Indian activist ends 16 year hunger strike to run for political office

Irom Sharmila outsite a Delhi Court earlier this year. After fasting for 16 years during which she was force-fed through a nasogastric tube by an order of the court, Sharmila ended her fast August 9, 2016. (Photo Credit: Bismillah Geelani)

India’s human rights activist Irom Sharmila ended her 16 year hunger strike this week.  Force-fed through a tube by court order,  by some accounts Sharmila weighed about 77 pounds.  As Bismillah Geelani reports, the 44-year-old activist known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur”  was protesting a law that gave India’s security forces sweeping powers .

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During the past 16 years Irom Sharmila had pledged to not take any solid food as long as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – known here as AFSPA – remained in effect. Indian authorities force-fed her through a nasal tube to keep her alive.

All that came to an end Tuesday when, surrounded by supporters, police officers and journalists Sharmila broke her fast with a finger-full of honey.

The AFSPA remains on the books, however. So Sharmila says she’s still committed to resisting against what she considers a draconian law, though not through the symbolism of a hunger strike. Rather, she announced her intention to run as a candidate for Chief Minister in her home state of Manipur, where deadly clashes between guerilla fighters and security forces continue.

“I need power to remove the black laws. I need power and I want to be the CM of Manipur to make a positive change in certain time,” said Sharmila. “I know nothing about politics and about academia, my education is very, very low. but I want to convince our people that my power will shower upon people.”

The AFSPA law was passed in Manipur when Sharmila was not even born. It gives sweeping powers to Indian security forces and critics say it’s led to human rights abuses as the law, as written, allows troops to use deadly forces to protect public order, as well as conduct warrantless searches and detention, and even shoot suspects on the smallest pretense.

Shamila’s image as a solitary voice against India’s security apparatus has made her a controversial figure. But if nothing else it has brought added scrutiny on India’s security apparatus and she’s become a symbol of resistance throughout India.

Still, many of her supporters have reacted with disappointment that she’s abandoning protest to enter politics. At least one radical group has even sent threats, accusing her British fiancé of spying for the Indian government.

As elections in Manipur are not until next year, it will be some time before it’s clear whether her gambit to run for office will pay off. The AFSPA law is still on the books and a violent crackdown is underway in India-administered Kashmir, so it’s premature for her to claim victory.

Still, whether Manipur’s “Iron Lady” will continue to be an effective voice of conscience in the country, now that she’s made her political ambition plain, remains to be seen.

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