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India@75

2000: Irom Sharmila begins fast for repeal of AFSPA

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

2000: Irom Sharmila begins fast for repeal of AFSPA

Irom Sharmila ends her hunger strike after 16 years on August 10, 2016.

Irom Sharmila ends her hunger strike after 16 years on August 10, 2016. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

From a normal, life-loving, gentle young woman, she became the “Iron Lady of Manipur”.

On November 5, 2000, a frail young woman from Manipur quietly sat on a hunger strike at Malom, near the site where three days earlier 10 civilians were shot dead while waiting at a bus stand by Indian paramilitary forces. Irom Chanu Sharmila had resolved to fast until the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, (AFSPA), was repealed by the Central government.

In that dignified, peaceful protest that lasted 16 years — considered the world’s longest hunger strike – a most unlikely icon of 21st century India was born. Not only did Irom Sharmila become a symbol of non-violent resistance against the brute force of the establishment and armed forces, she also assumed the stature of an incorruptible, uncompromising martyr for the people of not just Manipur, but all the States where AFSPA was imposed. From a normal, life-loving, gentle young woman, Irom Sharmila became the “Iron Lady of Manipur”; she was also “Mengoubi”, or the “Fair One”.

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Under the AFSPA, the armed forces were given sweeping powers to maintain law and order in regions where it was applied. They could “fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death”, after giving due warning, against any “person who is acting in contravention of any law or order in the disturbed” area; to arrest without warrant any person who has “committed a cognizable offence or against whom a reasonable suspicion exists that he has committed or is about to commit a cognizable offence”; to enter and search without warrant etc.

Women protesting the killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi at Kangla Fort, Imphal, and demanding removal of AFSPA from Manipur.THE HINDU archives
Women protesting the killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi at Kangla Fort, Imphal, and demanding removal of AFSPA from Manipur.THE HINDU archives | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Four years after Sharmila began her fast, another powerful and one of the most disturbing images of protest seen by Indians jolted the nation: a group of middle-aged women stood naked in front of the gates of Kangla Fort in Imphal, holding up banners saying “Indian Army, rape us” and “Rape us the way you did Manorama”. Four days earlier, on July 11, 2004, a young woman named Thangjam Manorama, 32, had been dragged out of her house by 17th Assam Rifles personnel, tortured, raped and killed. She had been picked up on suspicion of being a militant.

The incident led to widespread protests across Manipur, and the demand for the repeal of AFSPA grew louder by the day. Assam Rifles claimed that Manorama was a member of the militant outfit People’s Liberation Army and was killed while trying to escape. But the judicial inquiry report, which was made public a decade later in 2014, stated that she had been subjected to “brutal and merciless torture”.

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The protests that followed the killing of Manorama, particularly the one staged by the women in front of Kangla Fort, resulted in widespread acknowledgement of the need “to review the continuance of the AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas” (Justice JS Verma Committee report, 2013). 

At the time of Sharmila’s hunger strike, AFSPA gave armed forces operating in “disturbed” areas legal immunity. In 2016, the year she ended her protest, a Supreme Court judgment put an end to that immunity. On March 31, 2022, the AFSPA was withdrawn from parts of Manipur (15 police station areas in six districts), Nagaland and Assam. It is still applicable in various parts of Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and the whole of Jammu and Kashmir.