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15 Years And Still Fighting: Why We Can’t Let Irom Sharmila’s Story Fade Away

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By Ravi Nitesh

At present when we are all busy in our daily routine and living our lives normally, there are so many ‘abnormal’ things going on around us. We point out those in the ‘news’. One such news that may or may not have passed before your eyes during recent years is about the incredible struggle of Irom Sharmila Chanu, a human rights activist who is about to enter the 16th year of hunger strike with a single demand to repeal a controversial act Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). It is at a time when India is advocating for a permanent seat in UN Security Council, a forum that considers protection of human rights most essential.

Who Is Irom Sharmila?

Irom Sharmila, a woman from Manipur completed 15 years of her hunger protest on 2nd November 2015. She has been observing a fast as a form of protest since 2000, when she was about 28 years old, she is 42 now.

Irom Chanu Sharmila

Why Did She Start This Hunger Strike?

She had started it just after the Malom massacre on 2nd Nov 2000, where Assam rifles had fired upon local civilians who were waiting at a bus stand in Malom, Imphal (Manipur) and all were killed. These deaths include a 16-year-old bravery award winner as well as a 60-year-old woman. Irom decided to register her protest because incidents of torture and killings were common in Manipur and in the veil of the powers under AFSPA.

What Is AFSPA?

Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA is an act passed by the Parliament that provides extraordinary powers to security personals to operate in ‘disturbed areas’. AFSPA 1958 was enacted in North East states and later was also extended to Jammu and Kashmir through AFSPA, 1990.

AFSPA has provisions of ‘shoot to kill’ merely based on probability, but it does not stop here, instead it goes beyond and says that no case can be lodged against any security personals without obtaining a sanction from the central government. Sadly, in all such years, no approval was given by central government and despite hundreds of reported cases of fake killings, torture and rapes, nothing could be done to punish culprits.

What Action Was Taken By The Govt On Irom Sharmila’s Hunger Protest?

After she went on hunger strike on 2nd Nov 2000, the Manipur police registered a case against Irom under section 309 of ‘attempt to suicide’ and put her in jail. After her release from jail in 2006, Irom Sharmila came to Delhi, paid tribute to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat and later joined a fast at Jantar Mantar. Delhi Police also registered another case against her under the same section.

Where Does Irom Sharmila Live At Present?

Presently, Irom Sharmila is under arrest by Manipur police and living her life in the security ward of JLN hospital in Manipur. The case in Delhi also, is still going on and Sharmila appears before the Delhi court on notice and when Manipur government agrees to let her leave.

What Action Did The Central Government Take?

The central government ignored her struggle from the beginning. After big protests in Manipur over other cases of human rights violations in the state, the government formed a committee named Jeevan Reddy Committee which also recommended that AFSPA should be repealed, but government neither made this report public nor accepted the recommendation.

What Action Did Civil Society Organisations Take?

Many civil society organisations, activists from India and all over the globe registered their voice to support Irom Sharmila’s demand. International human rights organizations like CIVICUS, Amnesty International, and even UN has asked India to repeal this act. Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign is a group of individuals and organisations from all over India advocating for this issue through various ways. Many public demonstrations, solidarity visits have been organized. Many artists and writers have also expressed their solidarity through their work.

What Action Did The NHRC And Judiciary Take?

Through an RTI filed by Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign in the year 2011, it was revealed that despite being a prime institution of human rights, NHRC did not travel to Manipur between 2000 and 2011 to investigate any case of human rights violations or to meet Irom. Later, on the insistence of several support groups, NHRC promised to visit and agreed to discuss AFSPA. But NHRC only visited after the intervention of Supreme Court when in a case was filed by EVFAM on 1600 fake killings in Manipur. The Supreme Court randomly chose 6 cases and formed a commission under Justice Hegde to investigate if the encounter killings were fake. In his report submitted to the court, Justice Hegde found that all six cases of encounter killings were fake. Despite the availability of evidence, the court could not proceed to declare punishment to guilty security personals as it is not possible under AFSPA provisions.

What Is Happening At Present?

AFSPA still continues in Manipur and J&K. These places are under heavy deployment of military and even among few of the densest militarized areas of the world. People are living in the shadow of guns.

What Is Sharmila’s Response?

Despite the government’s ignorance, and suppression, her faith in democracy and non-violence has not been broken. She always smiles, and tells, “I have faith in democracy. Government will listen one day.”

What Can You Do?

When it comes to human rights, all of us should know that we belong to one community and we should work towards the protection of human rights. For this struggle, you may register your voice by signing a petition addressed to the Prime Minister of India.

If you are looking towards long term affiliation to work on this issue, you may contact the Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign.

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  1. Desmond Coutinho

    Some important inaccuracies which you may feel the truth requires you to correct. After the NHRC visit on 23 October 2013 The NHRC gave a judgement that Sharmila had been placed under arbitrary isolation orders as a form of mental and emotional torture designed to break her spirit. Nothing changed though until Mega Tamiz Prabhagaran visited her in December and after applying to the High Court the GoM claimed it was following the Assam Prison Manual and therefore abiding by the law. Earlier this year Mr Babloo Loitongbam sometimes given as the founder and owner of the SS group quoted above stated that the MHA guidelines for documentary film makers applied to all undertrials but would be enforced only against Sharmila again estabilishing an arbitrary isolation order before he can manufacture her death. Most reports in current demonstrations lead with the demand for Sharmila not to be granted fair trial and for force feeding to end which would result in her death within 3 weeks. I have tried to get the SS group to back down from this position as it would lead to pogroms against minority communities in Manipur. In response I was told the Save Sharmila Solidarity Group had nothing much to do with Sharmila. That she was one of his many projects. He didn’t care whether she fasted or not. If she died while fasting that was her choice. He would persist with the name because he liked the name. I am happy to provide credentials of who I am but be advised after the death in custody of a satyagrahi today it looks like the official policy of the Indian Government is to have all of the remaining hunger strikers killed off and then ride out the blame game. I would strongly advise any who wish to support Sharmila to do so especially at her trials the next trial date the first of the defence case is in Imphal 9 November. The last date for her trial which has been completely sabotaged by the HRLN lawyers in 15 December. After the trial in Delhi ends her complete isolation in Imphal begins. I hope you will allow sharmila her voice and not just back down to the men who jail her. Otherwise why set up these groups at all.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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