There are Women You Should Know all over the world and luckily we have friends in every corner of the globe who can tell us about these dynamic women. This remarkable story about civil rights activist Irom Sharmila comes to us from India, via our friend, Gautam K.

The Iron Lady of Manipur

by Gautam K

Irom Chanu Sharmila, born March 14, 1972, is a political and civil rights activist, poet, and journalist from Manipur, India. She has been on a hunger strike since November 2, 2000, to protest against the misuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 (AFSPA) by the paramilitary forces.

The Indian Parliament passed the AFSPA in 1958 in the states, which they considered as “disturbed areas”. Her decision to fast came after 10 civilians were allegedly shot dead by the paramilitary forces (Assam Rifles) at a bus stop in Malom, a small town in Manipur, on November 2, 2000. Among the ones tragically killed was Sinam Chandramani, a national child bravery award winner in 1988.

Irom Sharmila decided to go on a hunger strike on the same day as the killings, demanding that the Indian government repeal the law to prevent any such killings. This law still continues to be allegedly misused for extrajudicial executions, torture, and forced disappearances in around 7 North Eastern states in the country. On the third day of Irom Sharmila’s strike, she was arrested and charged with attempting to commit suicide. Since then, she has been force fed through nasogastric intubation and has been constantly arrested and released.

Jantar Mantar

Unfortunately, at that time, Irom Sharmila’s crusade against this draconian law didn’t gather much publicity from the media outside the state, mainly because it is from the North Eastern part of the country. The government of India has always been accused of step-motherly treatment towards the states and suppressing the media from reporting any atrocities that take place in that state. Much as they tried, the police and the government couldn’t break Irom Sharmila’s spirit.  Every time she was released, she would go on a hunger strike and get rearrested. Eventually, Irom Sharmila’s efforts began to get recognized by the media in other parts of the country in 2004 and she became an icon of public resistance. On October 6, 2006, after a procedural release, she gathered human rights activists along with other concerned citizens in Delhi at Jantar Mantar. She was promptly arrested by the authorities for attempted suicide and admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. She wrote to the Prime Minister, Home Minister, and President requesting them to at least modify the AFSPA, if not repeal it. However, there wasn’t much response from the government.

Irom Sharmila got the attention of Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2003, who promised to take up the issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The North East Network, a woman’s organization based in Guwahati, recognized Irom’s work and nominated her for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. She was awarded the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights from South Korea in 2007 and the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize in 2010 by the New Delhi-based IIPM.

In the last few years, a lot of Indian politicians and members of the European parliament have written to the Indian government demanding a modification of the AFSPA. Irom has also received political support from the Janata Dal Party, which has agreed to aggressively campaign against the law. Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Law Minister V. Moilly have supported a more humane act in the state, there hasn’t been much progress in enacting one.

Today, Irom Sharmila is the world’s longest hunger striker, not having consumed food or water for over 11 years. She continues to fight and has vowed to continue her strike until the law is at least modified.

The author of this story, Gautam K, is a creative and content writer developing training materials for English language organizations and educational institutions in India. He is also an amateur music composer.

For further references and information on Irom Sharmila and AFSPA