Saturday 1 October 2016

India's 'Iron Lady' ends 16-year hunger strike but her fight goes on

Andrew Marszal

Published 10/08/2016 | 02:30

The ‘Iron Lady’ of Manipur Irom Sharmila is brought to court by soldiers. Photo: Reuters
The ‘Iron Lady’ of Manipur Irom Sharmila is brought to court by soldiers. Photo: Reuters

The world's longest hunger strike came to an end yesterday, as an activist dubbed India's "Iron Lady" broke her 16-year fast but vowed to continue fighting alleged army brutalities by running for political office.

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Irom Sharmila had not taken food or drink by mouth since November 2000, instead being fed through a plastic tube in her nose.

She became the figurehead of protests against a controversial law that gives Indian soldiers sweeping powers to shoot-on-sight in "troubled" parts of the country, such as her native northeastern state of Manipur.

Critics of the law say it is used to cover up massive human rights abuses in Manipur, which has suffered a decades-long armed insurgency fighting for independence from India.

But Ms Sharmila decided to end her record-breaking defiance, admitting it would not succeed in forcing India's government to revoke the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

Speaking at a courtroom in Imphal, Manipur's capital, where she was appearing to face charges of attempting suicide, Ms Sharmila said: "I have been fasting for 16 years and not got anything from it.

"I want to try different agitation now - one that will see me contest against the chief minister of the state."

Ms Sharmila was granted bail after promising to end her fast.

She later ate voluntarily for the first time in over 800 weeks, telling reporters: "I want to join politics because I've been called the Iron Lady of Manipur and I want to live up to that name".

While many of Ms Sharmila's followers have supported her decision, others have blamed the influence of Desmond Coutinho, a British citizen of Goan origin whom Ms Sharmila is now rumoured to be planning to marry.

Mr Coutinho, a writer and activist, began sending letters to Ms Sharmila after reading about her struggle in a book in 2009.

She replied, and after a long correspondence they met two years later when he came to see her in court.

In December 2014, female activists attacked Mr Coutinho in the Imphal courthouse, accusing him of distracting Ms Sharmila from her protest.

Telegraph.co.uk

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