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Activists rally around Sharmila

New Delhi, Oct. 5: One night in New Delhi has put Irom Sharmila’s campaign for the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 back into sharp focus after a dormant period when she was in jail.

As she continued her fast-unto-death at Jantar Mantar today, activists of various Delhi-based human rights groups rallied around her and against the legislation that gives extraordinary powers to the armed forces during counter-insurgency operations.

Unbeknownst to either the police or the civil administration in Manipur, Sharmila had shifted base to the capital yesterday, barely 12 hours after being freed from the security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Imphal. She had been in custody for a year on charges of attempting to commit suicide immediately after being released from her previous stint in jail.

Babloo Loitongbam of the Manipur-based Human Rights Alert, who escorted her to New Delhi, said Sharmila’s campaign gathered steam the moment she landed here.

Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed was among those who met the frail woman with a steely resolve. Loitongbam said Hameed promised to help arrange a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Rights activists supporting the campaign are, however, understood to have advised Sharmila and her associates — the team includes Sapamcha Kangleipal, president of the Manipur Forward Youth Front — to seek an appointment with Sonia Gandhi instead.

“She may be more sensitive to such issues,” one of them said.

Lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan interacted with a group of New Delhi-based students from Manipur who were by Sharmila’s side. He was critical not only of the government, but also expressed disappointment that the judiciary had upheld the “draconian law”. He said it was a shame that a piece of legislation like the armed forces act had been enacted.

“The Jeevan Reddy Committee (which evaluated the act) submitted its report a year ago but the government has not acted on any of its recommendations. We understand that it has substantially recommended the repeal of the act,” Bhushan said.

Another critic of the law, Colin Gonsalves, said Sharmila’s involvement in the campaign had given it not just a national perspective but an international one, too.

With Sharmila refusing to consume either food or water, NGOs are planning to admit her to Gangaram Hospital. When in police custody, Sharmila had been fed liquids through a nose-pipe. Sources said she could be arrested again.

Sharmila’s crusade aga-inst the armed forces act began after the death of 10 civilians in firing by Assam Rifles at a bus stop at Malom, near Imphal airport, on November 2, 2000. The soldiers opened fire on civilians in retaliation to a militant attack.

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