Manipur’s Iron Lady Marks 10 Years in Hunger Strike for Human Rights

Irom Sharmila, also known as Manipur’s “Iron Lady,” last week marked 10 long years in a hunger strike she endures for the cause of repealing “draconian” Indian anti-terrorism laws.

A neighbor to Myanmar, Manipur lies in northeastern India where several active militant groups exist. While Sharmila has fasted over the past decade, it is estimated that around 10,000 people have been killed as a result of insurgency-related violence.

The 38-year-old began her hunger strike in 2000 after 10 civilians were killed by soldiers at a bus stop in Imphal. The armed forces fired at these individuals, they said, because they suspected them of being militants linked to an attack by separatist rebels who had ambushed troops two days earlier. Occurring on November 1, 2000, this incident would come to be known as the Malom Massacre.

Human rights groups say this case is a typical abuse of military power committed under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which grants special forces in the region wide-reaching powers to arrest, detain and kill civilians for no more than a suspicion of terrorist activity. The legislation also renders the armed forces virtually immune from prosecution. 

The government contends that the AFSPA, while admittedly open to abuse, is necessary to give security forces the power to counter the terrorist activities of insurgents and protect the country’s borders.

Sharmila has refused to eat voluntarily since November 3, 2000, after hearing of the massacre. Instead, she is force-fed by a tube three times a day in a hospital in north-eastern Manipur, where she was taken by authorities just days after beginning her hunger strike— upon commencing her protest she was promptly arrested under attempted suicide charges. She is annually released and then rearrested under that same charge but has never been brought to trial.

Throughout all of this, Sharmila’s message has remained largely unchanged: Repeal the AFSPA.

From The Independent

Babloo Loitongbam, head of Human Rights Alert, a civil rights group for which Sharmila was working as a volunteer a decade ago, said her undertaking had been marked by a series of events demanding peace and justice. An exhibition of paintings inspired by Sharmila has been held and a play celebrating Manipur’s long tradition of protest by women has been performed.

“The AFSPA is the use of emergency powers during peacetime on the people of the north-east,” he added. “It has allowed extra-judicial executions, rape and torture. It has undermined democratic institutions.”

Delhi would rather the dirty war of India’s north-east did not attract the attention of the wider world. Manipur and several other north-eastern states are designated with a special security status and even Indians need special permission to travel there.

Earlier this year, when The Independent obtained permission to interview Sharmila in her hospital room in Imphal she said: “Everything is such a mess in Manipur right now. The politicians depend entirely on power, on physical power. They are power-hungry. [My struggle] is in the name of justice, peace and love. I am a very simple symbol of those things. My struggle is a very simple matter.”

Sitting in her bed, wrapped in a blanket, she added: “Our oldest teacher is nature. Nature has no discrimination. I draw my inspiration from this. To change the structure [in Manipur] is my biggest challenge. It’s a bounden duty.”

Sharmila’s hunger strike has attracted world-wide attention and has even moved the government to consider repealing or modifying the AFSPA, though so far no action has been taken. It is hoped that, with a continuing spotlight on Sharmila’s quiet struggle, a repeal may finally be put in motion.

From the Hindustan Times:

“Irom Sharmila has become a rallying point for Manipuris seeking the withdrawal of the draconian law that has failed to control the insurgency despite being in force for the past 25 years,” said local activist Babloo Loitongbom, head of the Human Rights Alert group.

In recent months, New Delhi has said that the act should be softened, but no action has been taken.

Sharmila, a locally published poet, began her hunger strike after paramilitary soldiers gunned down 10 civilians near a bus stop in Imphal, saying they suspected militants were in the area after separatist rebels had ambushed troops two days earlier. She had long been a sympathizer with human rights causes, attending activist rallies and meetings after high school, according to her brother, Irom Singhajit. Three volumes of Sharmila’s poetry, which focus on peace and hopelessness, are being translated from her local Meitei language into English.

Sharmila has indicated that, despite ten long years of protest and her health deteriorating, the hunger strike will continue for as long as the AFSPA is still in place.

Photo used under the Wikimedia Commons Public Domain license.


Kartik T.
Kartik T.8 years ago

@Hartson D
"And now the US wants India to have a permanent seat on the UN security counsel. Go figure! That is like have Iran on the committee for Human Rights at the UN. Lets put the foxes in charge of the hen house."
Generalization, prejudice, and xenophobia all in a single comment. How very American. (pun intended)
Something tells me you probably skimmed through the article only to write a troll comment. Why's China in the security council despite Tiananmen Square, the Falun Gong genocide, and extreme government suppression of individual liberty? Why's USA in the security council despite the blatant human rights abuse in Guantanamo Bay and lowly acts of military subjugation and torture tantamount to terrorism against innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan?
You have a lot of things to learn. Not the least of them being the correct spelling of 'council'.
Accept that all the nations in the world have certain horrible things to their credit. And that *your* nation probably tops the list of habitual wrongdoers.

Mytravelindia Guide

Human Rights abuses is one of the biggest challenges for the Indian Government. People should always be assisted and be given incentives to increase their level on protection.Justice is one of the biggest and first steps towards it.

Cindi S.
Cindi s8 years ago

I am ashamed that I had not heard of her before this. Her 'quiet struggle' should be front page news, but the little people never get heard. In Jamaica we say 'God wears pyjamas but he doesn't sleep' and her mission will bear fruit, sooner or later.

Jennifer M.
Jennifer M8 years ago

She is very brave-it seems it's more interesting to people when Yoko Ono or whatever her name is goes on a hunger strike for a day, or celebrities run around wearing either their own skin or dresses made out of lettuce to draw attention to a cause. This woman is doing it too-and sacrificing a great deal of herself to do so.

Deborah Litster
Deborah Litster8 years ago

thanks for the article very brave but doesn't change anything

Mrs Shakespeare
Mrs Shakespeare8 years ago

Yes she is brave, but really, what is she changing by refusing to eat for a whole decade??! Not much. I'd rather see people go out there and DO something, instead of just going like: 'You know what, I'm not going to eat".

Greenlight Apparel
Monika Gill8 years ago

I'm in awe! What a brave woman! Donna, the majority of people living in third world countries seek change, and only with our support, will they be able to see improvements.

Philippa P.
Philippa P8 years ago

She is so brave with a great strength of character.

Donna Holland
Donna Holland8 years ago

Wow 10 years on IV's! What kind of insurance does she have?

Joking aside; very focused energy Irom and how compassionate of her country to take care of her during this time. I think in many ways we can learn a lot from so called 3rd world countries. Who came up with that "label" 3rd world to start with?

Hartson D.
Hartson Doak8 years ago

And now the US wants India to have a permanent seat on the UN security counsel. Go figure! That is like have Iran on the committee for Human Rights at the UN. Lets put the foxes in charge of the hen house.