Hungry For Justice

One woman's hunger strike, in protest of India's Armed Forces Special Powers Act, proves that the spirit of Gandhi lives on.

Irom Chanu Sharmila may be a world record-holder, but nobody is celebrating her milestone. She recently began her tenth year of a hunger strike -- more than 3,000 days. She can share credit for this unhappy achievement with the Indian government, whose abuses Sharmila was protesting when she was detained, and which keeps her alive against her will.

Sharmila began her hunger strike in November 2000, after security forces killed 10 people by indiscriminately firing into a crowd in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, on the border with Burma, which has witnessed an armed separatist battle for almost five decades. She has survived because government doctors force-feed her through a pipe stuffed into her nose.


The authorities in Manipur keep her in judicial custody to prevent her from committing suicide. Frail after all these years of fasting, she isn't able to talk much anymore. But when I visited her some time back, she whispered her belief that in the land of Mohandas Gandhi, a peaceful hunger strike would draw attention to military crimes.

Sharmila has a single demand: repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Enacted as an emergency law over 50 years ago, the legislation gives India's armed forces unchecked powers to search, arrest and use lethal force. The military claims that it is deployed to contain internal armed conflict situations only when it becomes too violent for the police to handle, and thus they need special powers to operate. In effect, however, the law has been widely abused, resulting in deaths due to indiscriminate firing and numerous cases of arbitrary detention. Unfortunately, soldiers responsible for these acts get away with it because the law also provides immunity from prosecution for acts committed in the so-called course of duty.

The act was designed to be an emergency measure but, after decades of being in force, has instead resulted in a much more violent society. Since the army is not held accountable, the police, government officials and even militants believe they have the same privilege and commit crimes without fear of punishment.

Sharmila is not the only one who has tried to shame the government into action. In one of the most shocking form of popular protest India has ever seen, in 2004 a group of elderly women stripped naked in front of the paramilitary Assam Rifles headquarters in Manipur, protesting the rape and murder of a Manipuri woman by some soldiers. One of the protesters later explained to me: "We shed our clothes and stood before the army. We said, ‘We mothers have come. Drink our blood. Eat our flesh. Maybe this way you can spare our daughters.'"

Photos of women driven to such a desperate act shocked the country and forced the government's hand. It set up a review committee, which soon recommended repeal of the Special Powers Act because it had become "a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high handedness."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to punish those responsible, review the law, and "work together with the people of Manipur to write a new chapter" in the state's history. But in the face of resistance from the army, the government has failed to implement the recommendations of its own hand-picked committee.

As for Sharmila, with a painful tube constantly hanging over her face, she seeks solace from holy texts. And sometimes she writes letters to Indian leaders. In one note, she asked the ruling Congress Party's president, Sonia Gandhi, to intervene. Sharmila received no response. It is doubtful that India's politicians read her letters.

Though the Indian government ignored Sharmila's protest for years, the pressure is growing for a review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently joined the chorus recommending that India repeal such laws that "breach contemporary international human rights standards." The Indian parliament will soon debate the government's proposed amendments to the law. Yet the Singh government has not made its proposals public, nor published a draft law for public scrutiny and debate.

This is a critical moment for India. Its economy may be booming, but there is a darker side of violence and brutality in Indian society that the government must urgently address if it is to resolve the many regional conflicts that hold the country back becoming a genuinely modern international power.

As Sharmila begins the tenth year of her hunger strike, scores of individuals and human rights groups have been protesting in solidarity. Pressure from abroad has also helped to prompt the upcoming parliamentary review. Now is the time for bold action by the government. It shouldn't tinker around the edges with amendments, but repeal the law in full. For that to occur, however, the government may need a little more encouragement.

STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images


China: Russia’s Land of Opportunity

Where Russia Meets China: The final part of a 5-part series in cooperation with Slate.

SUIFENHE, China -- In 1989, the opening of the border between Russia and China raised Russian fears of a "yellow peril": millions of Chinese citizens flooding north into relatively unpopulated, but richly endowed, Siberia. Some contrarian publications even went so far as to suggest that Russia should just accept the inevitable and sell the whole territory to China.

Demographically, it makes sense that Chinese people would flock to Russia. Look at it in economic terms, though: China's economy is booming, and its prospects seem limitless. Meanwhile, Russia is highly dependent on uncertain oil and natural gas reserves. Professionals already make more money in China than they do in Russia, and as China's economy grows, blue-collar wages will likely outpace Russian pay. So, rather than Chinese people moving to Russia, isn't it more likely that Russians would move to China?

I asked this question of many Russians in the Far East, and I usually got the same answer: It's already happening. Thus far, the Russian migration to China seems to be only a trickle. But it's not hard to imagine that this is just the start.

The energy in Suifenhe, a relative backwater, is so much greater than in Vladivostok-a city three times the size-that taking the four-hour bus trip across the border is like switching from black-and-white to color. The road from Vladivostok becomes progressively worse the closer you get to the border, and the land is almost empty of people. As soon as you cross the border into China, there is a massive shopping mall with red cupolas, an apparent nod to Russian architecture, and an international-standard Holiday Inn.

The mall is part of what was supposed to be a joint Chinese-Russian free-trade zone, where people would be able to come to shop and tour visa-free. But all Russia has built on its side of the border is a church, which Chinese tourists photograph through the chain-link fence.

The day I arrived was one of the biggest celebrations in recent Chinese history: the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Still, at the many construction projects around the city's center, workers were on the job until after dark. I thought back to Vladivostok, where a huge suspension bridge is under construction. It is supposed to be ready by 2012, when the city plays host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Ostensibly, this is a priority project overseen from Moscow, but when I mentioned to my translator that I hadn't seen anyone working on it, she smiled. "Yes," she said. "We notice that all the time."

Suifenhe's economy is driven by Russian shoppers on package tours, and the shops in the city center all have signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. One sporting goods store was called CSKA, after Moscow's legendary soccer team. I flipped through the T-shirts on sale at another boutique and saw shirts advertising the 2014 Sochi Olympics and United Russia, Vladimir Putin's political party.

But in addition to the many Russian tourists, there is a growing population of Russian expatriates living in Suifenhe. One, a journalist named Stanislav Bystritski, is a former reporter for a Vladivostok TV station. He moved here five years ago and produces two Russian-language shows on local Suifenhe TV, one oriented toward Russian tourists and one for Chinese people who want to learn about Russia and the Russian language.

As he showed me around town, an elderly Chinese man greeted us with a smile and said "Horosho," which means good in Russian. It seemed a strange thing to say, but Bystritski told me it was a common greeting by Chinese people here, because it sounds like it could be a Chinese word and is easy for Mandarin speakers to pronounce.

He echoed what I had heard in Blagoveshchensk and Vladivostok-Russians come to China because it is easier to get a good job and easier to do business. "So many Russian businessmen say it's easier to work here, there is so much less corruption and bureaucracy," he said.

Suifenhe's government once had plans to build a Russian quarter, reportedly with the expectation that up to 50,000 Russians might relocate here, though those plans appear to have been abandoned. Bystritski said that the rules on apartment ownership by foreigners have been loosened, so the government may have decided that there is no longer a need for a special Russian district. (We couldn't find out for sure. Bystritski set up a meeting with a member of Suifenhe's local government to talk about that and other issues involving Russian migrants. The official apparently assumed I would be Russian, and when Bystritski introduced me as an American, the official's eyes widened somewhat cartoonishly. He probably wasn't the best person, he said, and in the end I couldn't get anyone from the local government to talk to me.)

Still, I was able to meet several Russians who had moved here. Petr is building a small complex of apartment buildings for Russians. The Suifenhe government is so enthusiastic about the project that it is bulldozing the homes of the Chinese people who currently live in the area.

Viktor, a Russian engineer who moved here at the beginning of 2008, is working on a pollution-control technology that has excited more interest in China than it did in Russia. "The Chinese are more interested in innovative projects, so there are more opportunities here," he said. His wife, Natasha, works as a technician with Suifenhe's pioneering (and, to a civil libertarian, rather ominous) "electronic security" system, in which surveillance cameras all over town are controlled from a spotless control room in a glass-fronted building called the Suifenhe Cyberport. She says she wants her 4-year-old son to be raised "in Chinese traditions," and she is making sure he learns Chinese.

"People are so friendly here, I feel so comfortable," she said. "This is my new home."

Photo by Joshua Kucera