Indian human rights activist, Irom Sharmila, has completed 15 years of what is perhaps the longest hunger strike in history.
Sharmila is demanding the repeal of a draconian law that gives Indian security forces wide powers to fight insurgency in India’s northeastern states and Kashmir.
As Bismillah Geelani reports, the anniversary of her fast has brought attention to her struggle and renewed demands for scrapping the law.
Forty three-year-old Irom Sharmila looks pale and tired. Her voice is weak and she speaks with long pauses.
More than a decade-long hunger strike has taken a visible toll on her.
But she remains resolute in her stance that she would end the fast only after her demand is met.
“I have full faith in God. My body and mind is always in balance and I try to maintain the balance,” says Sharmila, “My struggle is powerful. They can’t punish me physically or mentally. Let them decide what they want. What I want from them is just repeal this very draconian law.”
Sharmila is demanding the revocation of the armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, a law that gives sweeping powers to Indian security forces.
She began her protest in the year 2000 after the Indian army killed 10 people in her hometown in the northeastern state of Manipur. She hasn’t eaten or drunk anything since.
Sharmila is being held against her will at a hospital under police custody where authorities keep her alive by force-feeding her drugs and nutrients through a nasal tube.
On the 15th anniversary of her continuous hunger strike, hundreds have turned up to raise awareness about her struggle.
P Sundaram from the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament joined the solidarity fast in New Delhi. He says that despite Sharmila’s brave and unrelenting struggle, her fast has failed to trigger real action.
“Not even a single proper dialogue has happened with her, he says, “AFSPA is very important and urgent issue that needs to be addressed and it is unfortunate that the government is not listening to people who are protesting peacefully.”
The AFSPA gives impunity to Indian security forces operating in areas declared as “disturbed.”
Under the law a soldier has the power to search, arrest and even shoot a person on the mere suspicion of being a militant.
The law is currently in effect in India’s northeastern states and in the Indian-administered region of Kashmir, where armed insurgencies against Indian rule are ongoing.
In all these areas, human rights abuses increased after the law was introduced.
Binalakshmi Nepram is the founder of the Manipur Gun survivors Network.
She says the law has proved to be a cure that is worse than the disease itself.
“It has not achieved anything except that it has given the Indian armed forces a license to kill, torture, maim, and rape anyone,” she says, “The army is there in our villages, towns, in our houses and market place and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is a blanket call for them to do what you want and we will protect you.”
In response to the criticism the government has set up several expert panels tasked with reviewing the law.
Sanjoy Hazarika, a Professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Northeastern Studies was on one such panel that recommended repealing the law.
“When we submitted the report the strongest opposition came from the Defense Ministry and the army, and the then Chief of Staff put on record on the file his opposition to any amendment, any change,” she says.
The army has strongly resisted any such attempt to change or repeal the law.
Raj Kadyan is former deputy chief of Indian army.
“Nowhere in the world does the army get involved in civil problems without legal protection. There will be mistakes, if you have half a million people trying to control militancy in a state, mistakes will happen, but those mistakes also happen in areas where this law is not in force,” notes Kadyan. “If the area is peaceful move out the army but if you have to have the army you have to give them legal protection.”
But Senior Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan strongly disagrees.
He says the law turns legal immunity into impunity and has no place in a democracy.
“Hardly ever has the army or government given permission to prosecute army personnel even when it is a case of rape,” he says, “This is a totally inhuman, illegal and unconstitutional law, which needs go out of the statute of this country.”
As the debate on AFSPA rages on, Irom Sharmila continues to remain in police custody. The government has charged her with attempt to suicide, which is a punishable crime in India.
Supporters worry the government’s response to Sharmila’s protest will only reinforce deeply held skepticism about the effectiveness of non-violent methods of struggle.
That if a decade and a half long hunger strike doesn’t work, people might take recourse through different means.