Iron lady Irom Sharmila turns 43, but her fight against AFSPA continues

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By Harshmeet Singh

When Anna Hazare sat on an indefinite hunger strike at Jantar Mantar in 2011, millions across the nation took to the streets. While his strike ended after 12 days, only a few realized that somewhere in the north-eastern state of Manipur, Irom Chanu Sharmila, “the world’s longest hunger striker” had completed close to 11 years without eating or drinking.

Over the past decade or so, Irom Sharmila has been in news several times, mostly due to her frequent arrests on the grounds of “attempted suicide” and her release on the orders of the court.

What is she fighting against?

On 2nd November 2000, soldiers from Assam Rifles allegedly shot dead 10 civilians waiting at the bus stand in Malom, Manipur. At the heart of episode was AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) which gave special powers to the Indian Armed Forced in the ‘disturbed areas’ of the country. Sharmila took this as an atrocity on the north east people and began her hunger strike, demanding complete revocation of AFSPA.

Within 3 days of her hunger strike, Sharmila was arrested on the charges of ‘attempted suicide’ and sent to judicial custody by the court. 14 years hence, she still remains in judicial custody and lives at Imphal’s Jawahar Lal Nehru Hospital where she is forcibly nose-fed.

AFSPA and its implications  

‘Malom killings’ was just one of the many infamous incidents covered under the blanket of AFSPA. While the law and order condition in Manipur still remains edgy to say the least, the debates over the effectiveness of AFSPA and its aim of restoring peace in disturbed areas still remains questionable.

The recent killing of 2 Kashmiri youth in Budgam was another blatant abuse of AFSPA. “We take responsibility for the death of the two boys in Kashmir. We admit that a mistake was made. There was some information about a white car with terrorists. Obviously, the identity was mistaken in this case,” was all that the Army had to say.

There is no denying that the Indian Army needs all the powers for fighting against the deadly militants. But at the same time, the fact remains that unchecked powers can corrupt even the most pious ones.

National recognition

Before the national elections of 2014, she was offered a ticket from the Aam Aadmi Party and the Indian National Congress but she denied the offers saying that “Though I support AAP, I rejected the offer as I’m just a protester not a politician. If I am allowed to vote, I will cast my vote in favour of the AAP which I am confident will restore the rule of democracy”.

She was denied the right to vote after she had expressed her desire to cast a vote in 2014. “I never voted as I had lost faith in democracy, but the rise of the new anti-corruption party, Aam Aadmi Party, changed my thinking,” she said. The response from the Election Commission read, “Under Section 62 (5) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, a person confined in jail cannot vote.”

International reactions on Sharmila

Sharmila has been declared as a ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ by the Amnesty International, implying that she “is being held solely for a peaceful expression of her beliefs”. The Asian Human Rights Commission gave her a lifetime achievement award in the year 2010. One of the polls voted her as the ‘top woman icon of India’ on International Women’s Day 2014.

The lady recently announced that she won’t accept any further awards since her aim is to see ASFPA getting repealed completely and not collecting awards.

Her legal battle

Sharmila’s legal battle against the authorities still remains. She currently faces the charge of ‘attempt to suicide’, which she vehemently opposes. Against the one year maximum imprisonment, if the charges are proven, she has spent more than 6 years in imprisonment. If she pleads guilty, the case would be closed and she would be relieved since has already spent her ‘sentence’ in the prison. But for Irom Sharmila, compromising was never an option.

The lady has not seen her mother ever since she began her fast as she fears that the emotional outburst would break her down. “The day AFSPA is repealed I will eat rice from my mother’s hand,” says the Iron Lady of Manipur.