NEW DELHI // Guarded by armed policemen round the clock, the frail woman who started her fast unto death in 2000 lies on a bed in Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, capital of the north-eastern state of Manipur. Irom Sharmila, 37, the "Iron lady of Manipur" who started fasting in Nov 2000 demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur, was released from judicial custody this month on the eve of International Women's Day, only to be rearrested two days later on charges of "attempted suicide", something that has become a yearly ritual.
"I am determined to continue my fast. I am convinced that people are with me and with their support our dream will come true," Sharmila said in an interview after emerging from J N Hospital, where she is force-fed through a tube in her nose. "I come back to the arms of the mothers of Manipur." Sharmila began her crusade against the AFSPA, which gives sweeping powers to the security forces in insurgency-hit areas, such as Jammu and Kashmir with immunity from prosecution, after 10 civilians were killed by the army in Imphal on Nov 2 2000. The following day she went to the spot where the bloodbath had occurred and started her fast. AFSPA, which was introduced in 1958, comes into force if the government declares a particular area as "disturbed". The act allows anyone, of any rank in the army, paramilitary force or police, to shoot, arrest or search without warrant; and to kill on suspicion alone.
Even though her fast has not changed the status of the act in the state, she considers it a duty to continue with it. Every year Sharmila is released for a day or two before the courts convict her on charges of "attempted suicide", as taking one's own life or attempting to is unlawful in India and carries imprisonment of up to one year. Sharmila holds that her fast is the best means of protest and insists she is not a "suicide monger".
"This game has been going on for the last eight years now," said Goutam Navlakha, member of the People's Union for Democratic Rights in New Delhi. "The Indian government force feeds her to ensure she survives without conceding her just demands." For eight years, Sharmila has not consumed anything through her mouth and is force-fed a cocktail of vitamins, minerals, laxatives, protein supplements and lentil soup through the nose with a catheter.
"She considers the rubber pipe as unusual but with time it has become natural to her. She practises Yoga for many hours," said Babloo Loitongbam, a close friend of Sharmila and member of Human Rights Alert in Imphal. Sharmila hails from a lower middle class family and could not afford to carry on studying after high school. Her mother, Irom Sakhi Devi, is illiterate and does not visit Sharmila, fearing she might break her daughter's resolve. Only a handful of people are permitted to see Sharmila in hospital.
Manipur, which lies close to the Myanmar border, has a history of conflict and violence dating back to before British colonial times and was caught up in fighting during the Second World War. It became a part of India in 1949 in a move that was not popular with many living there, who complained of a lack of development, the plundering of local resources and a general uneasiness with being part of India. An armed insurgency started in the 1960s, which was stepped up after 1978 after a surge in violence.
In 1980, the entire state of Manipur was declared a "disturbed area" and the AFSPA was employed to deal the insurgency. In 2004, however, after massive protests, the act was lifted from some areas in the state. But about 30 armed and political groups continue to fight against Indian rule. Aside from the separatist movement, the people of Manipur are involved in several ethnic conflicts. With a total population of 2.3 million, the Meiti ethnic group forms the majority, and according to analysts strives to dominate other ethnic groups in Manipur, such as the Kukis and the Nagas.
"The Indian government is under this impression that crushing the militancy is the only solution. They have never recognised the political issue of Manipur, they are in complete denial," said Mr Navlakha, adding that India needs to find a political solution. "The issue cannot be resolved militarily, there are other ways to resolve it," he said. While the government maintains that the presence of security forces is necessary to keep militants in check, civil society groups accuse the army of gross human rights violations under the cover of AFSPA, which add to the instability. In 2004, dozens of elderly women protested naked outside the Indian army headquarters in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, after a 24-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a soldier.
"Killing innocents or raping women has nothing to do with national security. The government has never given any justification for the continuation of AFSPA," said Mr Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert. "The army doesn't want to operate if they are not protected by the act. The killers of 10 innocent men in Malom and Manorama were never brought to book. This law is for lawlessness." All of which means that Sharmila will probably be fasting for some time. "The government is in denial and believes everything is perfect," Mr Navlakha said.