Indian human rights activist fasting for 14 years to go on trial

Irom Sharmila, world’s longest hunger striker, charged with attempted suicide

Irom Chanu Sharmila says fasting is her way of attracting the federal government’s attention to human rights violations by the army and paramilitary deployed across Manipur. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Irom Chanu Sharmila says fasting is her way of attracting the federal government’s attention to human rights violations by the army and paramilitary deployed across Manipur. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 01:00

A 42-year-old Indian female activist

is to go on trial next month in northeastern Manipur state for attempted suicide. The world’s longest hunger striker, she has not eaten voluntarily for almost 14 years.

Earlier this month, the chief judicial magistrate in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, ruled that “prima facie evidence” of attempted suicide had emerged against Irom Sharmila, who has been fasting since November 2nd, 2000, in a bid to repeal a law that she maintains violates human rights.

Her trial begins on July 7th.

Attempted suicide is a criminal offence in India punishable with imprisonment of up to one year or a fine or both.

Ms Sharmila’s defence team argue that she has never attempted suicide.

They claim that her act of refusing to eat voluntarily is one of legitimate protest to which people frequently resort, including Mahatma Gandhi during his campaign for India’s independence from British colonial rule.

“I am not committing suicide and I want to say that I am not guilty,” said a tearful Ms Sharmila, who has been forcefed through a nasal drip in a government hospital ward in Imphal since late 2000 under the supervision of Manipur’s prison authorities.

“This is my way of protest. I love life but at the same time I want the government to stop the extrajudicial killings in my state,” said the poet-activist known as the “Iron Lady”.

She said fasting was her way of attracting the federal government’s attention to human rights violations by the army and paramilitary deployed across Manipur.

However, fasting for a cause in India has become relatively inconsequential, with the authorities resorting to forcibly feeding the protesters almost interminably.

Ms Sharmila had her last voluntary meal on November 1st, 2000, at the age of 28. A day later, she witnessed the gunning down of 10 people by troops from the paramilitary Assam Rifles, who are shielded by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa) from prosecution for all such acts.

The victims, including a 62-year-old woman and a teenager, were waiting at a bus stop in Imphal and were reportedly shot dead in retaliation for an attack on the paramilitary unit by the “underground”. In Manipur this is a euphemism for a multitude of armed rebel groups fighting for varying degrees of autonomy and independence since the 1970s.

This has necessitated the deployment of the security forces in Manipur for several decades, protected by the Afspa.

This Act empowers paramilitary and army personnel not only in Manipur but other militancy-afflicted regions, such as the northern disputed Kashmir province, to shoot dead suspected rebels on mere suspicion without being charged.

The armed forces can also arrest alleged militants without a warrant and hold them for extended periods.

Senior officers argue that the security forces cannot operate in terrorist-ridden areas without the immunity ensured by Afspa.

Human rights activists and lawyers challenge this claim, accusing the military of extrajudicial killings or retaliatory shootings.

“Manipur is in turmoil and I want justice. Why does the government ignore basic human rights? There is no way I will give up my fast,” said Ms Sharmila recently from her hospital ward, where no outsiders are permitted access.

Ms Sharmila’s saga has a Kafkaesque twist to it, prompted by the vagaries of the Indian penal code, adopted under colonial rule in 1862, and routinely enacted each year in November.

Since attempted suicide is punishable by imprisonment of up to a year, each year, a day before 12 months of Ms Sharmila’s incarceration are completed, she is formally released but re-arrested immediately on the charge of attempted suicide.

But with the Iron Lady’s case coming up for trial in three weeks, this 14-year-old ritual could be headed for some kind of closure.