India: ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ Feels Abandoned After Ending 16-Year Hunger Strike

Jhumur Deb
Guwahati, India
160811-IN-sharmila-620.jpg Indian rights activist and hunger striker Irom Sharmila, reacts while surrounded by media following her release from a hospital jail in Imphal, Manipur, Aug. 20, 2014.

For almost 16 years legions of supporters stood firmly by Irom Sharmila as she refused to swallow solid food and water – even her own spit – in protest of a decades-old military emergency law in force in northeast India’s Manipur state.

But within hours of making clear her intention to enter politics and ending her hunger strike with a dab of honey on Tuesday, Sharmila realized she had angered her supporters through her decision to run for office.

“I have been misunderstood by the people of Manipur,” she told BenarNews in a phone interview. “After 16 years of struggle, when I realized nothing was going to change, I wanted to further my cause to get the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) repealed.

“That is why I have decided to contest the next chief ministerial election [in Manipur in 2018] as an independent candidate,” said Sharmila, who survived for so long by being force-fed through the nose.

The AFSPA of 1958 – in force in the conflict-torn northeastern states of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland – gives security forces sweeping powers, including allowing personnel to make warrantless arrests, to enter and search any premises and to shoot any suspect.

The controversial law, which has been criticized over alleged rights violations, is applicable to the disputed northern state of Jammu and Kashmir as well and also provides immunity from prosecution for soldiers involved in counter-terror operations.

Sharmila, 44, began her fast two days after members of the Assam Rifles allegedly shot and killed 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop on the outskirts on Imphal, Manipur’s capital, on Nov. 2, 2000.

Since then, Sharmila, hailed as the ‘iron lady’ for her will to sustain what turned out to be the world’s longest hunger strike, was imprisoned in a hospital ward in Imphal on charges of attempting to commit suicide – a crime in India – and force-fed through her nose.

‘Totally dejected’

On Tuesday, after Sharmila finally ended her hunger strike in front of dozens of rolling cameras, she was allowed to walk free on bail. But little did she know she wasn’t welcome anywhere.

“Going home to my family was not an option because I made a promise to them when I started my struggle against the AFSPA that I will show them my face only after the act is repealed,” Sharmila said.

So her first stop was a friend’s apartment in the Keishamthing Longjam Leirak locality in downtown Imphal. There, hundreds of people, who were once her ardent supporters, had locked the residential complex’s gate and blocked its entrance, citing security concerns if Sharmila lived there.

Last week Sharmila received a death threat from the Alliance of Socialist Unity, one of the many secessionist groups active in Manipur, after she announced that she was ending her strike and entering politics.

Even the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple, which is known to host people from all walks of life, turned her away.

The only place that offered her shelter was the Manipur chapter of the Indian Red Cross. But by then, Sharmila said, she was already disgruntled.

She chose to return to her bed at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, her home for the last 16 years.

“I feel totally dejected. I never thought even for a moment that the people of Manipur, for whom I fasted, would react to my decision (to contest elections) in such a manner,” she said.

“My resolve to become the chief minister of Manipur is now stronger. I want to head the power system to repeal the AFSPA administratively,” she added.

Sharmila’s 84-year-old mother, Irom Sakhi, told BenarNews that she was a “tad upset” that her daughter had taken such an important decision without consulting her family.

“It is up to her to carry on with her life any which way she wants to,” Sakhi said.

“There is no question of her family not welcoming her. It was her decision to come home only when the AFSPA is repealed. We respect her decision,” she said.

‘Not walking away from that fight’

Babloo Loitongbam, director of the Manipur-based Human Rights Alert, called the protests against Sharmila, his long-time associate, “shameful.”

“Some sections of people, who have selfish motives, are indulging in such stupid protests. It is really shameful,” he told BenarNews.

He, however, declined to say if he supported her decision to enter politics.

“It is too early to say anything. She has to first reorient herself after spending 16 years virtually in isolation. But the door for discussion is always open,” he said.

“For the time being, our only concern is her health and we want her to continue living under medical supervision for some more time,” he added.

Sanjoy Hazarika, a renowned expert on affairs related to northeast India, agreed with Sharmila’s decision to join politics.

“She has given 16 years of her life fighting against the AFSPA. She is still not walking away from that fight, but taking the game to a different level – engaging directly with the political system instead of fighting it from outside,” Hazarika, who directs the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research in New Delhi, told BenarNews.

However, N. Biren Singh, spokesman for the All India National Congress, which is in power in Manipur, differed.

“We welcome her decision to join politics. But I doubt she can make any impact electorally as an independent candidate without support of any political party,” he told BenarNews.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.