The Unsung Hero – Irom Sharmila

As of October 09, 2011


Assuming a huge majority of you wondering who she is – let me first introduce Irom Sharmila Chanu. She is called the “Iron Lady of Manipur” and has been on a fast since 11 years now.

Fast since 11 years!!! Man, why is she doing this?

Her fast began on November 4, 2000 in protest of the AFSPA Act, enacted in Nagaland in 1958 and then extended to all the seven North Eastern states in 1972.

Oh, AFSPA? What’s that?

AFSPA is the act that came into existence in 1958 to curb the Naga insurgent movement for independence from free India. The act granted the Indian Military, special powers to detain any citizen without a warrant or even shoot to death on mere suspicion and enjoy full immunity for their actions.

The Act was later amended and was made applicable to all the seven states of North Eastern region –Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.

Oh ok. But then why she wants the act to be revoked? It’s for the security of the people, yeah?

The act hasn’t served the purpose it was supposed to. By handing over exorbitant powers to the military, it has only increased the killings of civilians in the state instead of terrorists/insurgents. The official figures on killings state that more than 25,000 killings took place since the act came into existence in 1980. Manipur’s Director General of Police, Mr Joy Kumar Singh, in an interview in 2009, stated that his officers had killed more than 260 people in 11 months. In addition, while there were four insurgent groups in the region in 1980, they have grown to 25, according to government’s own watch-list. So, how has the act helped in curbing the insurgency? In fact, it has given birth to new insurgent groups out of the near and dear ones of killed civilians.

O man, that’s bad…. But who is Irom Sharmila Chanu? Is she a political leader or a relative of someone who got killed?

No, she is neither any political leader nor a relative of someone who got killed by the armed forces. She is a civil rights and political activist from Manipur. She was up against AFSPA from two weeks before her fast began. On November 2, 2000, Assam Rifles personnel killed 10 civilians while they were waiting at the bus stop. It is said to be a revenge act of bombing by an insurgent group on the army column, a day earlier. Irom went on an indefinite fast from November 4, 2000 and has been on it since then. She was arrested immediately by the police and was prosecuted under section 309 (attempt to suicide) which has a maximum punishment of one year. Since then, she gets arrested every year under the same charge. She hasn’t taken a drop of water or any food by herself since last 11 years. She has been kept alive forcefully through nasogastric tubation.

That’s tragic. So much happened but never heard of her. May be coz it is happening in North East?

Exactly!!! Her protest came into limelight only in 2004 when a group of mothers and other women stripped themselves naked in front of Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal in protest of brutal rape and murder of young woman activist Thangjam Manorama Devi by Assam Rifles personnel. Since then, she has garnered support from everywhere except Indian government. Some of the elite organizations and key people who have recognized her protest and have urged the Indian government to revoke the act include Amnesty International, The United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination, Turkish Human Rights Group, UK Green Party leader and European Parliament member Keith Taylor, Sir Graham Watson KB MEP (chair of the India/EU delegation of MEPs), HM Queen Elizabeth II, The Duchess of Cornwall, The President of Eire, Tony Blair and most recently the Scottish First Minister, the Mayor of London and BJP politician Varun Gandhi.

In 2005, she was nominated for Noble Peace Price by North East Network, a Guwahati-based women’s organization. In 2007, she received Gwangju Prize for Human Rights – given for “an outstanding person or group, active in the promotion and advocacy of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights”. In 2010, she was awarded he first Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize by IIPM-New Delhi. She was also awarded with Adivasi Ratna award, most recently. In addition to these, she has been honored by many other awards recognizing her battle against the atrocities of Indian army.

However, none of these voices have been heard. The government has always cited security reasons to keep the act alive in these states. When the Jeevan Reddy Commission, which was set up in 2004, recommended to revoke the act, the then defense minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee, maintained that it was not possible to repeal the act since military cannot function without these powers in these states.

The media attention has always been into the “mainland”India. Had the protest been in Delhi, it would have certainly gained more than necessary attention. Very recently, the spotlight figure of anti-corruption movement, Anna Hazare also extended his support to Irom’s movement, but not before asking her support to his own movement. While he promised her to come to Imphal and support her in her protest, the Team Anna has been, since then, busy in “government-bashing” movements in the heartland of India as toppling the government is a higher priority for them than saving lives of innocent civilians.

The strongest support, so far, Irom has been able to gather is the Nationwide Signature Campaign initiated by Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign on the eve of birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The campaign began at Jantar Mantar and will culminate on International Human Rights Day on December 10, 2011. As a part of the campaign, a group of Irom supporters will travel between October 16 and 26, through 10 states.

However, this is certainly not enough to open the eyes of the government. It needs a nation-wide support and active involvement of influential social activists like Anna Hazare and Megha Patkar. More the media attention, better it would be for the movement.



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