NEW DELHI — An Indian human rights activist says she will finally end her epic 16-year-old hunger strike next month.
Irom Sharmila, 43, has not eaten for years as a protest against the immunity enjoyed by the Indian military in cases of abuse in the country’s conflict zones. The government has said her protest amounts to suicide and has force-fed her through a nasal tube.
Sharmila told a court on Tuesday that she wishes to break her fast on Aug. 9.
“I will break my fast as the government has failed to give any positive response,” Sharmila told the news agency ANI, outside the court in India’s northeastern state of Manipur, where she appears twice a month. “I will fight elections to resolve the issues.”
The state of Manipur is scheduled to hold elections next year. Sharmila said she will contest as an independent candidate.
Popularly known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur,” Sharmila has staged a powerful protest against the dreaded immunity law called the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
India gives its troops sweeping powers to shoot and arrest in insurgency-hit areas in states like Manipur and Kashmir, protecting them from prosecution with this controversial immunity law.
Human Rights Watch has called on India to repeal the law, saying India’s troops “routinely engage in torture and other ill-treatment during interrogation in army barracks. The law forbids prosecution of soldiers without approval from the central government, which is rarely granted.”
India’s politicians have said that the army has blocked any attempt to withdraw the law. Some senior army officers have said that they cannot fight terrorist groups with their hands tied.
Sharmila has been arrested several times and charged with attempting to commit suicide. But two lower courts have ruled recently that her struggle cannot be called suicide. The government appealed the verdict, and Sharmila continues to be monitored by a police guard.
India has a long and rich history of activists using hunger strikes as a tool of protest, from the days of Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom movement against British rule. Environmentalists and anti corruption protesters have used the tactic to draw attention to their causes.
But Sharmila’s supporters now say that continuing the protest fast may not yield any new and dramatic results.
“The government has not withdrawn the law till now. What has not happened in the last 16 years of hunger strike will not happen if she continues for a few more years,” said Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert, who is her close associate.
He added that her protest was unparalleled in history.
“Irom Sharmila staged the longest hunger strike in the world and it de-legitimized the immunity law substantially in public perception," Loitongbam said. "She has done the maximum sacrifice for the cause of families whose members have been killed, raped and tortured by the military. We will continue to fight. But now she wants to fight from a different turf, that of the political arena.”
On Twitter, many welcomed the news.
This is a welcome decision, good for our democracy
Following #IromSharmila for over a decade
All should wish her success for her future life
— Dibang (@dibang) July 26, 2016
Everytime I see Irom Sharmila trending..I hope she is fine. More than ever it is now she is needed and this is a good move.
— Spriha Salman (@beingspriha) July 26, 2016
Wars are not fought empty stomach. Well done #IromSharmila
— ruchi kokcha (@ruchikokcha) July 26, 2016