Abuses by the Indian government keep one woman on a 14-year hunger strike
By— September 4, 2014
Irom Sharmila, 42, a determined woman with unkempt black hair and a disarming smile, has long advocated for the repeal of India’s Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, which gives the Indian army legal immunity for its various brutal actions. She has been arrested again and again since starting a hunger strike in November 2000. “I have spent 14 years of my life chewing my tongue just for violence on all sides to end,” she has said.
Sharmila has a simple demand: AFSPA should be repealed, especially from Manipur, her own state, where violence is unceasing. And while fighting this law, Sharmila has refused to eat anything or drink a single drop of water for the past 14 years. Impossible as this intense and extended hunger strike may sound, it has defined her resistance.
The state does not believe in Sharmila’s right to go on a hunger strike or protest. The authorities’ stance is that she wants to kill herself—a crime under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, punishable with a maximum sentence of one year. So Sharmila is kept in solitary confinement at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, in Imphal. Every year, she is released and rearrested because she refuses to stop fasting. The whole time, she is force-fed through a tube in her nose. This keeps her alive.
“Due to circumstances and the situation, it makes me feel that this tube is part of my body,” Sharmila says.
Some argue that Sharmila’s struggle has become the longest hunger strike by any individual for human rights that the world has ever seen.
On August 19, a judge ruled that there was no reason to detain Sharmila under Section 309 of the penal code. The judge noted that, in Sharmila’s case, the intention to commit suicide was a mere allegation and the state had no right to keep her in custody. For the first time, Sharmila was released on grounds that decriminalized her struggle. But to the disappointment of many, she was rearrested on similar charges on August 22 and sent to judicial custody for 15 days.
A simple demand
“I am not asking for the sun or the moon,” Sharmila says on a clear and sunny day in May. She is firm in her sense that the repeal of AFSPA is not an impossible demand. She has just stepped out of the grilled gates of her solitary confinement in a hospital that has been her home since November 6, 2000, more than 14 years.
It is a short walk to the ambulance waiting to take her to the airport. A hop, skip, and jump in the aircraft and she will be in India’s capital of New Delhi in less than three hours.
“Hurry up,” says the senior police official in charge. He seems to be the timekeeper of a crew that includes a doctor, some nurses, and more police. They stand around Sharmila, eclipsing her diminutive presence. They have undertaken this journey before. One of them fixes the lock of his suitcase. Another discusses gifts he wanted to buy. It feels like an utterly familiar and depressing routine. Only Sharmila seems happy. This journey to a courtroom in Delhi is her window to the outside world.
Since November 2000, Sharmila has carried on a crusade against AFSPA. The federal law allows the government to define an area as “disturbed,” a vague term that empowers the armed forces to shoot to kill, besides conducting searches and arrests without warrants, in particular states that have been declared to be in a state of emergency. No legal proceeding can be brought against any member of the armed forces acting under AFSPA without permission from authorities in New Delhi. It was implemented in the northeastern state of Manipur in 1980. Since then, the Indian army has been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and enforced disappearances—with total impunity. In the past three and a half decades, there has been only one prosecution in the state.
Between 1979 and 2012, more than 1,500 civilians, including 98 children, were killed by security forces in Manipur, according to a petition submitted to India’s Supreme Court in October 2012 by Manipur’s Extrajudicial Execution Victims Families’ Association and other nongovernmental organizations.
Indian authorities say there are at least 30 rebel outfits in Manipur that either seek complete secession from India or more autonomy. The genesis of dissent goes back to 1949, when Manipur, according to many, was forced to accede to an independent India. Now, in 2014, while most human rights workers claim that the number of rebel outfits is a “myth propagated by the state,” state officials insist that these outfits terrorize the local population. AFSPA is the way to curb such dissent, authorities say. The law is necessary to stop the insurgency in Manipur.
Still fresh in the minds of many Manipuri residents is a chilling morning encounter in 2009. On July 23 of that year, Chongkham Sanjit, a former member of the banned militant organization Peoples’ Liberation Army, and a pregnant woman, Rabina Debi, were shot dead, allegedly by the police. The attack took place in the morning in the heart of a busy marketplace in Imphal, the capital of Manipur state. The dead bodies were tossed into an open van in public view and taken away. No one has been prosecuted, as usual, thus far.
‘Indian Army Rape Us’
The unceasing violations against people in Manipur includes a particularly cruel kind of sexualized violence against men and women.
One case in particular stands out. In 2004, men who were allegedly Indian paramilitary forces picked up Thangjam Manorama Devi, a 32-year-old woman, at midnight from her residence forces on suspicion of belonging to the People’s Liberation Army. Her semi-naked body was found the next day in an open field with bullet wounds including, allegedly, on her genitalia. Autopsy and forensic reports found signs of sexual assault on her body.
After the attack, on the afternoon of July 15, 2004, 12 women disrobed and stood naked in front of the Kangla Fort in Imphal, the headquarters of the Indian paramilitary forces. Together they held a single length of white cloth that had “Indian Army Rape Us” and “Indian Army Take Our Flesh” emblazoned on it in red paint. They were protesting the alleged rape and murder of Manorama.
That same year, a coalition of civil society organizations called the Apunba Lup, headed by Lokendra Arambam, a historian and a noted dramatist, threw themselves into protests and negotiations with the Indian government to repeal AFSPA. Arambam traveled to Delhi with nine civil society activists, including three women, to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Beyond recommendations, nothing came of their effort.
In 2009, I met retired District Judge C. Upendra, who headed an inquiry into Manorama’s alleged rape and murder. He said he was certain about the truth of the allegations. In fact, between 1996 and 2007, Upendra oversaw inquiries into 12 cases of extrajudicial killing, rape, or murder in Manipur. In each case, he found the security forces guilty.
“They do whatever they like and have no regard for the law of the land,” he said.
No action has been taken in any of the cases that Upendra oversaw. Manorama’s family still awaits justice. Her mother is barely willing to engage with a journalist like myself: “The Armed Forces act must go and only then peace will come,” is all she will say to me.
Years of inaction
Babloo Loitongbam, director of a local nonprofit, voluntary organization called Human Rights Alert, tells me at his office in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, about how he and other lawyers and activists tried in 2000 to organize an independent commission to look into human rights violations as a result of the prolonged imposition of AFSPA. “Advertisements in newspapers sought volunteers, and Sharmila stepped in to help,” he says. “She would come every single day on her bicycle.”
Every time I go to Loitongbam’s office, I see someone or other quietly working away, arranging documents, noting down details—all preparing for a legal battle on cases of human rights violations in Manipur under AFSPA.
One such case the office documented involved the arrest of 23-year-old Pranam Singh in October 2000. The army suspected Singh of being a supporter of banned insurgent outfit People’s Liberation Army.
“A wooden rod was inserted in my anus and vigorously stirred, thereby causing severe pain and bleeding,” Singh testified. “In doing so, the rod broke inside my anus. Chili powder was applied to my eyes, anus, and genitals as a result of which I could not urinate.”
A week after the commission documented Singh’s story and recorded other human rights violations under AFSPA, a horrifying killing known as the Malom Massacre took place. A paramilitary wing of the Indian Army shot dead 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop in a place called Malom, Loitongbam says. Among those killed were a 17-year-old boy, Sinam Chandramani, who had won the National Child Bravery Award in 1988 after he saved his younger brother from drowning, and his brother, 27-year-old Sinam Robinson.
These murders in particular were another pivot point in Sharmila’s life. Four days after the massacre, a then 28-year-old Sharmila began to fast in protest against the Indian army. Soon, she was arrested and the tube was inserted through her nose.
The lonely road ahead
As we travel along Tiddim Road, once the sight of the iconic Battle of Imphal during India’s Second War, we cross the Malom massacre bus stop. My travel companion, Onil Kshetrimayum, a young human rights activist, starts talking about Sharmila.
“Irom is an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary spirit to strengthen democracy, and the youth also think she is a unique lady,” he says. “In Manipur, they see her as an iconic figure rather than looking into her political struggle against AFSPA.” Her recognition has gone global as well: In October 2013, Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience. The move coincided with the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi.
I recall my conversation with Sharmila’s 60-year-old lawyer, Khaidem Mani, after her rearrest on August 22 this year. “These are fresh charges, but the section remains the same,” he said. “I will meet Sharmila on September 5. When the time comes, we will fight legally.” His reply could not have been more matter of fact.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that AFSPA has become almost a fait accompli in this beautiful state wracked with violence. People have learned to live with it, not taking it too seriously until it hurts them personally. Sharmila herself has become an icon—not a call to protest. This kind of normalization of violence is as frightening as it gets in a democracy.
“People don’t take my issue seriously,” Sharmila told me once. It took India’s National Human Rights Commission 13 years before they sent a team to meet her. For a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, this indifference is perhaps a sign that while all citizens are equal to the state, some are less equal than the others.
Sharmila the human being also wants to lead a life like anyone else. “People should stop singing my praises and join my crusade,” she says.
That’s what she’s been praying for the past 14 years. Unfortunately, very few are listening.