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Home > Citizens Action and Concerns for Peace in South Asia > The longest fast | Basharat Peer

The longest fast | Basharat Peer

8 March 2014

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1.Following the example of Mahatma Gandhi

1. Following the example of Mahatma Gandhi
2. The women who carry torches
3. "I will protest with my body"
4. Girl on fast
5. The Iron Lady of Manipur

On a March afternoon in 2013, Irom Sharmila, a 39-year-old activist who has been on a hunger strike since November 2000, appeared for a hearing before a judge. The court is housed in a white-and-blue-gray complex in Imphal, the capital of the northeast Indian state of Manipur — a mountainous, war-torn state of 2.6 million people bordering Burma.

Sharmila is protesting a controversial Indian law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which was instituted in Manipur in late 1980 after several Manipuri groups began an insurgency for independence from Indian rule. Political discontent has marred the state of Manipur since the former princely state was merged with India in 1949. Some saw the union as forced and flawed and would have preferred independence; even those who accepted being part of India felt slighted and politically and economically discriminated against by distant New Delhi.

Several other ethnic groups in the northeastern states of Nagaland, Assam, Tripura and Indian-controlled Kashmir were also fighting the Indian government, seeking independence, autonomy or statehood. The AFSPA provides impunity to Indian soldiers deployed to battle these insurgencies.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act: A brief history

The battle against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is a long, bitter one. Read more here on the law Sharmila has been protesting for over 13 years.

Sharmila has been in solitary confinement for about 13 years, in the security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, the biggest hospital in Imphal. Indian authorities have been charging her with attempting to commit suicide — a crime carrying a one-year prison sentence. She is released every year on the completion of her sentence, but she resumes her fast, refusing even liquids. As her health deteriorates, the police arrest her again for attempting to commit suicide and put her away in her hospital prison, where the doctors force-feed her a liquid diet.

Outside the Nehru hospital there is a modest bamboo hut, built by Sharmila’s supporters in 2008 as a site of protest and solidarity, where she spends her few annual days of freedom. A low wooden platform covers the floor of the hut and there is a framed poster of Sharmila on the reddish earth of the clearing. The stenciled poster, her most reproduced image, is familiar — Sharmila with cascading, uncombed hair, piercing black eyes, sunken cheeks, wide forehead and a plastic tube (used to force-feed her) hanging from her nose. A palpable sense of pain and defiance appears to scream out of its black-and-white lines.

In the courtroom that March afternoon, Judge Alek Muviah, a young man with a soft face and a crew cut, spoke respectfully to Sharmila, who sat in a chair placed in the witness box. He addressed her as “Eche,” or elder sister. A tall, thin woman, she wore flip-flops and a lavender sari, a white cotton shawl draped over her wiry frame. She spoke softly, smiled a vacant smile or remained silent. By comparison, her poster in the hut by the hospital seemed dated. A decade of hunger and isolation stood between her iconography and her person. She heard the judge speak and dictate her release order with a stoic expression. Her face was the lined face of a much older woman: Her wilting pale skin had the texture of rubber; her black, curly hair parted in the middle had thinned; her lips had little color. Her large black eyes, fierce in the poster, were liquid with injury and complaint. Judge Muviah ordered her release.

A few hours later, Sharmila stepped across the iron gate of the Nehru hospital. About 50 Manipuri women in multicolored phaneks and shawls followed her. Sharmila sat on a low wooden platform in the protest hut, reclining against a bamboo pole supporting its roof. Her supporters filled the camp, sitting in neat, close rows behind her. A battery of journalists circled Sharmila. She repeated that she would not break her fast till the law providing immunity to soldiers is repealed. Sharmila was aware of a distant world she was seeking to persuade. Her face strained with the struggle to find the exact words in English; they came haltingly in a measured, deliberate tone. “I will continue my hunger strike till the AFSPA is removed,” she said. “I am only protesting for the repeal of the AFSPA and following the example of Mahatma Gandhi.”

The visitors at Sharmila’s protest hut continued to swell. Her brother Singhajeet Singh, a slight man in his 50s with a graying crew cut, laid out rugs in the clearing to make more space. He wore a light blue shirt with a fraying collar, his face was weatherbeaten, his hands callused. Relatives, who rarely get to see her despite trying to apply for permission with multiple police and government offices, surrounded Sharmila. Half a day of freedom and the conversations with her supporters and her family seemed to bring color to Sharmila’s face. She browsed through photo albums recording the arc of her family’s life while she had been in detention. At a certain point, she took off the plastic tube attached to her nostril and held a niece in her arms.

[See original bigger image at:]
March 10, 2011 — Irom Sharmila, center, leans against the pole in a hut outside Nehru Hospital in Imphal, surrounded by supporters.

“Our home is a 10-minute walk from here,” Singhajeet said. They grew up in Imphal, a few miles from the Nehru hospital, with three brothers and four sisters, born in a lower-middle-class family. Sharmila was a quiet girl who worked in the fields, helped in the kitchen and wrote some poetry. She seemed to have little interest in her studies and failed her high school examination twice before graduating in 1991. Two years before her graduation, her father had died of cancer. A few years later, an older brother she lived with died as well. Sharmila and her mother moved in with Singhajeet, who worked with an agriculture nonprofit. To supplement his modest income, she took a variety of short-term courses in typing, shorthand, tailoring and journalism. Sharmila worked at a school for the blind and a youth organization, which took her to towns and villages across Manipur. [. . .]