ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Saving Sharmila

The response to Irom Sharmila's fast should be negotiation, not force-feeding.

It is not attempted suicide, ruled the district court in Imphal, Manipur, on 20 August 2014. The decision came 14 long years after 42-year-old Irom Sharmila went on an indefinite fast to demand the withdrawal of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958 from her home state of Manipur. For resorting to a form of protest that is used not just in India but also in many other parts of the world, Sharmila was arrested, charged under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for attempting to commit suicide, and force-fed through a nasal tube. Yet, the court’s logical conclusion that there was no evidence that Sharmila was trying to kill herself has made no difference. Within days of her release, Sharmila was rearrested, as she has been every year since she began her fast. And once again, despite the court’s ruling, the Manipur government appears determined to raise the same charge on her that has just been dismissed. At the moment, there appears no happy ending in sight. Sharmila says she will not give up her fast until her principal demand is met. And the state government as well as the army find the demand unacceptable. And so the deadlock continues while a frail but incredibly brave woman remains determined and defiant.

There are several aspects of this ongoing saga of Irom Sharmila that need to be revisited. The first, of course, is Sharmila’s demand about the withdrawal of AFSPA. The law has been in force in Manipur since 1958 when it was enacted. It is operative in the entire state, barring seven assembly constituencies around Imphal, from where it was withdrawn in 2012. The Malom massacre, in which 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop were shot dead in November 2000 compelling Sharmila to undertake her protest fast, is clearly not the only incident that has enraged people in the state and drawn attention to the impunity AFSPA offers the armed forces. Currently the Supreme Court is hearing a petition filed by Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM) that has recorded 1,590 cases of disappearances and encounter killings since the 1980s. Filed in 2012, the petition asked the Court for a special investigation team (SIT) to look into these cases.

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