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."