Oct. 4: Manipur’s most persistent crusader against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Irom Sharmila, slipped out of Imphal unnoticed barely 12 hours after being freed from police custody and dramatically resurfaced at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi to turn her “regional” campaign into a “national” one.
Embarrassed police officials admitted that they had no inkling of the plan to “smuggle out” Sharmila, who has been on an intermittent hungerstrike since 2000. Chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh pleaded ignorance, too.
Strangely, security personnel at Imphal airport did not recognise the crusader — sure to be counted among the most famous faces of Manipur — when she, her elder brother Singhajit Singh and two rights activists boarded the 9.15 am flight to the capital.
Sharmila was freed from the security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, where she had been forcibly fed liquids through a nose-pipe, at 5.45 pm yesterday. An Imphal court had handed her an extended one-year jail sentence on charges of trying to commit suicide after her previous stint in custody ended.
On reaching New Delhi today, the poet-turned-crusader visited Rajghat to lay a wreath at Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi. Surrounded by probing journalists and photographers, she let her tears do the talking. Sharmila then proceeded to Jantar Mantar to continue her hungerstrike.
“I want to tell the people of India that if Mahatma Gandhi were alive today, he would have launched a movement against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. My appeal to the citizens of the country is to join the campaign against the army act,” she later told The Telegraph over phone.
Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of the Imphal-based NGO Human Rights Alert, and Sapamcha Kangleipal, president of the Manipur Forward Youth Front, were by her side.
Kangleipal said Sharmila would continue her hungerstrike in the capital to draw the attention of the international community and citizens of the country to the plight of Manipuris living under the “repressive” armed forces act. “Her six-year hungerstrike in Manipur failed to elicit any sympathy from the state government and Delhi. That is why she is here.”
Sharmila’s crusade against the armed forces act, a piece of legislation seen by many as a licence for army personnel to run riot during counter-insurgency operations, began when she was 28. The trigger for her campaign was the death of 10 civilians in firing by Assam Rifles personnel at a bus stop at Malom, near Imphal airport, on November 2, 2000. The soldiers opened fire on civilians in retaliation to an attack by militants.
With her hungerstrike grabbing headlines, Sharmila soon became the mascot of the campaign against the armed forces act. She refused to call off her fast even when Ibobi Singh lifted the “disturbed area” tag — it must be in place for the armed forces act to take effect — from Imphal municipal limits in August 2004. Freed and re-arrested several times since then, Sharmila was last taken into custody on October 1, 2005.
Kangleipal said Sharmila had not eaten since coming out of Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital yesterday.