Imphal: Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike in Manipur for 14 years in protest against army atrocities, walked free today with tears in her eyes and without the feeding tube that an entire generation has seen her with.
"The fresh air is refreshing," the 42-year-old activist said in her first words after being released from a prison hospital in Imphal where doctors force-fed her to keep her alive.
Irom Chanu Sharmila began her fast in November 2000, days after 10 people, including two children, were shot dead in Imphal, allegedly by personnel of the Assam Rifles.
Three days later, she was charged with attempt to suicide and arrested. She was 27 then.
She was released after a court found no evidence that she was trying to commit suicide by refusing food.
She says she will continue her fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA that gives the army sweeping emergency powers in the northeastern state. Her release means she will not be force-fed by tubes through her nose - as she has been throughout her custody - unless she is arrested again.
"I am crying because I am emotional," she told reporters, adding, "I want mass support from the people for our cause. What I want from my people is not singing my glory but support for my struggle."
From the hospital, Irom Sharmila went straight to a tent put up half a kilometre away in Imphal's Porompot area, and sat on protest.
Her brother, Singhajit, said, "The real battle, to get rid of the AFSPA, remains and if Sharmila wants to continue her fast, I support her."
She has vowed to continue her battle against the AFSPA, described by critics as draconian. The law allows soldiers legal immunity when they are operating in "disturbed areas" or states dealing with separatists or insurgents. Soldiers are allowed to make arrests without warrants or raid any location.
Activists allege the law has been misused and has led to gross human rights violations.