The world’s longest hunger strike goes on, unchecked by appetite for anything but justice.
It was 11 years ago, in November 2000, that Irom Sharmila, now known as India’s “Iron Lady,” stopped eating. She started her hunger strike to protest the killing of 10 civilians allegedly by Indian soldiers in her home state of Manipur, a remote part of the country that borders Burma or Myanmar. Sharmila’s bigger target is the 1958 law (the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA) that gives the Indian military special powers in the so-called “disturbed areas” where there are fears of separatist violence.
Just last month the government announced the law would be lifted in some parts of the country, a move that is opposed by many military officers.
For her part, Sharmila, now 39, says she will not eat or drink until it is repealed in Manipur.
Her brother says her health is in danger. “Her immune system has virtually collapsed,” he told the Calcutta-based Telegraph.
But that has not stopped her from getting engaged to be married to Desmond Coutinho, a writer and activist who has blogged of their romance: “I am like Yoko Ono. Or Gandhiji’s wife. I will enable her to do her thing, which is give witness to the oppressed.”
Some Manipuri activists led a boycott of The Telegraph for reporting this, saying it had written about her affair and not her cause. They now question their heroine’s resolve.
Other hunger strikers have received more Indian and global attention, notably Anna Hazare, who in April went on a 12-day hunger strike to pressure India’s government to enact stronger anti-corruption legislation. Nationwide protests in support of his strike led to passage of the bill.
But now, thanks in part to Hazare, Sharmila’s cause has become “celebre.” There were demonstrations across India in honor of the 11th anniversary of her hunger strike, following up a nationwide march in her support.
Sharmila holds her record in part because the Indian government forcibly keeps her alive. She’s under house arrest for violating a provision against suicide and she’s fed, forcibly, via a nose tube.
In a special feature in the Indian magazine Outlook Sharmila said, “I am called an iron lady. But I am human too. I want to lead a normal life. And do all that an ordinary woman wants to do. Like get married. I will do it when my demand is met.”