Thursday, August 18, 2011

How long can you fast? The remarkable story of Irom Sharmila Chanu

With Anna Hazare giving a new lease of life to Gandhigiri, fasting as a means of peaceful protest is back in vogue. But how long can one fast? What happens if one continues to fast but the demands are not met by the powers that be? Read the remarkable story of Irom Sharmila Chanu of Manipur, who has been on a hunger strike since 3rd November 2000 and has not taken any solid food or water since then. It’s been more than 10 years now.

Manipur has been fighting insurgency since the 1970s. The state was granted autonomy when the British left India in 1947, but it merged with India two years later. But many believe that the treaty was forced upon their king. This, and the continued neglect of the North Eastern states by the politicians in Delhi has bred resentment among its population towards New Delhi’s rule, leading to insurgency and separatist movements.

On 2nd November, 2000, ten civilians were allegedly shot and killed by the Assam Rifles, one of the Indian Paramilitary forces operating in the state, while waiting at a bus stop in the town of Malom. The incident later came to be known as the "Malom Massacre". The draconian power granted to the armed forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, was blamed for the attack. The Act provides powers to the Armed forces to detain any civilian on mere suspicion of being a rebel, or to search, arrest or use force against civilians. 

The next day, Sharmila, then 28 years old, started her indefinite fast demanding repeal of the AFSPA. She has been fasting since then and has not taken any solid food or water for more than ten years.

Sharmila has been adamant that she will continue with her hunger strike until the AFSPA has been repealed. Under Indian Law, she has been charged with “attempt to commit suicide’ which is unlawful under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code and carries a maximum punishment of ‘simple imprisonment’ of 1 year. She has been arrested several times in the past one decade, held for a year, released and then arrested again. Under arrest, she has been kept alive by a process called nasogastric intubation”, i.e. force feeding her a mixture of liquefied carbohydrates and proteins through a nasal tube, three times a day.

It’s been more than ten years now. Her struggle continues, unfortunately largely ignored by the mainstream media. It is said she spends her time reading and writing poetry.

You can read more details about her struggle here or here or here

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