Irom Chanu Sharmila: The Iron Lady of Manipur
Known as Mengoubi, or “the fair one”, Irom Chanu Sharmila, a civil rights activist and poet from Manipur, India, has been on a hunger strike from November 4th 2000, demanding that the Indian Government repeal the AFSPA [Armed Forced Special Powers Act], which she holds responsible for a number of acts involving forced disappearances, human torture, murder and unlawful arrests. Her hunger strike, ongoing now for more than 500 weeks, is the longest hunger strike in the world.
She began her fast after the infamous Malom Massacre which took place on November 2nd 2000, in which Assam Rifles officials allegedly opened fire on 10 civilians who were waiting at a bus stop. Among those killed were a 62-year-old woman and an 18-year old Child Bravery Award winner. Sharmila, who usually fasted on Thursdays, is said to have simply continued her fast from the day of the massacre after seeking her mother’s blessings. Her primary reason for the fast was to have the AFSPA repealed and to hold them accountable for the many deaths which had occurred at their hands.
Three days after beginning her fast, Sharmila was arrested and charged under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which made “attempt to commit suicide”, which is a legally-punishable offence. The police had to use nasogastric intubation to keep her alive, and she has been arrested, released and re-arrested every year as the punishment for her “crime” involves 1 year of imprisonment.
Irom Sharmila’s unwavering determination to highlight the plight of the thousands of people who had suffered under the AFSPA won her the support of Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Laureate, who promised to present her cause at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006. In 2011, she invited anti-corruption activist, Anna Hazare to visit Manipur and highlight its issues; Hazare sent two representatives to visit the state. She also won the support of a number of political parties, some of whom called for nationwide agitations in support of the repeal of the AFSPA. The following November, at the 11th year of her fast, she called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and requested him to repeal the AFSPA, while 100 women formed a human chain in Ambari in a show of solidarity; some civil rights groups joined in by staging a 24-hour fast.
Her non-violent protests have won her a number of accolades such as the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2007, the Mayillama Award for non-violent struggle in 2009, a lifetime achievement award from the Asia Human Rights Commission in 2010, and the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management. She also won the Sarva Gunnah Sarpannah “Award for Peace and Harmony” from the Signature Training Centre.
Her struggle has also been highlighted in the Arts and Education field by performing artists and educationists alike. Deepti Priya Mehrotra’s book, titled “ Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the struggle for peace in Manipur” was published in 2009, and chronicles her unwavering will and determination to repeal the AFSPA; while Ojas SV, a Pune-based theatre artist, regularly performs a mono-play called “Le Mashale”, which means “Take the Torch”, and highlights Sharmila’s journey for peace and harmony.
Very recently, a Delhi University teacher of Social Sciences set up a scholarship in Irom Sharmila’s name, which serves to honor her contribution towards the fight for repeal of the AFSPA, and is awarded to Delhi-university based students who have been impacted in some way by the AFSPA and are perceived as potential allies in the ongoing fight to repeal the Act. The last date for entries coincides with Sharmila’s date of birth, i.e. March 14th. The first recipient of this award is Iymon Majeed from Sopore District in Jammu and Kashmir, whose family has been rendered homeless four times due to AFSPA activities.
Irom Sharmila has stayed true to her moniker, “The Iron Lady”, and has chosen to put her own life on hold in order to continue her struggle to provide a peaceful and harmonious future for the people of Manipur and other areas which have suffered due to the Armed Forces. It is hoped that her decade long struggle will soon bear fruit and fulfill her vision.