The world’s longest hunger strike by the frail Manipuri activist, Irom Sharmila, has been lonely and silent. But every now and again, her protest produces a noise that draws attention to her demand for the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Her 14-year protest has come to symbolise much that is discordant between the laws of our land and the democratic values that they are supposed to protect.

A judgement by A Guneshwar Sharma of the Manipur East Sessions Court on Tuesday is the latest of numerous such judicial pronouncements in the ongoing battle of State versus Sharmila, who has refused to eat since 2000. The authorities believe that her hunger strike is an attempt to commit suicide – a criminal offence under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. She was arrested soon after she launched her protest and is being fed forcibly through a tube in her nose.

The judge concluded that the prosecution had "failed miserably" to prove the suicide charge against her and directed that Sharmila "be released if not required in any other case".

Frequent arrests

This is not the first release order for Sharmila. During the 13 years and nine months of her protest, she has been often released by the courts, only to be picked up again on the same charges for persisting with her hunger strike. This time the court, while directing her release, has said that the state government may take up appropriate measures for her health and safety such as nose feeding in case she decides to continue with her fast. It remains to be seen how the court’s order will be implemented.

Attempted suicide was decriminalised in many parts of Europe soon after the French Revolution of 1789 and during the 20th century most other countries followed suit. In India, however, the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of Section 309. In 1996, a five-judge constitutional bench judgment  in Smt Giani Kaur versus State of Punjab ruled that the Constitution did not grant any “right to die”.

Sharmila began her protest in November 2000 in response to the so-called Malom Massacre – the gunning down by the Assam Rifles of ten civilians waiting at a bus stop at Malom near Imphal airport. She is the repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives unbridled powers to the armed forces, practically giving them a “right to kill”. Section 4 of the AFSPA gives the "special power" to a person of the rank of non-commissioned officer and above to  "after giving such due warning as he may consider necessary, fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law or order for the time being in force in the disturbed area prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons …"

Great irony

Since there were more than five people at the bus stop in Malom, the men of the Assam Rifles were well within their "special power" to "use force, even to the causing of death" against them. The constitutional validity of the AFSPA has been upheld by a Supreme Court constitution bench in Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights versus Union of India.

As Irom Sharmila awaits another round of release and re-arrest, the law of the land seems to be telling her that she has no right to fast unto death to protest against the special powers of the armed forces to kill.