It's 10 years since Irom Sharmila began her fast, demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in Manipur. Ten years during which she has been force-fed nutrients through a tube. But nobody's listening…

For 10 long years, a young woman in the Manipur valley has resolutely refused to eat a morsel of food or drink a drop of water. She is still alive only because the police and doctors force-feed her through a plastic tube. The greater part of the past decade she has spent alone, confined to a high security hospital ward. In a rare interview, she admitted that what she missed most desperately was simply being with people. She has not met her mother once these 10 years: her pact with her unlettered mother is that they will see each other only after she achieves her political goal. Her body organs have begun to degenerate irreversibly; her menstrual periods have halted. The tube through which she is forcefully fed is continuously painful.

But Irom Sharmila is stubborn and resolute that she will not eat or drink until the Government of India withdraws the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, from the state of Manipur. The police arrest her every year and charge her with the crime of attempting suicide, for which the maximum penalty is imprisonment for one year. Each year when she completes her solitary incarceration, she is released and immediately re-arrested. Her act of political resistance through non-violent self-suffering is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

Draconian law

Irom Sharmila is demanding the withdrawal of a statute which she believes has enabled men in uniform to rape, abduct and kill civilians with impunity. The law was enacted in 1958 with the official objective of enabling Indian security forces to more effectively quell armed rebellion in Nagaland. The law permits security personnel to fire at and even kill civilians, and arrest, enter and search any premises without warrant. It was extended to Manipur in 1980. The impunity which the law extends to men in khaki and olive green has indeed resulted in a long and shameful trail of extra-judicial killings (which continue even today), forced disappearances, rape, torture and extortion.

On November 1, 2000, the paramilitary Assam Rifles gunned down 10 innocent civilians awaiting a bus in the town Malom in the Manipur valley. These included a teenage boy and an old woman. The gruesome pictures of their bodies riddled with bullets filled the next day's newspapers. Among those who saw these was Sharmila, then a 28-year-old rights activist, journalist and poet. The Assam Rifles claimed that its soldiers were defending themselves from a bomb attack on their convoy, and the civilians were killed in cross-fire. The incensed people in the valley were unconvinced, and demanded an independent magisterial enquiry. This was not allowed because the Assam Rifles was protected by their right to open fire under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Sharmila then made a quiet resolve that she must fight to free her people from the oppression of this law. She would use her own body as her only weapon. There was no other way for her. She took the blessings of her mother and quietly began her fast on November 4, 2000. Ten years later, the law persists, and Sharmila continues to abjure food and water.

Only on one occasion, during one of her transient interludes of release between her recurring terms of incarceration, she escaped to Delhi. Her first destination was the Samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi, who she describes as her ‘idol', who taught her the power of ‘non-violence with love'. She was re-arrested shortly after, confined to a hospital ward in Delhi for a few weeks, and then returned to her high security hospital ward in Imphal, where she has lived ever since.

The premise of Gandhi's Satyagraha is to resist oppression by causing suffering not to one's oppressor, but to oneself. Gandhi believed, as did his posthumous disciple Irom Sharmila, that this act of non-violence with love would awaken the conscience of the oppressor, and ultimately spur a change of heart. In these 10 years, there is little evidence that this indomitable young woman's extraordinary, even superhuman, self-imposed suffering has touched any hearts in India's political establishment. The Government of India appointed in 2004 a Commission headed by former Supreme Court Judge Jeevan Reddy to enquire whether the law needed to be amended or repealed in order to conform to the government's obligations to human rights. The Commission in 2005 recommended repeal of the law (even as it suggested that many of its provisions be incorporated in other laws). But the Government of India has chosen to not act in accordance even with the Commission's conservative counsel.

Since Sharmila launched on her epic fast, many women in this deeply troubled emerald valley have invented other unique forms of non-violent resistance. One that most scarred the conscience of the nation was in 2004, after political activist Thangiam Manorama was raped and killed by security forces. Soldiers of the Assam Rifles allegedly broke down the door of her home, blind-folded her, tied her down and gang-raped her for many hours. They left her brutally ravaged body on the roadside, her genitals disfigured with knife wounds, her body full of bullets, with their customary impunity.

Stirring the conscience

There was unprecedented anguish across the valley, and women quietly mobilised in every locality to gather at the gate of Kangla Fort, the seat of the Assam Rifles. Until the last moment, they kept secret their mode of protest. Suddenly the women gathered at the gate of the Fort stripped off all their clothes, shouting ‘Rape us, kill us, take our flesh'. Tunuri, a grandmother who participated in the protest, recalls that until that moment, soldiers holding back the protesting women, threatened them with their batons and guns. But after the women stripped, the soldiers ran into the fort, bewildered and shamed. The women stood naked, challenging their enemies for a full half hour. The pictures of these naked women in every newspaper and television channel the next day brought home the torment and humiliation of the women of Manipur to people outside the valley as no other protest could. The government ordered the vacation of the Assam Rifles from the historic Kangla Fort in Imphal town and relocated them to the peripheries of the valley, away from civilian populations, and ordered a judicial enquiry. But an unrepentant Assam Rifles issued a statement that Manorama was a militant of the People's Liberation Army, as if that justified her brutal rape and slaughter.

Since 2008, every day, some seven to 10 women fast from sunrise to sundown in solidarity with Irom Sharmila. I met the silver-haired matrons who run this protest in a tent in Imphal city. They rarely return home to their children and grandchildren, and sleep at the tent. They feel they have a larger purpose in organising this unbroken chain of solidarity with their heroine Sharmila, and her struggle for peace and justice in their homeland.

To mark 10 years of her fast and incarceration, activists and artists from all over India gathered in Imphal. We were witness to achingly beautiful displays of poetry, song, dance and painting in tribute to the absent icon. In the best traditions of non-violent resistance, the protest was described as a Festival — of Justice, Peace and Hope.

Sharmila has chosen to persist with her unmatched voluntary suffering until the government and people of India listen, or her life ebbs. From her lonely hospital ward, she writes:

Free my feet from the shackles

Like bangles made of thorn

Confined inside a narrow room

My fault lies in being incarcerated

Like a bird...

May that day dawn soon when Sharmila can at last taste food again, and quench her thirst with water which pours down her throat. When she walks free in a Manipur in which is restored peace founded on justice and the dignity of democratic freedoms. May that day dawn soon.

Licence to kill?

From Section 4 of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958:

Special powers of the armed forces – any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces may, in a disturbed area – (a) If he is of opinion that it is necessary to do so for the maintenance of public order, after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapons or of firearms, ammunition or explosive substances. (b) If he is of opinion that it is necessary so to do, destroy any arms dump, prepared or fortified positions or shelter from which armed attacks are made or are likely to be made or are attempted to be made, or any structure used as training camp for armed volunteers or utilised as a hideout by armed gangs or absconders wanted for any offence. (c) Arrest, without warrant any person who has committed a cognisable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognisable offence and may use such force as may be necessary to effect the arrest. (d) Enter and search without warrant any premises to make any such arrest as aforesaid or to recover any person believed to be wrongfully restrained or confined or any property reasonably suspected to be stolen property or any arms, ammunition or explosive substances believed to be unlawfully kept in such premises, and may for that purpose use such force as may be necessary.