Irom Chanu Shamila is an Indian civil rights activist who is known for going on the longest hunger strike in history. Her hunger strike lasted for 16 whole years! She first began her hunger strike on November 5, 2000, in protest of human rights violations committed by the Indian army against the citizens of India. In this article, we take a look at the incredible life of the woman who didn’t eat for 16 years.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958), grants the Indian army immunity for human rights violations committed against citizens suspected of acting against the state. Crimes include unwarranted searches, seizures of property, and even murder.
Ten people in Malom, Manipur, including a 62-year-old woman, were shot down in broad daylight at a bus stop by armed forces in the year 2000. This event would come to be known as the Malom Massacre. Chanu Sharmila-who was already involved in activism-decided to fast in protest. She demanded that AFSPA be repealed or she would not eat.
Chanu Sharmila’s Backstory
Chanu Sharmila was born on March 14, 1972, in Malom, Manipur. Her childhood is reported to be a quiet one and it may be surprising for some to discover that she was a timid child. Her bravery and resilience would come later in life as she matured to be one of the most notable Indian activists in modern history.
As a child, Sharmila and her siblings would walk to their government school every morning dressed in a red and white school uniform paired with white tennis shoes. She has said that she found school to be “pointless”, and wanted to focus her efforts elsewhere.
They were made to perform ceremonies at certain times each day, with points deducted from them for missing steps or not attending. It was a strict environment that Sharmila did not enjoy and one day she threw a tantrum on the way to school, refusing to walk on. Her brother found her sitting in the same spot under a banyan tree at the end of the school day. Looking back on that day we can see that although she was a shy child, she has always been unwavering in her ability to protest what she did not agree with.
Her older brother Irom Singhajit, who is 14 years older than her, said of his sister, “It was always hard to get her to change her mind. When she was younger, she didn’t complete school. She studied only till Class XI, all she said was I know how to read and write. I don’t need a degree. That was it, no one could argue. She wanted to learn shorthand, she said, and she did. We had to agree,”.
On the other hand, Chanu Sharmila loved the stories told to her by her grandmother about kings and queens in far-off lands. She escaped into a fantasy world from the conflict surrounding her. She also was passionate about journalism and activism from an early age. Like many of the local people in Manipur, she was raised to have a strong sense of responsibility and pride in caring for the land.
The reason why the Malom Massacre struck so close to home for Sharmila is that is the state where she was born and raised. This area is a part of the Seven Sister States in northeast India which struggled with an insurgency of rebel forces against the state in the 2000s.
As a result, the citizens of Manipur experienced violence between state-sanctioned paramilitary groups and insurgents that killed over 1,500 innocent civilians in 15 years. The Indian army could use deadly force against anyone who was merely suspected of being part of the insurgent, anti-state movement on the basis of them being a terrorist.
It is hard to imagine the kind of resilience it must take to refrain from eating for such a long amount of time. She ranks highly in popularity among modern civil rights activists and is widely recognized for the sacrifices she has made in order to get AFSPA repealed. She was inspired by the activist work of Gandhi.
Her goal was and still is for the safety of the women and children of India from state violence. Unfortunately, her hunger strike was unsuccessful at getting the act repealed and we will discuss why later in the article.
Why Did Chanu Sharmila Go 16 Years Without Eating?
Assam Rifles is one of the oldest of the 10 paramilitary forces in India and is believed to be the group of armed forces behind the Malom Massacre. They began shooting at a Malom bus stop close to Imphal’s Tulihal airport. With the consistent conflict between extremist anti-state insurgencies and state paramilitary in the region, there have been multiple cases of false incidents. The troops claimed to have been engaged in a crossfire with extremists, but the Manipur High Court found that upon investigation there was no such incident reported.
Along with a 62-year-old woman, National Bravery Award winner Sinam Chandramani perished in the massacre at only 18-years-old. All ten of the victims were cleared as innocent of all suspicions, and yet the paramilitary group that killed them had faced no consequences. This left their families and the community feeling saddened and enraged.
Chanu Sharmila was so shaken by this merciless killing in her home state that she vowed to not eat until either AFSPA was repealed or until her death. The government took her vow of silence as an act of suicide.
How Did Chanu Sharmila Survive 16 Years Without Eating?
She was 28 years old when she first began her hunger strike in the days following the Malom Massacre. Under the Indian Penal Code, the act of suicide is illegal, and so it took only three days after her strike began for her to be arrested and imprisoned.
In addition to not eating, she also vowed to not take care of herself in other ways. She did not comb her hair or look in a mirror for 16 years, nor did she drink any liquids. It would not have taken more than a week or two for her to succumb to starvation and dehydration if they had not intervened in prison.
As her health continued to suffer from a lack of nutrients and water, by the end of November 2000 the authorities were forced to install a feeding tube in her nose to ensure that she did not die. They fed her and gave her water involuntarily through nasogastric intubation for the 16 years that she was imprisoned.
Was Chanu Sharmila’s Hunger-Strike Successful?
“I really loved life. Just because of that love, those long years of endurance were possible.” Chanu Sharmila said of her time in prison. According to legal procedures, Sharmila was released from prison and subsequently rearrested once a year. To stay busy, she wrote poetry and sucked on cotton balls.
In October 2004 during her intermittent procedural release, she claimed to be visiting Raj Ghat, New Dehli to pay tribute to her idol Gandhi. Instead, she attended a protest against state corruption and was re-arrested four days later for again attempting to commit suicide via starvation.
She is quoted to have once said to journalists who came to visit her, “This is my right, I have the right to be seen as a human being.”
Following her arrest in 2004, she was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to be imprisoned at the government hospital for monitoring. During her time there she wrote many letters to the prime minister and president demanding the repeal of AFSPA.
She also met with Nobel laureate and activist Shirin Ebadi who brought Sharmila’s cause to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Other activists such as Anna Hazare also showed their support by sending representatives to meet with her.
In 2011 the Indian Communist Party of India and the Manipur All Indian Trinamool Congress officially backed Chanu Sharmila’s cause, calling upon their leaders to end AFSPA. She was asked to stand in the national election but declined. She also declined the right to vote while imprisoned.
A chain of 100 women joined hands in Amabari as a demonstration of their solidarity with Chanu Sharmila. Other activist groups followed Sharmila’s lead by fasting for days at a time in organized protests. Sharmila continued to write letters to the president and prime ministers asking them to repeal AFSPA.
A campaign was launched, the Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign, to bring awareness to her cause. Pune University even granted 39 women scholarships in 2011 in honor of her 39 years of age, and yet she remained imprisoned as the government refused to budge.
During her years of fasting, Sharmila only saw her mother once as she worried that to see her mother’s tears would break her resilience. She spoke of eating rice from her mother’s hand only after AFSPA was repealed. In March of 2016, she was ordered to be released from prison by a local court in Imphal. The following year after her release she decided to end her fast and turn to politics instead.
Why Did Chanu Sharmila’s Hunger Strike End?
“I will never forget this moment,” Sharmila said on the day that she broke her fast for the first time in 16 years. What was the first thing that she ate to break her fast? She started with a drop of honey, and tears filled her eyes at the taste. After 16 years, the taste was overwhelming for her senses. Following the honey was coconut milk, which she vomited up moments later away from the cameras. It took her months before she could eat a full meal without throwing up.
Chanu Sharmila ended her hunger strike after the courts ruled that she should be released. After 16 years of not eating, writing countless letters, and meeting with officials and activists, what she was doing was not working. The government has refused to repeal the AFSPA act despite her efforts.
What Sharmila did manage to accomplish with her hunger strike was to inspire other activists and draw attention to the problem of state violence. After ending her hunger strike, she resolved to run for public office to continue her fight for a safe environment free of conflict for all of the women and children of India.
In 2016 she launched her own political party, the People’s Justice and Resurgence Alliance, and attempted to enter the world of politics. She came in last out of all of the candidates in her first public election. After losing in a few initial campaigns, Sharmila proclaimed the political world to be dirty and corrupt.
The Legacy of the Iron Lady of Manipur
Chanu Sharmila will go down in history for her brave, over 500-week long protest against state violence and corruption. She was declared a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International as she was detained for a nonviolent expression of her personal beliefs.
People hoped that she could be the first Nobel laureate to come from Manipur. At one point posters of Sharmila could be found in the homes of people across India that looked up to her for her resilience and strong character.
She has also accumulated a long list of awards including a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission, MSN’s Top Woman Icon of India, the Mayillama Award of the Mayilamma Foundation, the Sarva Gunah Sampannah “Award for Peace and Harmony”, and Gwangju Award for Human Rights. She even won around $70,000 from the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management while she was in prison.
Today Chanu Sharmila lives a more normal life. She has left the world of politics and has chosen to marry, which was a controversial decision for her. The community she grew up in has strict cultural traditions around marriage, including courtship.
Some considered her marriage as bringing shame to their cause. When she ended her hunger strike and went back to normal life, some of her supporters turned on her. She never wanted to be a hero or an icon she said, all she wanted was for AFSPA to end. She no longer lives in Manipur and is unsure if she would be welcomed back with open arms or not.