The Iron Lady

Photo credit: Paintings by Neogene ( a new generation of contemporary artists from Manipur) on the “Spirit of Sharmila” :: Paintings Picture courtesy of Just Peace Foundation

Is it possible for a human being to fast for 12 continuous years and still survive? It might sound impossible for lesser mortals like me, but for an extraordinary lady, the answer is Yes!  A lady from Manipur, a state in the Northeastern part of India, has made it possible and on 05/11/2012 she completed 12th year of her fast and is still going strong on her commitment.  I cannot but admire her courage and strength to take up such a huge task on herself and not get strayed even for once and move away from her mission. She shows immense faith upon the democracy and non violence. But in spite of so many years passing by, there is not even a hint of acknowledgement from the concerned authority. Everybody talks and is aware of the apathy the rest of India has for the North Eastern part of the country. More than enough has been discussed and written on this topic but in vain. Nothing has changed. But we still are hopeful that a day will come when this will change.

Coming back to the lady, her name is Irom Sharmila Chanu (born 14 March 1972). She is also known as the “Iron Lady of Manipur” or “Mengoubi” (“the fair one”) and is a civil rights activist, political activist, and poet. Since 2 November 2000, she has been on hunger strike to demand that the Indian government repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA), which she blames for violence in Manipur and other parts of northeast India. Having refused food and water for more than 500 weeks, she has been called “the world’s longest hunger striker”. She is a lone crusader, fasting alone for the last 12 years, under custody and confined within the security ward of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences.

On 2nd November 2000, in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley of Manipur, ten civilians were allegedly shot and killed by the Assam Rifles, while waiting at a bus stop. The incident later came to be known to activists as the “Malom Massacre“. Sharmila, the 28-year-old daughter of a Grade IV veterinary worker, began to fast in protest of the killings, taking neither food nor water. As her brother Irom Singhajit Singh recalled, “The killings took place on 2 November 2000. It was a Thursday. Sharmila used to fast on Thursdays since she was a child. That day she was fasting too. She has just continued with her fast”. 4 November is also given as the start day of her fast. On the Friday third of November she had her last supper of pastries and sweets then touched her mother’s feet and asked permission to fulfill her bounden duty. Her primary demand to the Indian government was the repeal of the AFSPA.

Three days after she began her strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with an “attempt to commit suicide”, which is unlawful under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, and was later transferred to judicial custody. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and the police then forcibly had to use nasogastric intubation in order to keep her alive while under arrest. Since then, Irom Sharmila has been regularly released and re-arrested every year since under IPC section 309, a person who “attempts to commit suicide” is punishable “with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year [or with fine, or with both]”.

In spite of all odds, she keeps it going on . Sharmila maybe a lone crusader but in the process she has also managed to take a generation of people along with her. I salute this lady for her indomitable spirit to fight for what is right and her faith in the system.

She and her hunger strike is included under Ripley’s Believe it or not



  1. Entering her into Ripley’s next to the boy with the huge tumour was trivializing but the JPF spent over 6 million rupees from the prize funds awarded to her and to date no audited accounts. They returned about 6 lacs in January and Sharmila then donated 1/3 to local welfare and 2/3 for international crisis relief. When she was pressed to mention the kind of treatment she had experienced she said two words honor killing. And then most Indians redoubled the ignoring of her. The Indian NHRC ruled the isolation orders placed upon her a form of mental and emotional torture designed to break her spirit. The deadline for the Manipur State to respond was 6 December 2013 but to date they have ignored the NHRC. They also ignore the Metropolitan Magistrate’s summons for Sharmila to attend trial in Delhi the tenth application from the court is for her to appear later this month March 2014. Next month is the election so they won’t send her. I know you care in the general sense in the way if someone spiritual asks you what you want for Women’s day you’ll say equality and the end of hunger and oppression when what you really want is a couple of nice books some scented soap and a first class ticket to travel somewhere. My thoughts are its better for Indians to write about her than not. You can of course let her know your thoughts unless you have moved on or writing letters defeats you. Irom Sharmila Chanu, Human Rights Defender, Security Ward, Jawaharlal Nehru I M S, Porompat, Imphal East, Manipur 795005, India. There’s loads more you could read about her but few actually write to her. That’s why she knows who I am. For a good few years I was the only one.

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