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Opinion | Priyanka Borpujari

Suicide or protest? Hunger strike rivets India

Indian rights activist Irom Sharmila Chanu reacts after her release from a hospital jail.
Indian rights activist Irom Sharmila Chanu reacts after her release from a hospital jail.STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

In the state of Manipur in northeast India, a young poet named Irom Sharmila Chanu began to fast in November 2000. The 28-year-old had launched her fast after the killing of 10 people allegedly by the Indian army in a suspected encounter with insurgents near the state capital. Her intention was to protest the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or AFSPA, which gives sweeping powers to the Indian army to make arbitrary arrests or even shoot on sight.

Little did the authorities in Manipur expect that she would be steadfast in her resolution. But after three weeks, as her weight fell off, officials in both the national and state governments began having sleepless nights. She was arrested under a section of the Indian penal code for attempting to commit suicide. As per this law, any attempt to end one’s own life results in detention for a year.

In the prison hospital where she was held, she was kept alive via a nasal drip of a mix of vitamins, minerals, laxatives, protein supplements, and lentil soup. She wrote poems and read books and meditated. Very few people were allowed to see her; Sharmila herself refused to see her mother fearing that it would weaken her resolve to fast for the liberation of her land.

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In the nearly 14 years of her hunger strike, Sharmila’s internal organs have atrophied, her lips are rubber-like. She is now 42. Every year, she is produced in the court, where she asserts the continuation of her fast and is hence re-arrested again. And the saga continues — each year in November, small editorials appear in the Indian newspapers about her fast and struggle to repeal the AFSPA. Violations by the army continue indiscriminately. The United States is today shocked with the police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., but Manipur has been living its Ferguson between bullets since 1958.

Last month, for the first time, a court ordered her release, stating that there was no evidence provided by the government which could prove her attempt to end her own life. She was released on Aug. 19, heralding a hope for the repeal of AFSPA. Upon her release, amid tears, she feebly told a posse of journalists, “I want to tell the people of India that if Mahatma Gandhi would have been alive today, he would have launched a campaign against the AFSPA.”

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Sharmila continued her fast even as her nasal drip was removed. The state government was now in a tricky situation — AFSPA was not to be repealed, Sharmila wouldn’t end her fast, and she had become too famous to be allowed to die. And so she was arrested again on Aug. 22, with a mandate to keep her alive.

The court order also comes at a time when India’s new government is mulling over decriminalizing suicide attempts. This is a significant move — a person seeking to end his life needs help and counseling, not prison bars. And the recent court order to release Sharmila further hammers the point that her fast is a political statement. But here lies the paradox — to set her free is to acknowledge her political act, which also means endangering her life since there would be no more nasal drips. The only way would be to give in to her — and to Manipuris’ — longstanding demand to repeal AFSPA. And so she was arrested again.

AFSPA, which was introduced to Manipur and to parts of its neighboring states in northeast India, has been used as a mechanism to end insurgency in these volatile regions. The eight states of northeast India, whose cumulative area is a little less than the size of Colorado, are home to 220 ethnic groups. It is one of the most diverse regions of India, and has been mired with identity and secessionist movements and violence. The people’s voices and demands have been silenced in the din of the marching army that was sent in 1958 to tackle the insurgency. Manipur’s capital Imphal is one of the most militarized cities in the world; disappearances of men is an ongoing occurrence. This is also the case in Kashmir, north of India, to which both India and Pakistan stake claim, where AFSPA is the demonic lord.

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In 2004, several aging mothers disrobed themselves before an army unit in Manipur, screaming “Indian army rape us.” The brutal rape and murder of another young woman activist allegedly by the Indian army while in their captivity for being a suspected insurgent was the reason for the mothers’ wild fury. Protests across the state grew violent; rubber bullets were fired even at students embarking on peaceful rallies. AFSPA was repealed for a while from certain regions in Manipur, but Sharmila wouldn’t end her fast until the law was repealed from the entire state.

The transition from insurgency and violence to democracy can’t occur amid a spirit of mistrust towards the Indian government, which AFSPA has helped foster. A law that is more inclusive of the people’s will and respectful of international humanitarian norms is the only way of ensuring peace in Manipur, and, more significantly, a sense of belonging to the national entity. Until then, unfurling the Indian tricolor at India’s national holidays will continue to be a sham, for Manipur, Kashmir, and other places in India where the military rules.

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Through summers and winters, Irom Sharmila has continued her fast in that tiny, ignored corner of India where democracy is a sham. She represents the agony of a people held captive in an independent country, and has hence been viewed as a deity. No wonder, then, that she was criticized by her own people when she acknowledged the love professed by a man living in the United Kingdom, in 2011. His love has often made her smile through her nasal drips. “I am a very simple girl.” But her soft assertion belies her resilience in her attempt to repeal AFSPA.


Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist in India. She was the 2012-2013 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow.