Most Indians may not know her. Having refused food and water since November 2, 2000, Sharmila is all set to end her hunger strike on 9th August this year and plans to contest polls inthe North East India state of Manipur, her home state.
Known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur”, Sharmila is a civil rights activist, a political activist, and a poet who has been on a hunger strike demanding the repeal of controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) after ten people were gunned down by the Indian security forces at a bus stop near Imphal airport in Manipur.
Sharmila, who had become a sort of global embarrassment for India,has taken her tough stand and took to fasting, which is a Gandhian tactic. She has been confined to a room at a government hospital and force-fed through a nasal tube from the past 15 years. In 2014, she pulled off the tube after being released on orders from court, which said there was no evidence that she was trying to commit suicide by refusing food – the main criminal charge against her.
According to a report by an Indian daily, The Times of India, she said on Tuesday, “I will break my fast as the government has failed to give any positive response. I will fight elections to resolve the issues,”.Manipur goes to elections in early 2017.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is a law enacted in 1958 which gave unbridled powers to the soldiers. Armed forces personnel has the rights to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion and to arrest anybody in order to “maintain public order” in a “disturbed area”.However, no criminal action can be taken against the officer for his acts.
First introduced in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, namely Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, the Act was later extended to Jammu and Kashmir in July 1990.
On July 9 this year, the Supreme Court of India in an 85-page judgment dealt a blow to the immunity enjoyed by security personnel under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) against criminal action for acts committed in disturbed areas. The apex court bench comprising Justices Madan B. Lokur and UU Lalit held that “there is no concept of absolute immunity from trial by a criminal court” if an Army man has committed an offence.
Awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights
Human rights activists believe that Sharmila should have withdrawn from hunger strike long back when Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee was constituted by Indian government in 2004 to review the provisions of the AFSPA.However, the Indian government rejected the recommendation made by Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission to repeal the draconian law.
“Sharmila should have withdrawn when the Justice Reddy Committee was appointed. She should not have continued for so long. Mahatma Gandhi took to fasting but he did not stretch it so long,” says Suhas Chakma, founder of Asian Centre for Human Rights.
Sharmila was awarded the 2007 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights – a decoration for”an outstanding person or group, active in the promotion and advocacy of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights”. She shared the award with Lenin Raghuvanshi of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, a northeastern Indian human rights organisation.
In 2013, Amnesty International declared her a Prisoner of conscience, and said she “is being held solely by a peaceful expression of her beliefs”.
“Hunger strike works when the governments are sensitive. Mahatma Gandhi’s fasting worked because British government was sensitive. But unfortunately Indian government has been worse than Portuguese colonial rulers. It is good that she has ended her hunger strike,” observed Ravi Nair, founder of South Asian Human Rights Documentation Centre (SAHRDC).
Nair also pointed out how there was no upheaval or public opinion against the draconian law despite Sharmila’s long hunger strike.