Human Rights in South Asia – Irom Chanu Sharmila

Irom Chanu Sharmila is a civil rights activist, journalist and poet from the Indian Manipur. She has been on hunger strike since November 2000, demanding that the Indian government repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which she blames for violence in Manipur and other parts of India’s northeast. Having strongly refused any food or water for more than ten years, she has been properly called “the world’s longest hunger striker”. She is also known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur” or “Menghaobi” (“the fair one”).

The AFSPA was passed on September 11, 1958 by the Parliament of India. It conferred special powers to armed forces in “disturbed areas” such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. AFSPA was extended to Kashmir and Jammu in 1990. AFSPA gives Army officers legal immunity for their actions.

Various NGOs have condemned human rights abuses committed by the armed forces such as extra-judicial executions, disappearances, and torture. The AFSPA give military forces the power to arrest, shoot to kill, and occupy or destroy property in counterinsurgency operations. Indian officials say this is needed whenever “national security” is at serious risk from armed combatants.

On November 2, 2000, in Malom, a town of Manipur, ten civilians were shot and killed by Indian Paramilitary forces, while waiting at a bus stop. This terrible incident came to be known later by activists as the “Malom Massacre”. This moved Sharmila to begin her hunger strike, demanding the Indian government to repeal the AFSPA, which allowed soldiers to indefinitely detain any Manipurian citizen on suspicion of being a rebel, arrest them or even kill them, granting impunity for military acts.

She was arrested by the police for “attempt to commit suicide”, three days after she began her strike, Her health deteriorated rapidly and she needed a nasogastric intubation in order to keep alive while under arrest. She was regularly released and re-arrested since then.

Sharmila became known “icon of public resistance”. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Price on 2005. She was awarded with the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights on 2007 and the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights award.