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Friday, November 4, 2011

(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 4 November 2011, retrieved from

NOTE: This is not an opinion piece. It's a factual summary of Irom Shamila Chanu's hunger strike, and the events around it.

A square-faced, small-boned woman, pictured smiling despite the nose-tube clipped to her face, has become a familiar sight on newspaper pages of late.
The thirty-nine-year old Irom Sharmila Chanu has just completed eleven years of a fast she undertook, demanding the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from her state. She’s officially the world’s longest ‘hunger-striker’.
How has she survived all this time without food and water? That’s where the nose-tube comes in. She has been ‘force-fed’ essential nutrients, and her doctors have told newspapers that her weight is being maintained at 51 kg.
She calls herself a civil rights and political activist, and writes poetry. Her story has been told through plays and other popular cultural vehicles.
Why Did Irom Sharmila Start Fasting?
On November 2, 2000, a company of the Assam Rifles, one of the paramilitary forces, allegedly shot ten civilians to death at a bus stop in Malom, a town in the Manipur Valley. A convoy of the Assam Rifles had been attacked recently by militants, and the soldiers were tracking down an insurgent whom they believed was hiding in the village.
But outrage broke out when it became known that one of the victims was Sinam Chandramani, an eighteen-year-old boy who had won the National Child Bravery Award in 1988 for saving a baby from drowning. Witnesses claimed his brother and elderly aunt were killed when they tried to save Chandramani. The other victims included two government employees and three youngsters.
The incident, which came to be known as the ‘Malom Massacre’, was detailed in newspapers the next day, along with graphic images. Sharmila – who worked in an NGO at the time – began her fast, demanding the repeal of the AFSPA, which gave legal immunity to the soldiers, in addition to the power to detain citizens on suspicion of being rebels. She blamed the Act for violence in her state.
What Happened After?
Within three days of beginning her hunger strike, Sharmila was arrested and charged with attempt to commit suicide, which is punishable by simple imprisonment for up to a year, or a fine, or both under the Indian Penal Code, Section 309.
But she had to be hospitalised after two and a half-months and fed through a nasogastric intubation mechanism.
Since then, Sharmila is released every year, whereupon she promptly removes the feeding tube, and is arrested again within days. People in the North-East have come to see her as their main hope for the withdrawal of the AFSPA.
Irom Sharmila’s Rise to Fame
In 2004, the Assam Rifles were thought to be responsible for the rape, torture and extra-judicial killing of a 32-year-old lady, Thangjam Manorama. The public outcry was so widespread and so unprecedented – 12 women in their forties and fifties shouted slogans outside the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla Fort, wearing only slippers and carrying banners that read ‘Indian Army, Rape Us’ – that the Centre removed the AFSPA in some parts of Manipur.
Sharmila spearheaded the battle for its repeal in other parts, which hasn’t been successful yet. The next year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
 In 2006, Sharmila headed to Raj Ghat, where she laid flowers at the samadhi of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, on Gandhi Jayanti, and then held a protest demonstration at Jantar Mantar. She was arrested soon after by Delhi Police and admitted in AIIMS hospital.
She continued her activism by meeting international human rights activists such as Shirin Ebadi, Magsaysay Award winners from India, and several writers and filmmakers. A book, Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace, written by Deepti Priya Mehrotra, details her life. Two documentaries, My Body My Weapon and Tales from the Margins, are centred on her, as is a play Le Mashale (Take the Torch), performed by a Pune-based theatre group.
Why Has Irom Sharmila’s Fast Hit Headlines Now?
Some may attribute it to Anna Hazare’s relatively successful hunger strikes, but Irom Sharmila made a comeback into the news this year for several reasons.
When Hazare’s two fasts against corruption – which lasted four days and twelve days respectively – set off a series of protests, demonstrations and hunger-strikes across the nation, columnists and activists began to compare the response by the government and the people to his cause, to that of Sharmila’s.
A Save Sharmila Campaign was launched by a network of NGOs, as well as social activists. They have organised meets and walks in several cities, beginning with Srinagar and spanning 4500 kilometres. However, Sharmila’s response to them has been lukewarm. In a note, she expressed that she did not want them to make demands such as instituting a team of special doctors to take care of her, or send out reports that her health was deteriorating. They intended to end the fast in Manipur, at the hospital in which she is, but were denied permission to meet her by the government.
Several newspapers have published articles on Sharmila every now and again – usually when she is conferred an award, or when a film or book about her – or by her – is released. Some articles have caused something of a storm by hinting that the fast is not taking a toll on her, or that there is something else wrong with her. One particular piece quoted a nurse saying Sharmila can do push-ups on two fingers, and a doctor saying she would pull out her nasal tube when she had mood swings.
Sharmila’s personal life became the subject of controversy too. She told a reporter that she had fallen in love with a Goan-born British citizen, Desmond Coutinho, who had written to her after reading Mehrotra’s book on her life. Speaking of how they only communicate through letters, as he hadn’t been given permission to meet her by the government at the time, she said she would like to get married one day and not be a martyr.
The article caused a furore among her supporters. Though Sharmila said she would only marry him after succeeding in getting the AFSPA repealed, her supporters were angry at the diversion from her cause into her personal life by the media. Terming it an attempt to “destroy the aura around her”, groups of supporters burnt copies of the paper that published the interview.
 Some even stopped Coutinho from meeting her, when he made the journey. Many were wary about the fact that a stranger’s letters could reach her, when even her own family wasn’t able to correspond much with her, and came up with conspiracy theories.
Social activists including Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy, and Binayak Sen, and author Arundhati Roy, are vocal supporters of Sharmila. Several parties – such as the Trinamool Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – and politicians – such as BJP’s Varun Gandhi – have backed her too.
With Kashmir CM Omar Abdullah calling for the repeal of the AFSPA in his state, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stating publicly that he’s looking at ways to make the Act more humane, Sharmila has asked people to vote for MLA candidates who have promised to fight for the repeal of AFSPA, in the 2012 elections.


November 2, 2000
10 civilians allegedly shot and killed at Malom bus stop by the Assam Rifles.
November 3, 2000

Irom Shamila has a last meal of cakes, and begins her fast with her mother’s blessings.
November 7, 2000

Sharmila is arrested and charged with attempt to commit suicide.
July 11, 2004
Thangjam Manorama’s body is discovered; paramilitary forces suspected of rape and torture.
July 15,2004
12 middle-aged women hold a nude protest outside the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla Fort.
August, 2004
Government repeals AFSPA in some parts of Manipur.
October 2, 2006
Sharmila begins a fast at Jantar Mantar in Delhi.
October 6, 2006
Delhi Police arrest Sharmila, admit her in AIIMS.
January, 2011
Sharmila speaks about being in love with Desmond Coutinho, sparks off anger among her supporters.
June 25, 2011
Save Sharmila Campaign organises a candlelight vigil, attended by 200 people, in Delhi.
August-September, 2011
Sharmila urges Anna Hazare to support her cause; Hazare empathises.
October 17, 2011
A 25-member team of civil activists leaves on a 4500-km march across 10 states to mobilise support for AFSPA; Medha Patkar flags off the march in Srinagar.
October 27, 2011
March reaches Imphal, but activists are denied permission to meet Shamila; they are kept in police custody after they court arrest.
November 4, 2011
Sharmila completes 11 years of fasting.


In 2005, Sharmila was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by North East Network, a Guwahati-based NGO.
In 2007, she shared the South Korean Gwangju Prize for Human Rights with Lenin Raghuvanshi of People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights.
In 2009, she was awarded the first Mayillama Award in Kerala.
In 2010, Sharmila won the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize as well as the Sarva Gunah Sampannah Award for Peace and Harmony. Turkey’s Human Rights Festival, held in December that year, was dedicated to her.
She received the Adivasi Ratna prize recently, and also published a book of poems, Fragrance of Peace.


The AFSPA, passed by Parliament in 1958, gives the Armed Forces certain powers in ‘disturbed areas’, even in peacetime. It was initially introduced in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. It was extended to Jammu and Kashmir in 1990.

The Act allows Armed Forces personnel to:
  • Fire upon people who don’t obey the imposition of Section 144 under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) – assembly of five or more people, or people carrying deadly weapons.
  • Search any place without warrant on suspicion that someone who has committed particular offences is hiding there
  • Make arrests, using force if necessary, without warrant
  • Occupy property during counterinsurgency operations

The Act grants immunity to members of the Armed Forces taking part in these operations. Even if a person who is shot at by the Armed Forces personnel is killed, the shooter(s) cannot be sued or prosecuted.


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