The National, Mar 15 2012
NEW DELHI // Once a year, the “world’s longest hunger striker” gets a day or two of freedom from the hospital room that has been her prison for more than a decade.
Across India’s remote north-eastern state of Manipur yesterday, supporters of Irom Sharmila Chanu, known as the “Iron Lady” for her long-running protest against military violence towards civilians, lit candles to mark her 40th birthday.
But Ms Sharmila was not there to see them. She was already back in custody, 24 hours after being released.
Her crime of “attempting to commit suicide” only allows police to hold her for a year at a time – so an annual ritual has taken place for the past 11 years in which she is released and then quickly re-arrested.
The rules also mean she has to appear before a court every two weeks to renew her judicial custody, a process she has been through more than 500 times since she began her hunger strike in November 2000.
After each hearing, she returns to the 3 metre-by-3.5 metre room in the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in the state capital, Imphal.
There she spends her time with one guard always by her side and two more in the room next door, a feeding tube lodged permanently in her nose to keep her forcibly fed.
Her room is adorned with a few books, toys and paintings donated by well-wishers from around the world, but access to Ms Sharmila is closely guarded by the state government with very few visitors – even family or her lawyer – allowed.
“A couple of years back, an activist friend came and gave her a candle through the hospital gates on the 10th anniversary of her hunger strike,” said Babloo Loitongbam, a rights activist from Manipur and close confidante of Sharmila.
“A photographer took a picture of this happening and it ended up in the newspaper. Within two days, the guard who had let this happen was transferred out of the hospital.”
At any moment, Ms Sharmila could end her hunger strike and walk free. Her determined refusal to do so has earned her numerous human rights awards and shone a light on one of India’s darkest corners.
Manipuri groups have been demanding independence for as long as India has existed. Neglected by a distant Delhi government, dozens of militant organisations sprouted in the region in a bid to win recognition for their community, and in later years, money and power.
Ms Sharmila’s protest is directed against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which has allowed the army to operate among the civilian population in Manipur for more than 53 years.
Activists say the act has created a culture of impunity with the army. Ms Sharmila began her hunger strike in response to the alleged killing of 10 civilians by an Indian paramilitary force – one of many such incidents over the years.
India is preparing for a UN review of its human rights situation in May, and the law, which also applies in parts of Kashmir, is expected to top the list of criticisms.
With a powerful new mandate won in state elections last week, the chief minister, Okram Ibobi, is under little pressure to give ground.
But Ms Sharmila remains defiant.
“There is no place for AFSPA in a civilised society,” she told reporters during her brief release. “I will continue to agitate unless the draconian act is scrapped.”