An Indian rights activist who has waged what is thought to be the world’s longest hunger strike ended her fast on Tuesday after vowing to continue her struggle by standing for election in her home state.
Irom Sharmila, dubbed the “Iron Lady of Manipur” for her unwavering protest against alleged rights abuses by security forces in the insurgency-hit northeast Indian state, was released on bail after she promised a court she would end her fast.
The 44-year-old had been held in judicial custody on charges of attempting suicide — still a criminal offence in India — and confined to a hospital where she was force-fed through a nasal tube.
Speaking to journalists outside the court in the Manipur capital Imphal, she said her long campaign had not worked.
“I went on a fast for about 16 years thinking I could change the system, but I now realise that this will not yield any result.
“So I decided to end my fast and join politics and then fight for the cause that I undertook this mission for — justice,” she told journalists, speaking in her native Metei language.
Irom is campaigning for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which covers large parts of the northeast and the restive state of Kashmir.
It gives Indian forces sweeping powers to search, enter property and shoot on sight, and has been criticised as a cover for human rights abuses.
The Indian government says security forces need the powers to help them battle multiple rebel groups whose long-standing demands range from secession to greater autonomy and land rights.
– Frail but determined –
Amnesty International India campaigner Abhirr VP called Irom’s hunger strike “a testament to her passion for human rights, and her belief that a draconian law like the AFSPA has no place in any society”.
Irom began her fast on November 2, 2000 after allegedly witnessing the killing of 10 people by the army at a bus stop near her home.
Two weeks ago she surprised supporters by declaring she would end it to stand as an independent candidate in state elections to be held next year.
“My fight so far has been all alone and so I have decided to wage a war against the (AFSPA) act democratically by becoming a lawmaker instead of continuing with my fast,” she told reporters at the time.
On Tuesday she appeared frail but determined as she spoke to reporters, the plastic tubing still taped to her nose.
After the hearing she was taken back to the hospital where she has spent much of the past 16 years to complete the legal formalities of her bail.
Magistrate Lamkkhanpau Tonsing said she was being released after submitting bail of 10,000 rupees ($150) and a written pledge to stop her fast.
It is not clear whether she will return to the family home — she has said she would like to marry her fiance, a British national of Indian origin who she met after starting her fast.
Doctors have said she will need medical help to begin eating again.
Amnesty International declared her a Prisoner of Conscience in 2013 and she has received several prestigious international prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission.
But support in her home state has waned in recent years.
Irom’s brother Singhajit told journalists she would either contest the election as an independent candidate or form a new party to “fight for the causes of the people of Manipur”.