04 Oct 2006, Source: Reuters
By Biswajyoti Das
GUWAHATI, India, Oct 4 (Reuters) – An Indian woman who has been on hunger strike for six years against human rights abuses in the remote northeastern state of Manipur shifted her fight to the capital New Delhi on Wednesday.
Thirty-four-year-old Irom Sharmila Chanu has become an iconic figure for the people of Manipur since launching her hunger strike in late 2000 after soldiers shot 10 young men at a bus stop in a small town in Manipur.
She says she will fast until the government repeals the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives soldiers sweeping powers to kill suspected rebels, with virtual immunity from prosecution.
Shortly after beginning her fast, Sharmila was arrested and charged with attempted suicide. Since then authorities have been force-feeding her through a nasal tube in the government-run hospital in Manipur's capital Imphal.
The maximum term for her offence is one year and police have been in the habit of releasing her every year, only to rearrest her the following day.
This year a small group of supporters and human rights activists took advantage of her day of freedom to smuggle her through Imphal's high security airport and put her on a plane to New Delhi.
"We are taking Sharmila to Delhi to continue with her fast there," Babloo Loitongbam, a human rights activist, told Reuters by telephone shortly before setting off.
She had gone into hiding shortly after her release on Tuesday. She landed in New Delhi on Wednesday afternoon and will be on a fast in the city.
One of the first places she will visit will be Rajghat, the memorial to India's independence hero Mahatma Gandhi.
Manipur, with a population of little more than two million, lies 1,500 miles (2,400 km) from New Delhi on India's northeastern border with Myanmar, and the country's economic development over the past six decades has largely passed it by.
Most of its people follow the Hindu religion but are thought to be of Tibeto-Burman origin and feel they are looked down upon by their fellow Indians. An armed separatist rebellion took off in the 1960s and has left around 20,000 people dead.
A Reuters correspondent visited the frail Sharmila in her dimly lit and damp hospital room in Imphal last week.
"My basic cause of fasting is for human civilisation and humanity," she said, lying among pillows with a green pipe attached to her nose.
Guarded round the clock by security women in civilian clothes, she was not allowed to meet her family members, supporters or friends. She was force-fed five times a day through the tube.
"The pipe has become my second nature," Sharmila told Reuters.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act only applies in Kashmir and insurgency-affected northeastern India. Human rights groups say it has given the army licence to kill, torture and rape with impunity.