An Indian human rights activist imprisoned on charges of attempting suicide walked free on Wednesday after spending 14 years on hunger strike demanding the repeal of a law that put large swathes of northeastern India under martial law for decades.
Irom Sharmila, 42, began refusing food in 2000 after 10 people were killed near her home in the northeastern state of Manipur, an act that was reportedly carried out by security forces under the cover of the draconian law known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which gives impunity to state actors battling insurgency.
When Sharmila began her hunger strike, the state charged her with attempting suicide and she was imprisoned in a state-run hospital and force-fed through tubes. Fourteen years later, a court in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, dropped that charge on Tuesday and ordered the human rights campaigner freed.
“The case of Sharmila attempting to commit suicide could not be established,” her lawyer Babloo Loitongbam said.
AFSPA was enacted into law in 1980 after several ethnic groups in the states of Nagaland, Assam, Tripura and Indian-controlled Kashmir began fighting the Indian government, seeking independence.
The law gives security forces the power to search and enter private property, and shoot on sight. Critics say the policy has led to an increase in state violence against rebels and dissidents, in fighting which has claimed thousands of lives.
Political discontent has marred Manipur since the state, a former “princely” territory that was nominally independent but under indirect rule by the British, was merged with India in 1949. The military emergency law, which allows the police to act in a military capacity, has affected civil administration in Manipur to the point where it now takes a back seat with respect to security measures in the state.
“The situation is very bad here in Manipur because of the martial law,” J.D. Roy, a medical doctor who rehabilitates victims of state violence, told Al Jazeera. “The police have become very militarized, they have sophisticated weapons … every peaceful protest or act of dissent has been responded to with draconian measures by the police.”
India’s military said the law is needed to tackle insurgency. But residents are critical of the policy, and said they hope Sharmila’s release signifies change.
“The court has recognized her strike as a political struggle using legitimate means in order to repeal this draconian law. It’s a very big boost to the movement,” Roy said. “There’s a time element active here and we need to figure out how we are going to move forward but what we’re after remains the same – the repeal of this law.”
With wire services