her fast ensured that the nation’s focus remained on atrocities committed under the shadow of AFSPA. Many resistance movements were formed to fight for repealing the law. The extra judicial killings and violence by armed forces got sharply reduced. This July, the Supreme Court said the army and paramilitary forces cannot use ‘excessive and retaliatory force’ in Manipur and 1500 alleged fake encounter cases must be probed.
Now she has decided to end the fast even though AFSPA has not yet been repealed. This was a change of tactics. She had announced few days ago that she wanted to enter politics and contest elections. She wanted to be the chief minister of Manipur and repeal AFSPA. She also wanted to marry and start a new life.
Many people in Manipur, including her friends, followers and even her family members were not happy with this decision. On Tuesday, when she broke her fast, when the naso gastric tube, her life line of 16 years was removed, and she walked out of the hospital she realised to her shock that she was unwelcome in the Manipur society. The nation watching on live TV was utterly surprised to see Sharmila shunned by her fellow activists. Not finding a place to live Sharmila had to go back to her home of last 16 years, the JN Hospital, not under arrest but on her free will as a person mentally and physically traumatised.
Why did the activists who were egging on her activism while on fast suddenly turned her back on her ?
Many say they were not consulted and that it was an emotional decision. Some felt that a fasting Sharmila is more useful for the movement than a Sharmila indulging in party politics.
She is an icon, on the pedestal. How can she come down to be an ordinary mortal ? How can she break her vow of never eating anything unless AFSPA is repealed ? What does she know about winning elections ? Even if she became Chief minister of Manipur, how can she repeal AFSPA without Central government agreeing to it ?
Her decision to get married, that too with a largely unknown foreigner has also irked many people including her family members.
I don’t like being identified as a goddess. I am a human being and want to be treated as such. I have emotions, feelings and desires just like everyone else. Why would you isolate me with that identification? I feel very sad… I also want to share my emotions, I also want the sharing that other people have. People here want to see me with the tube. They want to keep me as a symbol of their fight — just a symbol without any emotions, without feelings,” she said.
It seems the activists of Manipur just wanted the fasting body of Irom Sharmila with naso-gastric tube and uncombed hair as a symbol of their protest. They did not want the personality and intellect of Sharmila. They did not want a human being feeling all kind of humane emotions but a deity to worship.
Irom Sharmila may or may not be a successful politician. But as any other human being she has the right to decide what she wants to do. For 16 long years she selflessly fought an epic battle for her people. Let us salute and applaud her and allow her to decide her future.