12 years of Irom Sharmila's fast

Imphal: It has been 12 years now since Irom Sharmila has had a drop of water. Known as the 'Iron Lady of Manipur', she has been on a fast unto death since 2000, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA, which gives the armed forces extraordinary powers and legal immunity. For these last 12 years, she has been in detention, kept alive by the government through artificial feeding.

Ms Sharmila's protest was spurred by the Malom massacre on November 2, 2000, in which 10 innocent people were shot dead by the personnel of Assam Rifles. They were waiting at the bus shed in Malom on the outskirts of Imphal.

Two days after the incident, Ms Sharmila sat on a hunger strike. Since then she has been detained by the government as a political prisoner, accused of attempted suicide and kept in a jail ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, force fed to keep alive. She was brought to the hospital at the age of 27. Now 12 years have passed in solitary confinement.

Once a year she is released only to be rearrested. Under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), a year is the maximum punishment provided by the law, but the government has been re-arresting her each year on the charges of her demand to 'wipe out the Armed Forces Special Powers Act' from the state of Manipur and staging 'protest at the road side' by 'fasting unto death'.

The government, unmoved, has so far refused to either repeal or amend AFSPA. The Army insists that the Act must not be diluted.

"The ideal things would be if civil police and central police forces could build up the capability so that the Army could go back to its primary role," says Jayanta Choudhury, Director General of Police, Assam.

Since the massacre of civilians in Malom in 2000, nobody has been arrested, and the families of the victims are still awaiting justice. The armed forces act has apparently allowed the guilty to get away.

More and more encounter deaths are being reported from Jammu and Kashmir and North East India where AFSPA is applicable. For example, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has opened 79 fresh cases of encounter or custodial deaths in Assam. The Commission discovered quite by chance that Assam had not reported over 60 killings in the last ten months.

"We are at crossroads and maybe we should look at our doctrine and see whether we should change it. But as of now that has been successful for police and security forces and has helped bring down the militancy level, but as you say it is time to have a fresh look," DGP Choudhary said.

There will be several candle light demonstrations by civil rights activists and members of social organisations throughout Manipur on the 12th anniversary of her fast to express their solidarity with Ms Sharmila.