NEW DELHI — In a country where hunger strike was a key form of protest during the freedom movement against British rule, can an activist’s fast be construed as a suicide attempt?
The answer came Tuesday in a significant lower-court ruling in India. Judges ruled that the 13-year-long fast by Irom Sharmila, a human rights activist in India’s northeastern state of Manipur, is not an attempted suicide and that she must be released from confinement.
Supporters call Sharmila the “Iron Lady of Manipur” for her epic hunger strike in protest of the immunity enjoyed by Indian troops in cases involving abuse and other excesses in conflict zones.
The government has force-fed her through her nose all these years.
Sharmila is fighting a controversial federal law that not only gives troops sweeping powers to shoot and arrest in conflict areas, but also grants them virtual immunity from prosecution by making the process tedious and non-transparent. Thousands of cases of rape and killing by soldiers in troubled border regions of India have been documented by human rights activists.
When she vowed not to eat food until the immunity laws are repealed, authorities arrested her and charged her with attempting to commit suicide, a criminal offense under Indian law that carries a prison term of up to a year.
Since then, Sharmila has been under a strict police watch and confined to a hospital, where she has been force-fed a diet of liquids through a nasal tube. But the 42-year-old has not resisted this treatment.
“If I really wanted to die, there is an electric bulb available. I would have used that. I have plenty of clothes, I would have hanged myself,” Sharmila told CNN-IBN news television channel in an earlier interview. “It is not a matter of death.”
Fasting as a tool of protest against injustice has a long been a tradition in modern India. Mahatma Gandhi, the revered leader of the Indian freedom movement, often fasted to put pressure on the British colonial rulers. Sharmila has often said that Gandhi was her inspiration.
In recent decades, environmentalists, anti-corruption protesters and anti-nuclear activists have often used this method to draw attention to their causes. But it is quite common for authorities to disrupt these hunger strikes by arresting activists and rushing them to the hospital for saline drips.
But force-feeding through the nose is unique.
Sharmila has been regularly released from confinement, only to be rearrested soon after because of her continuing fast.
India’s National Human Rights Commission has called her a ‘prisoner of conscience.’
On Tuesday, the court said her condition "negates the very feeble presumption of intention of fasting unto death since the petitioner is not refusing nose feeding.”
But her battle is not over.
Calling the ruling a “welcome but long overdue judgement,” Shailesh Rai, program director at Amnesty International India, said authorities must pay attention to the issues she is raising.
Despite her first legal victory, Sharmila continues to face enormous dangers because she has taken on powerful people in the establishment.
“Ensuring Sharmila’s security, especially now after her release, is the state’s responsibility,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, director of Human Rights Watch in India.