Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila will turn 44 on March 14. She has spent a little less than one-third of her life tied to a hospital bed in the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in Imphal – her home for the last 16 years.

It was in November 2000 when Sharmila began a hunger strike to protest against the gunning down by the Assam Rifles of 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop at Malom near Imphal airport. She is demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives unbridled powers to the armed forces, practically giving them a “right to kill”.

Every year since then, in what has been a cynical routine, Sharmila is charged with attempting to commit suicide under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, imprisoned for about 365 days (the maximum punishment under Section 309), released for two-odd days, and then taken back into custody. It’s a cyclical legal routine carried out with great efficiency and absolute numbness. As of May 28, 2014, official records of the Manipur Central Jail show that Sharmila has spent 4,776 days in prison since she was first arrested.

Records of the Manipur Central Jail show that Irom Sharmila has spent 4,776 days in prison since she was first arrested in 2000.
Records of the Manipur Central Jail show that Irom Sharmila has spent 4,776 days in prison since she was first arrested in 2000.

Two weeks ago, the chief judicial magistrate, Imphal West, ruled that the “necessary ingredients of attempt to suicide under Section 309 IPC were not made out against the accused person [Irom Sharmila] in the case”. About 48 hours after the court order, Sharmila was arrested again, a fresh FIR was filed and once again Section 309 was used. A government doctor who had examined her over the two days she was free had told journalists that “she [Sharmila] was very dehydrated,” perhaps prompting concerns over her health, and leading to her subsequent arrest.

Adamant Sharmila

For years, Sharmila has refused to plead guilty to the charge of “attempt to suicide”, remaining stubbornly steadfast in her position that her fast was a peaceful political protest, not a violent, personal act, which, therefore, will continue. In the process, she has repeatedly taunted the provisions of the law that, by now, seem inadequate to deal with her.

There is no denying that Sharmila’s case presents the legal framework and the government with a conundrum. The fact that Section 309 remains criminalised, and an offence under the Indian Penal Code, is a big part of the problem. On the other hand, in Sharmila’s case, even the absence of Section 309 does not change things. The Manipur government believes it has a moral duty to keep Sharmila alive even if it means that she remains tied to a tube for the rest of her life.

In response to the latest round of Sharmila’s release-arrest-release cycle, Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch said that that the Manipuri activist’s demand wasn’t extraordinary. “The state has a responsibility to protect her life,” said Ganguly. “But it would be much better to engage with her, try and address her demands, instead of arresting her. Let us be clear. Sharmila is not attempting suicide. She is asking for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. And this is not a particularly extraordinary demand. Many, both in Jammu and Kashmir and in the Northeast, where this law is in force, have sought its repeal. Several government commissions, human rights groups, activists, judicial experts, United Nations special mandate holders, have all said that AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act] is a highly abusive law and should be repealed, replaced with one that respects rights.”

There have been two occasions in the last two years when courts in Manipur ruled that Sharmila was just trying to get her voice heard. The chief judicial magistrate in his order said: “The accused person [Irom Sharmila] is not trying to kill or destroy herself, but to suffer herself of all deprivations so that her voice or demands are heeded, listened and fulfilled”. In August 2014, the Imphal Sessions Court had passed a similar order. At that time, Sharmila had been released, during which she addressed a press conference for the first time in her protesting life. She spoke of “living, swallowing her tongue all these years, so that violence could end”. The cyclical farce repeated two days later. Sharmila was taken away as the women gathered there resisted, fought back, even pelted stones at the police van. Sharmila, herself shouted and screamed but was lifted and scooped away in the melee. The small window of opportunity at some form of engagement with the protestor had been lost. When journalists met Manipur’s deputy chief minister Gaikhangam Gangmei later that day, he said: “What can we do, we can’t let her die. This way she lives”. A dialogue, a conversation, a memorandum, a plea from the Cabinet, a political engagement, none of these ideas seemed to be on the minister’s mind.

Imphal vs Delhi

In 2011, when activist Anna Hazare fasted for an anti-corruption law at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi, 2,500 km away from Imphal, Sharmila was in the 11th year of her fast. It took the Central government 87-odd hours to respond to Hazare. During this time, the veteran protestor had written to Sharmila urging her to join his protest in the national capital. Sharmila had replied from her hospital bed: “I am unlucky because I cannot come to New Delhi. I am not a free Indian.” Of course, Anna’s movement targeting corruption resonated with every Indian. The repeal of a draconian law – the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – was mainly Manipur’s problem.

In his essay The Art of Hunger, Paul Auster writes: “… he fasts but not in away that a Christian would fast. He is not denying earthly life in anticipation of a heavenly life. He is simply refusing to live the life he has been given. And the longer he goes on with his fast, the more death intrudes itself upon his life… His fast is then a contradiction. To persist would mean death and with death the fast would end.”

After 16 years of refusing to imbibe any food or drink, the forcefully administered nasal tube that feeds Sharmila is meant to save her life but has become the biggest contradiction to her fast. It’s an easy status quo that allows the government to do nothing, not even think about what charge they can hold her on except for Section 309. A fasting Sharmila being force-fed under the supervision of government authorities and confined to a guarded hospital room is at best a moral noose around the government’s neck, but certainly no serious threat. It ensures she doesn’t die. She lives. And that is enough.

In 1975 and 1991, the World Medical Association, while establishing guidelines for doctors involved in hunger strikes, made a distinction between the mentally or psychologically impaired individual who chose a voluntary fast, and the hunger striker who chose this form of protest for a political goal. This enabled them to label the action of the former as a suicide. In a paper "Medical and Ethical Aspects of Hunger Strikes in Custody and the Issue of Torture", the physician Hernan Reyes said: “The clear-cut case of a politically motivated hunger striker is different. The striker does not want to die: on the contrary, he wants to ‘live better’, by obtaining something for himself, his group or his country. If necessary, he is willing to sacrifice his life for his cause, but the aim is certainly not suicide.”

In Sharmila’s case, the boundary between suicide and political protest is sometimes a blur. The force-feeding that was legitimised as a life-saving act has, in the course of the last 16 years, effectively blunted her freedom, her struggle and in some ways made her a specimen in a zoo. It keeps her alive and that’s all that matters.

“I won’t eat anything till I achieve my aim,” said Sharmila when she left the court of the chief judicial magistrate most recently. For most it meant nothing, as long as she carried the tube with her.

Anubha Bhonsle is the author of Mother, Where's My Country?: Looking for light in the darkness of Manipur.