Over the years, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, has been enforced in parts of Assam, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. It has been in force in Manipur since 1980. This is shocking, the state’s insurgency record notwithstanding. The law gives wide-ranging powers and near-complete immunity to the security forces: "No prosecution...or other legal proceedings, except with the previous sanction of the central government" can be brought against them, "in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of powers conferred by this Act".
Sharmila wants to change that. Her moment of resolve came on November 2, 2000, when 10 innocent people, including women and children, were shot dead from point blank range by the Assam Rifles. "She vowed to challenge the killings and went on a fast-unto-death," says Nonibala, an Imphal-based activist of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN). This forced a magisterial enquiry, but the army got a stay on it. Three days later, Sharmila was arrested on charges of attempted suicide. Since then, she has been arrested three times.
Confined to a bed at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital under judicial custody, this 32-year-old writer-activist is fed forcibly through her nose. She is weak and some of her vital organs are giving up but she refuses to eat. "I love peace, but we must have justice first," she says.
Governments have been status quoist on the Act. Says R.K. Bobichand, executive director of Human Rights Alert: "We have approached the state government, but apart from a committee, there has been no action." Activists allege that for the home ministry the issue is zero priority. "The human rights situation has deteriorated and Sharmila refuses to give up till the Act is withdrawn," says Bobichand.
But who is Irom Sharmila? She is the youngest of nine children—without any political affiliations or mentors. Brother Irom Singhajit remembers: "We were poor, but all of us went to school. Sharmila was always a writer, deeply touched by suffering. Since she is willing to make the supreme sacrifice for the people of Manipur, we must support her."
Signs of grit were evident to members of a people’s commission which visited Manipur to study the human rights situation in mid-2000. Says lawyer Preeti Verma: "We remember this young girl following us on her cycle wherever we went listening to victims of torture." She was awarded the Best Volunteer of the Year 2000 by the UN. Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience. Human Rights Alert has got the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission to launch a signature campaign for Sharmila and her cause.
The government, in response, has restricted her visitors. A Gujarat group managed to smuggle in a camera. In the film, Sharmila looks weak but determined. She still writes poetry about freedom, love and peace—and says she expects nothing from the government.
Singhajit met her last July. "I have not been able to go back as I had promised to go with the news of withdrawal of the Act," he regrets. Her mother is braver. "She has not met her daughter all this while. She feels meeting her might weaken Sharmila’s resolve," says Singhajit. Meanwhile, the force-feeding continues.