Indian human rights campaigner Irom Sharmila has announced she will end her 16-year long hunger strike to focus on contesting upcoming elections in the country’s remote, underdeveloped northeast.
Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur for her unwavering and nonviolent protest against rights abuses in the region, said she would break her fast today (9).
She has been kept in judicial custody almost since she began fasting in 2000 to back her demand for the withdrawal of special powers wielded by security forces in the insurgency-wracked region.
The campaigner has been confined to a hospital ward in Manipur’s main city Imphal on criminal charges of attempted suicide and is force fed via a plastic nasal drip several times a day.
“I have decided to end my 16-year fast on August 9 and contest the 2017 state elections as an independent candidate,” the 44-year-old said outside a magistrate’s court in Imphal yesterday.
“My fight so far has been all alone and so I have decided to wage a war against the act democratically by becoming a lawmaker instead of continuing with my fast,” she said.
Sharmila stopped eating and drinking after allegedly witnessing the army kill ten people at a bus stop near her home in Manipur, which is subject to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
The act, which covers large parts of the northeast and the restive state of Kashmir, gives Indian forces sweeping powers to search, enter property and shoot on sight, and is seen by critics as a cover for human rights abuses.
The government says security forces need the powers to help them battle multiple rebel groups whose long-standing demands range from secession to greater autonomy and land rights.
Sharmila has often been released from custody after appearing in court flanked by police only to be re-arrested almost immediately on fresh charges of trying to kill herself.
The maximum punishment for attempting suicide is one year in prison.
Sharmila’s brother, Singhajit, said her family backed her new fight.
“Whatever she does we will support her as a family. Even our mother is hoping for the day when the Act is abolished and Sharmila wins the cause she has been fighting for,” Singhajit, who uses one name, said.