Imphal (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Hundreds of people from across India and around the world yesterday joined peaceful demonstrations in support of Irom Chanu Sharmila, 42, who began her 15th year of hunger strike against martial law in Manipur.
Throughout the northeastern state, human rights activists, students and representatives of civil society groups fasted and took part in sit-in protests and demonstration to express their solidarity with the activist's fight.
Dubbed the "Iron Lady of Manipur", Irom Sharmila has been fasting since 5 November 2000, after ten civilians were killed by the paramilitary Assam Rifles as they waited for the bus at Malom on 2 November.
As a child, she would fast every Thursday. After the incident, she went on a hunger strike as a form of peaceful and non-violent protest, demanding the repeal of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which has been in force in Manipur since 1958.
The Act grants the armed forces special powers in so-called "disturbed areas". In fact, the law makes it possible to question and arrest anyone suspected of being a "terrorist" or a criminal. It also gives the military full legal immunity, whatever their action. As a result, many have criticised the law for leading to human rights violations wherever it is in force.
Three days after she went on a hunger strike, Manipur Police arrested her for attempted suicide, which is illegal under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code.
The latter provides for "simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year", but Irom Sharmila has spent most of the past 14 years behind bars, subject to nasogastric intubation to force-feed her.
A court offered her to plead guilty to close the case, but the activist remains adamant, explaining that hers is not a suicide attempt, but an act of non-violent resistance, like that of Mahatma Gandhi.
The 'Iron Lady' won the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights in 2007 along with Lenin Raghuvanshi, Dalit activist and director of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), who yesterday attended the demonstrations in favour of Irom.
Protesters also called for AFSPA's repeal in other northeastern states as well as Jammu and Kashmir.
For Binayak Sen, from the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the Act destroys the very essence of democracy and obstructs the progress of justice. Indeed, more than two generations of Manipuris have grown up without knowing the meaning of freedom.