An Indian court has ordered the release of an activist who has staged a 14-year hunger strike in protest at human rights abuses in the country’s remote north-east, her lawyer said on Tuesday.
Irom Sharmila, known as the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ for her unwavering and non-violent protest, embarked on her protest in November 2000 after witnessing the infamous ‘Malom Massacre’, when ten civilians were shot down in broad daylight by paramilitary soldiers in the small town of Malom in the remote Imphal Valley of Manipur.
The area had been subject to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a draconian law first introduced in 1958 and which grants special powers to Indian law enforcement authorities.
Sharmila, 42, was arrested soon after she began her hunger strike on charges of attempted suicide, which is a crime under the Indian Penal Code.
She was later sent to a prison hospital and force fed via a nasal drip several times a day.
Babloo Loitangbam, a human rights activist in the north-east who is close to Sharmila, told the AFP news agency that the court had accepted that the charge was not sustainable.
“There has been a consistent position where activists have been saying that Sharmila is not taking her life, she is making a political point which is to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act,” he told the NDTV network.
Sharmila herself had repeatedly clarified that it was not her intention to die but to force the withdrawal of the AFSPA which gives Indian forces sweeping powers to search, enter private property and shoot on sight.
The AFSPA was imposed throughout Manipur after the government declared the state a “disturbed area” in 1980.
Many activists contend that the law continues to be in force despite being widely acknowledged as having had no impact on the leftist insurgency that has gripped large areas of eastern and northeastern India.
Sharmila was born and raised in an impoverished village in the picturesque Imphal Valley. Despite having next to no formal education, the socio-political circumstances around her led her to social activism.
In October 2000, she joined Human Rights Alert (HRA) on a one-month internship where she met victims of rights violations from across the state.
On November 2, 2000, the Assam Rifles – a paramilitary outfit of the Indian Army – gunned down 10 people at a bus stop near Sharmila’s village in apparent retaliation to a bomb planted by insurgents near a paramilitary camp the previous day.
After she began her fast, Sharmila was joined by scores of women and other youth activists protesting against the AFSPA.
A series of arrests and re-arrests followed over the years. During one brief period of release in 2006, Sharmila took her protest to the capital Delhi where she was joined by hundreds of students, human rights activists and other concerned citizens before she was re-arrested by police and placed in protective custody.
Sharmila’s campaign – not a morsel of food has passed through her mouth for more than 164 months – has attracted international attention.
She was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2007 and the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian Human Rights Commission.