She has been on a hunger strike for 16 years seeking the repeal of a law that gives immunity to troops in insurgency-marred areas. But she now wants to end it and enter politics to achieve her goal. Cosima Gill reports.
In a courtroom every two weeks, a judge asks Irom Sharmila, 44, "Are you going to stop your hunger strike?" Continuing the routine, she replies "no" and then returns to the hospital room that has long been her home. In a way it had also become her prison, as the Indian government has treated her hunger strike as attempted suicide, until recently a criminal offense. So, for 16 years, Sharmila has been force fed through a nasal tube, seen now as a symbol for her resistance.
Her protest began on November 5, 2000, after paramilitary units in her home city Malom killed ten civilians. She was so disturbed by photos of the dead in a newspaper that she couldn't eat - at first because she couldn't, and later because she didn't want to. Her hunger strike - perhaps the longest in history - had begun. Asked in an interview about where she found the strength to keep going, she answered: "My inspiration is solely my conscience as a human being."
Military violence with impunity
She appears weak, but her mind remains unfailingly focused on her goal: the abolition of a law that permits the military to use violence against the civilian population with impunity. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has been in effect in her home state of Manipur since 1958. "It permits the military to arrest suspected rebels and even to shoot without there legally being anything that can be done about it," explained Arijit Sen, project leader at Amnesty International India.
Members of the North East Students Organization express their solidarity for Sharmila during a 2011 sit-in protest
Northeast India is, besides Kashmir, considered to be one of the most troubled spots in the South Asian nation. Indian armed forces have special and wide-ranging powers in both regions. A number of militant groups are active in the northeastern part of the country, fighting the government troops to achieve their political demands ranging from increased autonomy to full independence. The security situation, however, has been regarded as largely stable.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have repeatedly called for the abolition of AFSPA. While Indian policymakers have long debated the issue, they have yet to agree on the way forward when it comes to amending the act. While Sharmila's extraordinary hunger strike drew more attention to the problem, it hasn't led to any concrete changes on the ground.
From hunger strike to politics
Nevertheless, Sharmila is set to end her hunger strike on Tuesday, a decision she has taken in view of her failure so far to persuade the Indian government to change its policy. She now wants to take a new path. "I will contest next year elections in Manipur as an independent candidate," Sharmila announced.
It is said that not even her closest confidants were aware of her decision until the last minute. And members of radical separatist groups have even reportedly threatened the activist, calling on her to stick with her hunger strike.
In addition, Sharmila's private life has moved increasingly in the spotlight as she has repeatedly expressed her desire to marry. For years, the activist, hailed as the "Iron Lady," has been in a relationship with a fellow activist. "I just want to live a normal life," she said. She has no intention though of abandoning her struggle altogether.