Taking the nation - and particularly Manipur by surprise, Irom Sharmila Chanu on Tuesday announced that she will end her 16-year long hunger strike and instead run for the Manipur Assembly. This announcement stunned pressure groups, human rights activists in the state, and even her own family alike.
Although this news comes as a surprise, the hints that lead up to this had been dropped rather frequently in the past years that showed through Sharmila’s discontentment. She talked repeatedly to media of wanting to “lead a normal life.’’of wanting to “lead a normal life’’, and also of her frustration with even her own people for having elevated her to a god-like figure, a symbol of their struggle and movement, bypassing her own desires and needs. She wished to be treated like a normal ordinary person with normal ordinary desires. She also registered her disappointment with the political leaders of the state and the country, none of whom would visit her in the special ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, where she has been kept as an under trial prisoner and which has been her home for these 16 years.
Sharmila has been facing charges under section 309 of the IPC, attempt to commit suicide. when Sharmila was released briefly in 2014, after an Imphal sessions court said that the charges against her were invalid, she held a press conference where she made a heart rendering appeal to the government and the people to repeal AFSPA, to help her “have food again.’’
Sharmila had undertaken the long and arduous strike in protest to the draconian provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. But even after sixteen years of constant tenacity, the AFSPA remains intact and in force in the state — despite Sharmila’s own struggles, and despite opinions such as that of the former Home Secretary of the country GK Pillai who had recommended that the law be repealed in Manipur.
Given how the cause she struggled for remains unaddressed, her own people having grown accustomed to her personal commitment, and matters remaining stagnant for all this while, and also her immense popularity in the state of Manipur, this apparently sudden change in tactics is not an absolute surprise but an obvious turn of events.
In 2014 two parties asked her to stand in the national election, but she declined. She was then denied the right to vote as a person confined in jail cannot vote according to law. On August 19, 2014, a court ordered her release from custody, subject to there being no other grounds for detention. She was re-arrested on 22 August 2014 on similar charges to those for which she was acquitted and remanded in judicial custody for 15 days. Amnesty International has declared her a prisoner of conscience. On International Women’s Day, 2014, the civil rights activist was voted the top woman icon of India by MSN Poll. The icon of public resistance announced that she would end her fast on August 9, 2016, and contest in Manipur Assembly elections expected to be in February next year.
She announced to end her fast on August 9 because she wanted to “test the waters and the reaction of the people.’’ Her support base is now split in two: those who believe that her move may just derail and jeopardise the Manipur people’s struggle to repeal AFSPA from the state, and those who have decided to lend her full support, whether inside or outside the jail premises.
Although this move is nothing short of a gamble, it is definitely worth the try as the arduous efforts of that past sixteen years have not yielded any substantial result beyond her popularity and recognition. Her recognitions include the 2007 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, which is given to “an outstanding person or group, active in the promotion and advocacy of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights”. She shared the award with Lenin Raghuvanshi of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, a northeastern Indian human rights organisation. In 2009, she was awarded the first Mayillama Award of the Mayilamma Foundation “for achievement of her nonviolent struggle in Manipur”.
In 2010, she won a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission. Later that year, she won the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, which came with a cash award of 5,100,000 rupees, and the Sarva Gunah Sampannah “Award for Peace and Harmony” from the Signature Training Centre.