This week Irom Sharmila, an Indian activist who has been on a hunger strike for 16 years, has had her first taste of food.
Demanding the repeal of a draconian law, Sharmila announced an end to her fast and her decision to continue her struggle through politics.
Bismillah Geelani has the story.
Outside a hospital in Imphal, the capital city of the Northeastern state of Manipur, 44-year-old Irom Sharmila is surrounded by a large gathering of supporters, policemen and journalists.
One of Sharmila’s supporters offers her honey in a cup.
She takes a fingerful of it and amid tears rolling down her face she breaks her fast.
This is how one of the longest hunger strikes in history came to an end.
Sharmila announced her decision to end her protest a week ago. But both her supporters and critics were equally skeptical about whether she would actually do it.
Sharmila had pledged to not take any food as long as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or the AFSPA, remained in effect.
Detained for more than a decade under a law that makes suicide illegal, Indian authorities force-fed her through a nasal tube to keep her alive.
Sharmila says it was her decision to begin the protest 16-years ago, and ending it today is also her decision.
“This is my right, my right to choice. Just see me as an equal human being like others. Just a human being with all the mundane feelings,” she said.
Sharmila however made it clear that she is only giving up her hunger strike, not her struggle against the draconian law.
Now she says, she will continue to fight for her goal through electoral politics.
Sharmila announced her intention to run as a candidate for chief minister, or CM, in her home state of Manipur.
“I need power to remove the black laws, I need power and I want to be the CM of Manipur to make a positive change in certain time. I know nothing about politics and academia, I’m not educated enough but I want to convince our people that my power will shower upon people,” Sharmila stated.
Sharmila was just 28 when she began her protest against the AFSPA in the year 2000.
The AFSPA gives sweeping powers to Indian security forces and critics say it has led to massive human rights abuses in India’s Northeastern states and the Indian-controlled Kashmir region.
Sharmila’s protest was instrumental in bringing national and global attention to the abusive impact of the law.
But now her decision to join mainstream politics has left her supporters divided.
Ravi Nitesh is coordinator of the Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign. For years he has been persuading Sharmila to end her fast and is now happy that she finally did it.
“We welcome Sharmila’s decision and we will standby her whether she contests the election or not.”
Nitesh continued, “Whether she wins or loses, or whether she fights elections or not doesn’t matter. What matters is despite her 16 years of struggle she is still ready to move forward through democratic and peaceful ways but it’s the government that has adopted a hard line and does not want to negotiate or have a dialogue or show any flexibility in its approach.”
A powerful symbol of resistance, scores of people from across the world expressed solidarity with Sharmila’s struggle.
In India most political parties also welcomed Sharmila’s decision, some even offering her membership and candidature.
But many of Sharmila’s ardent supporters like Ongwi Chandrajini question the wisdom of her decision.
“We supported her because she was fighting against oppression. Now if she joins politics and becomes part of the system how can she then fight the state? Isn’t this the same system she fought against all her life? How can she do this?” asks Chandrajini.
Some of Sharmila’s family members have also expressed their disapproval of her decision.
One radical group has even warned Sharmila against joining politics and marrying her fiancé—a British national who the group accuses of working for the Indian intelligence agencies.
Sharmila, however, remains defiant.
“People cannot be convinced right now and if they don’t want to change themselves let them kill me the way people killed Mahatma Gandhi accusing him of being anti-Hindu, and the way Jesus Christ was killed,” Sharmila stated.
“With that blood, let them wash their dark emotions and their negative feelings towards me.”
Sharmila’s home state of Manipur will go to polls next year.
Whether her decision to join the fray will bring her any closer to what even the longest ever hunger strike could not achieve, remains to be seen.
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