She is known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur” or “Mengoubi” (“the fair one”), a civil rights activist, political activist, and poet from Manipur of India. On 2 November 2000, she began a hunger strike which is still ongoing. Having refused food and water for more than 500 weeks, she has been called “the world’s longest hunger striker”. She is currently on trial for attempted suicide. Why is she doing so?
On 2 November 2000, in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley of Manipur, ten civilians were shot and killed while waiting at a bus stop. The incident, known as the “Malom Massacre”, was allegedly committed by the Assam Rifles, one of the Indian Paramilitary forces operating in the state. The victims included Leisangbam Ibetombi, a 62-year old woman, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner.
Sharmila, who was 28 at the time, began to fast in protest of the killings, taking neither food nor water. As her brother Irom Singhajit Singh recalled, “It was a Thursday. Sharmila used to fast on Thursdays since she was a child. That day she was fasting too. She has just continued with her fast”
Three days after she began her strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with an “attempt to commit suicide”, which is unlawful under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and was later transferred to judicial custody. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and nasogastric intubation was forced on her in order to keep her alive while under arrest.
Irom Sharmila has been regularly released and re-arrested every year since her hunger strike began under IPC section 309. The law declares that a person who “attempts to commit suicide … shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year [or with fine, or with both].”
Her primary demand to the Indian government is the complete repeal of the AFSPA which has been blamed for violence in Manipur and other parts of northeast India.
By 2004, Sharmila had become an “icon of public resistance.” Following her procedural release on 2 October 2006 Irom Sharmila Chanu went to Raj Ghat, New Delhi, which she said was “to pay floral tribute to my idol, Mahatma Gandhi.” Later that evening, Sharmila headed for Jantar Mantar for a protest demonstration where she was joined by students, human rights activists and other concerned citizens.
On 6 October, she was re-arrested by the Delhi police for attempting suicide and was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where she wrote letters to the Prime Minister, the President, and the Home Minister. At this time, she met and won the support of Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Laureate and human rights activist, who promised to take up Sharmila’s cause at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In 2011, she invited anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare to visit Manipur, and Hazare sent two representatives to meet with her.
In October 2011, the Manipur Pradesh All India Trinamool Congress announced their support for Sharmila and called on party chief Mamata Banerjee to help repeal the AFSPA. The Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI ML) also stated its support for her and for repeal of AFSPA, calling for nationwide agitation. In November, at the end of the eleventh year of her fast, Sharmila again called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to repeal the law. On 3 November, 100 women formed a human chain in Ambari to show support for Sharmila, while other civil society groups staged a 24-hour fast in a show of solidarity.
In December 2011, Pune University announced a scholarship program for 39 female Manipuri students to take degree courses in honour of Irom Sharmila Chanu’s 39 years of age.
On 2 October 2013 Amnesty India issued a press release recognising Irom Sharmila as a “‘Prisoner of Conscience’, who is being held solely for a peaceful expression of her beliefs.”
Irom Sharmila continues to face the charge of attempted suicide. She is being held in enforced isolation which the National Human Rights Commission of India has recommended for the Manipur government to immediately stop. A summons has been issued for Sharmila Chanu to appear for trial on 19 December 2013.
Since the maximum sentence for attempted suicide is one year and she has been held for more than six years she has been told the case will be settled if she pleads guilty. However, she maintains she has not attempted suicide, but is protesting in the “most non-violent way, like Mahatma Gandhi.”
Sharmila was awarded 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 organization.
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.
Ojas S V, a theater artist from Pune, performed a mono-play titled Le Mashale (“Take the Torch”), based on Irom Sharmila’s life and struggle. It is an adaptation of Meira Paibi (Women bearing torches), a drama written by Malayalam playwright Civic Chandran. The play was performed at several venues in several Indian states.