Alone woman’s nearly 12-yearlong fast in the periphery of the country has now caught the nation’s attention, thanks partly to the success of a similar 12-day-long agitation in Delhi by Anna Hazare. If the Gandhian from Ralegan Siddhi could get Parliament and the government to bend by fasting for less than a fortnight, Irom Sharmila Chanu – on a hunger strike since November 5, 2000 – could also achieve her demand for revocation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), her supporters reason in faraway Manipur.
“Anna articulated a very popular demand for effective steps to fight corruption. Sharmila is also voicing a demand that is very popular in the North East. But Anna succeeded because he was able to build a mass movement and catch the attention of the nation and the national media. Sharmila’s hunger strike is not well-known beyond the North East and the national media, too, has largely ignored it,” says Rojesh, a prominent member of the ‘Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign’ (SSSC), in New Delhi.
Sharmila’s supporters, primarily human rights activists from Manipur, have over the past couple of months launched an intensive campaign among civil society groups in New Delhi to drum up support for her. And their efforts may just have started meeting with some success.
Activists Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy, Dr Binayak Sen, writer Arundhati Roy and a host of intellectuals, litterateurs, artistes and activists have joined SSSC. Prominent organizations like the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), the Justice Foundation, Gandhi Global Family, Asha Parivar, Jagriti Mahila Samity, Yuva Koshish, Asian Centre of Social Studies and Justice Foundation, to name a few, have hitched on to the SSSC bandwagon that has started rolling from Srinagar to Manipur’s capital Imphal.
Sharmila’s supporters delivered a tortuous round of lectures and made presentations before these groups and at colleges and universities in major cities to educate people about the “draconian” provisions of the 1958 Act and its alleged misuse by security forces. “We spoke to people about the overarching powers it (the Act) gives to security forces, detailed the cases of human rights violations, disappearances of people taken away by security forces, fake encounters and summary executions, arbitrary arrests, molestation and rape of women by men in uniform and their immunity from prosecution. Everyone backed our demand for repeal of the Act,” said Prasanta Aheibam of ‘Save Democracy Repeal AFSPA’.
What followed was a string of small rallies and demonstrations in New Delhi. Many more are in the offing, including a nationwide fast on November 5. “There was a candle-light march at Delhi University campus on September 25, a cycle rally on September 28, a march from Rajghat to Jantar Mantar on October 2 and a ‘national convention on grievance redressal’ in New Delhi on October 10 that was attended by Aruna Roy and other prominent people which adopted two resolutions: one demanding repeal of AFSPA and the other that Sharmila be allowed to meet anyone she wants to,” said Aheibam.
The highlight of these efforts is the ongoing rally, christened ‘Jan Karwan’ , that was flagged off from Srinagar on October 16 and is making its way through 16 cities in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam and Nagaland, covering 4,500km to reach Manipur on October 26. A massive rally is planned at Imphal on that day. “This movement will only gather momentum. We’ll take it to the western and southern parts of the country also soon. The November 5 hunger strike will be held in all major cities of India and also some cities abroad,” said Rojesh. Sharmila’s supporters realize the road ahead will be long and difficult. “Those who haven’t lived in a state where the AFSPA is in force would find it difficult to appreciate the sufferings of those who do. But we’re striving to educate people about it. It’ll take time, but victory shall be ours,” said Rojesh.
Sharmila launched her hunger strike after Assam Rifles jawans opened fire on a group of civilians at Malom village, close to Imphal’s Tulihal airport on November 2, 2000. Ten died and many were hurt. Sharmila, who used to pen poems and articles on social issues in local newspapers, went on a hunger strike from November 5. She was arrested and charged under Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide). Since then she has been in custody and is kept alive by forcible nasal feeding twice a day.