India: Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady
November 21, 2014, 8:49 am

Picture from DU Beat

Irom Sharmila Chanu is from the North East Indian state of Manipur and grew up in Imphal, the capital of the state of Manipur. When she finished her school, she started exploring the Manipur society and expressed herself through poems and columns in the local media. She was a volunteer working for Human Rights Alert, a local NGO and was involved in organizing the Independent People’s Commission of Inquiry (IPCI). This initiative headed by H. Suresh, a former justice of the Bombay High Court examined the prolonged impact of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. Testimonies of the survivors of military violence shocked her.

Manipur state under the AFSPA

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was enacted in 1958 by the Indian government in order to maintain public order in areas it had considered as “disturbed”. The Act allows an officer of the armed forces to arrest without a warrant and with the use of necessary force, anyone who has committed certain offenses or is suspected of having done so. Furthermore, the Act also grants officers of the armed forces to fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order as well as to enter and search without warrant any premises to make arrests. The Act also stipulates that the central government must give its permission to prosecute any officer of the armed forces, which in effect further consolidates the widespread culture of impunity.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navanethem Pillay, during her visit to India in March 2009, said that the Act breached “contemporary international human rights standards.”

 

On 2 November 2000, the Malom massacre occurred a week after the IPCI released its findings. The 8th Assam Rifles, a paramilitary group, fired at a group of civilians gathered at a bus shed at Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley of Manipur. Ten people including two children and one women died. It was said to be a retaliatory act by the paramilitary group. This cruel and horrendous incident changed Irom Sharmila’s life and she decided to go on a hunger strike until the AFSPA is repealed. She felt that there was no reason to eat food if people could be killed callously in such a brutal way by the state forces.

On 6 November 2000, three days after she started her hunger strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with attempted suicide, a crime under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. On 21 November she was subjected to forced-feeding by inserting a tube into her nose. The tube became an inseparable part of her visage till date. While she was under arrest, she  refused to sign the bail-bonds, maintaining that she had not committed any offence, and  instead called for the criminal charges against her to be dropped.

 

Under the Indian Penal Code, a person convicted of the crime of attempted suicide may only be imprisoned for no more than one year. Hence, the Indian authorities, after the lapse of one year, would momentarily release Irom Sharmila, only to re-arrest her under the same charges immediately thereafter. Visitors are severely restricted in the hospital. In her lonely life, she keeps herself engaged with reading and writing.

Irom Sharmila’s 15 year-long protest has been marked by a vicious cycle of arrests, releases and re-arrests. Most recently, on 20 August 2014 a court in Manipur set aside the charges against her of ‘attempting to commit suicide’ and ruled that she was making a political demand using a historically rooted and constitutionally established form of protest. But the state challenged the order in the higher court and rearrested her on the second day of her release. In January 2015 a similar pattern of events unfolded; on 22 January she was again released after suicide charges against her were rejected by a Manipur court. However, she was re-arrested on the very same charges within hours of the verdict.

Irom Sharmila has been recognized internationally for her work on the issues of women’s empowerment, peace and human rights, and her non-violent means of fighting for human rights. She was awarded the 2007 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights[1], which is given to “an outstanding person or group, active in the promotion and advocacy of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights”. In 2009, she was also awarded the first Mayillama Award of the Mayilamma Foundation for achievement of her nonviolent struggle in Manipur. Amnesty International had earlier recognized her as a prisoner of conscience.

Today, her unparalleled struggle continues. Like many defenders, Irom Sharmila is still fighting against injustice.

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For more information about human rights defenders, please see this document, known as UN Declaration on human rights defenders.

 

[1] The Gwangju Prize for Human Rights was established to celebrate the spirit of May 18 Gwangju Uprising by recognizing both individuals, groups or institutions in Korea and abroad that have contributed in promoting and advancing human rights, democracy and peace in their work.