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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2006, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
Manipur woman's marathon fast
By Suvojit Bagchi
BBC News, Manipur

Sharmila
Sharmila says her battle is symbolic
Guarded by armed policemen, a frail young woman lies on a bed in Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal, capital of the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur.

On hunger strike since 2000, Irom Sharmila Chanu is being force-fed through a pipe in her nose on the orders of the state administration.

The 35-year-old is an iconic figure in Manipur's politics. She completes six years of fasting in November, in what is perhaps the longest such political protest ever recorded.

Sharmila is demanding the repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA, which gives sweeping powers to the army in the state.

Manipur, with a population of some 2.3 million, has been administered by the Indian army since 1980 and human rights organisations often describe the army's powers as "draconian".

Atrocity

While the government maintains that the law is necessary to restore normalcy in a state racked by a militant secessionist movement, civil society groups allege gross human rights violations by the army.

My fast is on behalf of the people of Manipur. This is not a personal battle
Irom Sharmila Chanu

In fact, Sharmila's hunger strike started after one such alleged atrocity.

Her brother, Irom Singhajit Singh says she began her fast after soldiers of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force allegedly killed 10 young Manipuri men in Malom.

"The killings took place on 2 November, 2000. 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," says Mr Singh.

Three days later, police arrested Sharmila on charges of trying to take her life.

Later she was transferred to judicial custody and taken to hospital where she remains to this day, force-fed a liquid diet through her nose.

From her hospital bed, Sharmila says she will not budge under pressure.

Women protest in Manipur against the law
There have been a number of protests against the law

"I will withdraw the fast as and when the government withdraws the Armed Forces Special Powers Act unconditionally."

Hers is not a lone voice.

In 2004, Manipur erupted after the brutal rape and murder of a young woman activist, Manorama Devi, allegedly by soldiers of the Assam Rifles.

After days of violent protests, the government withdrew the law from certain areas of Manipur.

'Symbolic battle'

But Sharmila says she will relent only after the law is withdrawn from the entire state.

Manipur police chief AK Parashar
She is doing her job - we are doing our duty
Police chief AK Parashar

"My fast is on behalf of the people of Manipur. This is not a personal battle - this is symbolic. It is a symbol of truth, love and peace," she says.

As one would expect, the years of hunger strike have taken their toll on her health.

Doctors say her fasting is now having a direct impact on her body's normal functioning - her bones have become brittle and she has developed other medical problems too.

The government cannot afford a high-profile martyr for the Manipuri nationalist movement. So they cannot let Sharmila die.

To keep her alive, she is fed a cocktail of vitamins, minerals, laxatives, protein supplements and lentil soup through the nose with a rubber pipe.

The state director general of police, AK Parashar, says: "A young citizen of the country cannot be allowed to die. We have an obligation to see that she doesn't die an unnatural death.

"We are doing our best to keep the young lady alive. She is doing her job - we are doing our duty."

The editor of a local daily newspaper, Irengabam Arun, feels the administration has its own reasons to keep Sharmila alive.

"On the one hand, human rights activists across the world know about her and on the other hand, if she dies, the armed forces act will be back on the centre stage. The government cannot afford that," he says.

In Manipur, women have always been at the forefront of political and social movements. And many say Sharmila is part of that legacy.

But some analysts say her protest may be losing its sting. And that she may be fighting a losing battle.

Sharmila being forced fed
Sharmila's health is failing fast

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is operational in the north-eastern states of India and Jammu and Kashmir, has been in force in Manipur for 26 years now.

A committee formed by the government has suggested the act be scrapped, but its report has been rejected.

"The AFSPA is to stay. It is difficult for the armed forces to function without it", says India's Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

So Sharmila continues her unequal battle against the Indian state - sacrificing, according to her brother, "what could have been the best years of her young life".


SEE ALSO
Arrest threat for Manipur troops
25 Aug 04 |  South Asia
Fresh protests erupt in Manipur
19 Aug 04 |  South Asia
Crackdown on Manipur protesters
19 Aug 04 |  South Asia
Bid to axe Manipur 'terror' law
12 Aug 04 |  South Asia
Midnight knock and a killing too far
12 Aug 04 |  South Asia
Q&A: India's violent north-east
21 Nov 03 |  South Asia

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