It has been twelve years since Irom Sharmila last ate food. On 2 November 2000 she began what has become the world’s longest hunger strike, in protest at the apparent impunity with which the Indian armed forces, in her home state of Manipur and elsewhere in India, are killing civilians. Though prompted to her action after hearing the gunshots of the Malom Massacre, in which ten died she has come to symbolise the campaign to bring an end to all such deaths, and the repeal of the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act that has provided them with legal cover.
Known as the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ and ‘Mangoubi’, or ‘fair one’, Sharmila has been under effective arrest during all this time. The Indian Penal Code criminalises attempted suicide, punishing this with one-year’s imprisonment. Every year, she is released only to be immediately rearrested, and for twelve years has been kept as a prisoner in the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Kept alive by force feeding, she nevertheless remains steadfast in her resolve that her suffering should draw attention to the officially sanctioned deaths inflicted on anyone the armed forces in a locality consider to be threatening public order.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, there has been a movement seeking to establish a common homeland and self-governance throughout the Naga Hills region of north-eastern India – the area between Bangladesh and Burma, and consisting of the states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. Geographically distinct to the rest of the India, to which the region is joined by a slim corridor of land of barely 15 miles width, the Naga people actively campaigned to establish their own nation throughout the struggle for Indian independence from Britain. Mahatma Gandhi publicly supported them in this, believing that a free India should not be based upon coercion.
In 1947, the British signed a treaty (the Hydari Agreement) with the Naga National Council (NNC), granting the region protected status for ten years post-Indian indpendence, after which the Naga people would decide whether or not to join the Indian Union. However, no sooner had the British left, then the Indian Government asserted its dominion over the Naga Territory. The NNC responded by declaring independence, and an armed struggle ensued.
This was the context for the passing of the Armed Services (Special Powers) Act in 1958, as a measure to give an effective carte blanche to the Indian army in their fight against the Naga insurgents. Initially applied only to Manipur and Assam, in 1972 it was extended to cover all seven north-eastern states, and in 1990 was used as the basis for legalising similar emergency powers in Jammu and Kashmir in north-western India. The Act establishes that in area declared to be ‘disturbed’ (a label that the Act avoids defining the necessary circumstances for), an officer of the armed forces may use force, even if resulting in death, against anybody considered to be acting against law and order. Arrests can be made of suspects without recourse to a warrant, and the armed forces may enter and search at will anywhere they deem necessary in the pursuit of this. Officers involved in any actions covered by the Act are granted legal immunity, and as a result there has been a continual struggle to have such killings properly investigated.
Over the years, the Act has been used as to legitimise a considerable number of killings by the armed forces, in which the victims have not been active insurgents, but civilians. On 14 March 1984, a volleyball match was taking place in Heirangoithong in Imphal. When some insurgents attempted to take the weapons from members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) on duty, these opened fire. In the initial fight, five people were killed, and the insurgents fled. However, the CRPF continued to shoot into the crowd, joined by others from the neighbouring CRPF camp. During the next half hour, thirteen people were killed and thirty-one injured. Although an enquiry later found that the killings were unjustified, compensation of just 10,000 rupees (£115) was paid to the families of those who died, and just 4,000 rupees (£45) to those wounded.
In 1987, a three months’ reign of terror was inflicted by the Assam Rifles on thirty villages following a raid by insurgents on an army post at Oinam. ‘Operation Blue Bird’ resulted in the shooting dead of fourteen civilians, while many others died of starvation and torture in the concentration camps that the army set up. Widespread disgust at the actions, and media attention, came when soldiers forced a woman to give birth in full public view, while they stood around and jeered.
On 25 March 1993, in Tera Keithel (Imphal), a young man shot at the CRPF post, killing two officers. In response, the police charged out of their base and began to fire indiscrinately into the busy market place, killing five and wounding many more. There has still been no enquiry into the incident. Two years later, CRPF members carried out a retaliation attack, in which they assaulted the Regional Medical College in Imphal. Nine civilians died, including two medical staff and five rickshaw pullers. It took fifteen years for a conviction to be made against the four policemen responsible.
It was in the context of these, and numerous other similar incidents, that on 2 November 2000, the Assam Rifles over-reacted when one of its convoys was attacked by insurgents near Malom (Manipur). In retaliation, they opened fire on a bus stop near the airport, killing ten people, including a sixty-year old woman and a boy who had previously been given an award for bravery by the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The troops followed this up with a brutal search of the neighbourhood, and it was in response to the killings that Irom Sharmila began her marathon hunger strike.
It took ten years for an inquiry to be opened into the massacre. But Sharmila’s campaign has drawn international attention to the abuses that continue to take place under cover of a piece of legislation that should have no place in a democratic country. In 2009, Navanethem Pillay, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, requested the Indian Goverment that they repeal this “dated and colonial-era law that breaches contemporary international human rights standards”. Despite repeated assurances by the Indian Government that they will look seriously into this, the Act remains in force in 2012. Earlier this year, the United Nations again asked India to revoke it, and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions reported that “during my visit to Kashmir, [the Act] was described to me as ‘hated’ and ‘draconian’. It clearly violates international law.”
Meanwhile, Irom Sharmila shows no signs of giving up her silent protest. In 2007, she was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, alongside Lenin Raghuvanshi, of the north-eastern Indian human rights organisation People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights; and in 2009, at the inauguration of the Festival of Hope, Justice and Peace in Imphal, Supreme Court Commissioner Harsh Mander paid her tribute: “Sharmila’s struggle is unique in the world because it’s purely nonviolent in nature and she has sacrificed her life to fight for the people.”