Irom Chanu Sharmila‘s decision on July 26, to call off her 16-year-old fast against atrocities and human rights violations by the Armed Forces on the people of Manipur, especially women, and getting away with it under AFSPA, speaks volumes about the Indian State’s complete disregard for her and the Manipuri people’s long-drawn struggle. The only attention the State paid to her demand to revoke AFSPA was to keep her alive by force-feeding her through a nasal tube. Sharmila’s decision also speaks of the utter helplessness of the ‘Iron Lady’ at not being heard out in her own country for 16 long years.

Irom Sharmila, like any individual, is not clear what to do now. She has toyed with various ideas like going into electoral politics. Unfortunately, there is no organization that grew up with her or which stood by her long hunger strike. So, it is not clear how the struggle will go forward. But she did succeed in highlighting the issue of Manipur’ plight through her struggle.

While Sharmila’s sudden decision to end her fast has understandably shaken the anti-AFSPA movement, reports of some of her family members and associates being upset with her decision and even ‘isolating’ her are nothing short of injustice to a woman who is as human as they are. She has sacrificed her youth for a cause and has pledged to continue her struggle till her last breath and has every right take a personal call. Martyrs do help a movement, but it is unfair to treat Sharmila’s decision to change course as abandonment of the cause.

In fact, her decision throws up an opportunity for the long struggle against AFSPA to widen, intensify and expand, rather than look for sacrificial lambs. Sharmila no doubt became an icon of the non-violent protest against AFSPA, not just in Manipur but in some other North Eastern States and J&K, but the mothers, grandmothers and women of Manipur have a history of brave struggles, and have made it clear that their fight will continue.

Belonging to the majority Meitei community, the resolve of Sharmila, who was just 28 when she began her fast in 2000, is just one story among the many in struggles in Manipur, especially of women, against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, which was imposed in this North-eastern State in 1980, ostensibly to check insurgency.
Who can forget the visual image of a group of middle-aged Manipur women in Imphal, shaming the Army by stripping in front of the barracks in 2004 and carrying a banner that read: “Indian Army: Rape Us”. This group included mothers and grandmothers, enraged by the killing of activist Thangjam Manorama, 31, who was arrested by Assam Rifles. Her body was later found, riddled with bullets with clear signs of sexual assault and torture.
The widespread protests that followed in Manipur were spearheaded by 32 organisations under the banner of Apunba Lub, backed by various political parties, who demanded lifting of the draconian AFSPA. The Act, among other things, empowers even a non-commissioned officer to shoot and kill a suspect in a ‘disturbed area’. In this process, women’s bodies have become a raging battleground for the Armed Forces, with many families reporting widespread sexual abuse, abductions and rapes.

So much so, even the Supreme Court last month asked the Manipur government whether the law and order situation had improved after 35 years of AFSPA and how long would the Army be deployed and enjoy “unaccountable power” under the Act.
The SC has appointed a high-level committee to look into allegations made by some families that the Armed Forces had carried out over 1,500 extra-judicial killings in the last 30 years and police had refused to file FIRs.

Last year, the Manipur Tribal Forum refused to bury nine tribals killed by security forces and sat in protest at Delhi for 28 days with coffins. These nine people had been killed during protests in Manipur against the passage of three Bills that threaten to dilute traditional land rights of the hill people.

Time and again, women of Manipur have risen in revolt. In 1904, they protested against foreign rulers to protect the market run entirely by women. In 1939, over 10,000 women collected in Imphal demanding that rice export be stopped. But, while Manipur has a history of Nupi Lal or Womens’ War against injustices, they continue to face discrimination in their daily life, as street vendors, in brick kilns, at construction sites or sand mining sites and in agricultural fields. It is time, therefore, to widen struggle.