Irom Chanu Sharmila, a 39-year-old poet and activist, gave her usual reply: no. With that, she was taken back to the hospital room where she spends her days in isolation, force-fed a sludgy mix of nutrients though the tube in her nose. This routine has gone on, remarkably, for 11 years.
A recent 12-day fast by the social activist Anna Hazare paralyzed India’s political system, captured the nonstop attention of its hyperkinetic 24-hour cable news media and inspired hundreds of thousands of people across the country to rally in his crusade against corruption.
But in India, where hunger strikes serve as a common tool of protest — playing a prominent role even in the modern state’s creation — not all of them grip the public imagination in quite the same way. Ms. Sharmila’s lonely, nonviolent struggle has endured in obscurity, along with her cause: to get India to remove laws that shield security forces from prosecution in this remote, insurgency-racked corner of the northeast.
She spends her days cut off from her supporters, her family and the news media. The authorities tightly control access to her. Still, her determination is unwavering. “I am strong,” Ms. Sharmila averred, eyes ablaze, in a brief interview in the judge’s chambers. “I am just waiting for God and his infallible judgment.”
India’s capacious borders encompass an astounding diversity of terrain, culture, religion and ethnicity, and at its edges the country has struggled to stay true to its democratic ideals. Nowhere is that clearer than here. Manipur sits on India’s northeastern fringe, along its border with Myanmar, one of the seven northeastern states that sit across the narrow neck of territory that traces Bangladesh’s northern frontier and abuts China, Bhutan and Myanmar.
In appearance and culture its people have more in common with East Asia than distant New Delhi. Multiple insurgencies have fought for independence and autonomy in this fractious region, and the government has responded with tough military crackdowns.
Soldiers here have a much freer hand because they are shielded from prosecution by a law known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958. Under the law, military personnel can arrest people without a warrant, shoot to kill on suspicion and use deadly force to break up gatherings of five or more people. They cannot be prosecuted without explicit permission from the central government, which rarely comes.
Unsurprisingly, the law has led to decades of human rights abuses. Thousands have been killed, injured, arrested and tortured with impunity, human rights workers here say.
The episode that prompted Ms. Sharmila to begin her fast took place on the afternoon of Nov. 2, 2000, in a village at the edge of Imphal called Malom. A mysterious explosion along the main road leading to the village sent a company of soldiers of the Assam Rifles flooding into the village. The soldiers killed 10 people, including teenagers and a 62-year-old grandmother. Seven of the dead were shot at close range while lined up at a bus stop; the other three were gunned down elsewhere in the village.
The soldiers claimed that they had been fired upon, but a judicial inquiry found no evidence to support their assertion.
“The firing by the Assam Rifles personnel have resulted to the death of 10 (ten) innocent persons,” said the inquiry report, which was completed last year, nearly a decade after the killings.
Among the dead were Chandramani Singh, a 17-year-old high school student who had won a national award for bravery for saving his younger brother from drowning in a fish pond when he was 4 years old. He had traveled to New Delhi to receive a clover-leaf-shaped medal from then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. His older brother, Robin, was also killed.
“The family was completely shattered,” said Manichandra Singh, the brother Chandramani had plucked from the fishing pond, now a 25-year-old doctor. “My two brothers who were living together with me suddenly killed in cold blood by those fellows.”
Two days after the massacre, Ms. Sharmila sat on a hand-woven rug beneath a metal roof along the main road and hung up a sign that read “Hunger Strike,” said Babloo Loitangbam, a human rights activist and adviser to Ms. Sharmila. Her goal was to get the central government to revoke the Armed Forces Special Powers Act so that the men who carried out the attack on Malom could be prosecuted.
“We thought it was going to be a few weeks,” Mr. Loitangbam said. “A month at most.”
Almost immediately she was arrested under a clause of the Indian penal code that makes attempting suicide a crime. She was hospitalized and force-fed, a practice the World Medical Association deems “a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.”
Ever since then she has been shuttled between hospitals and courtrooms, making an appearance every 15 days to reaffirm her wish to starve herself to death. Once a year the court is obliged to release her — the maximum sentence for the crime she is accused of is one year. She is usually arrested the following day.
When she was released in 2006, allies helped smuggle her into New Delhi, where she briefly staged a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar, a popular site of protests in the capital. But she was again arrested, hospitalized and force-fed, then sent back to Manipur. She has not left the state since.
Ms. Sharmila passes her days in almost complete solitude. Convicted criminals are allowed two visits per week, but she is kept in isolation in her hospital room. She does four hours of yoga a day and reads many books; her room is lined with biographies of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, heroes of nonviolent struggles like hers.
But she is not averse to lighter fare. Asked what she had been reading lately, her eyes grew wide.
“Stieg Larsson!” she replied, with a giggle. “Very impressive.”
She said she had heard of Mr. Hazare and admired his dedication to his cause.
“I feel very good thinking about his courage,” she said.
Mr. Hazare and his allies had written her a letter inviting her to join their struggle against corruption.
“I cannot get the advantage of exercising my nonviolent protest for justice against my concerned authority as a democratic citizen of a democratic country,” she wrote in reply. “Let me get free, like yours, to join your amazing crusade to root out corruption — which is the root of all evils. Or you can come to Manipur, the most corruption affected region in the world,” she also wrote.
Activists like Ms. Sharmila have been working to get the security laws here dropped for years, to little effect. Debates about Manipur’s human rights problems are more likely to be heard in international venues, like the United Nations and the European Parliament, than in New Delhi.
Now Mr. Hazare’s fast has shone new light on Ms. Sharmila’s struggle. Mr. Loitangbam has been inundated by calls from the Indian news media, and a senior government minister, Salman Kursheed, also called, asking how Ms. Sharmila’s fast could be ended, he said. Mr. Hazare himself has expressed interest in visiting Ms. Sharmila in Manipur. But many here worry about some of the nationalist elements that have rallied to his side.
“On the one hand, Anna is giving us a spotlight,” Mr. Loitangbam said. “But we don’t want to be completely absorbed into it.”
Ms. Sharmila said she had no intention of giving up her fast until she gets the justice she seeks.
“Until and unless my demand is fulfilled, I will be passing my life in this way,” she said. “There is no other way.”