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Manipur fasting woman re-arrested

Irom Sharmila (Photo: David Mayum)
Sharmila's fasting has made her body weak

Police in India's north-eastern state of Manipur have re-arrested a woman who has been on a protest fast for more than eight years.

Irom Sharmila was released on Saturday from the security ward of a hospital in the state's capital, Imphal.

But after she announced her plans to continue the fast, police took her back into protective custody on Monday.

Irom Sharmila is demanding the repeal of a law which gives sweeping powers to troops on counter-insurgency duty.

For the past eight years, police have force-fed her to keep her alive.

'Draconian'

Manipur, with a population of some 2.3 million, has seen military operations against a host of militant separatist groups since 1980 and human rights organisations often describe the army's powers as "draconian".

The government maintains that the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers' Act (AFSPA), which gives sweeping powers to the security forces in the state, is necessary to restore normalcy.

But, civil society groups allege gross human rights violations by the army.

Ms Sharmila's hunger strike started after one such alleged atrocity.

A protest in Manipur against AFSPA (file photo)
There have been a number of protests against the law

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," Mr Singh says.

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

Later, she was transferred to judicial custody and taken to the Nehru hospital where she remained till her release on 7 March.

Officials say she will be taken back to the same hospital now.

All these years, Sharmila has been force-fed a liquid diet through her nose.

Following her re-arrest, Sharmila said would continue her fast until the act is withdrawn.

"I will only withdraw the fast when the government withdraws the Armed Forces Special Powers' Act unconditionally. Not before that," she told journalists

She is not the only person protesting against the act.

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.

But although a committee of experts, led by a former Supreme Court judge, recommended that the AFSPA be scrapped, the federal government has given no indication that it will do so.

"There's tremendous pressure from the army and paramilitary forces not to scrap the AFSPA. The government cannot overlook that pressure. But that alienates the government from the Manipuris all the more," says Manipur's leading civil society activist Binalaxmi Nephram.

The years of hunger strike have taken their toll on Sharmila's 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.

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