NEW DELHI — Irom Sharmila has not eaten a meal in 12 years. The 40-year-old woman has been on a hunger strike – and force fed through a tube by authorities – to protest an Indian law that suspends many human rights protections in areas of conflict.
Sharmila was charged Monday with attempted suicide in a case likely to bring major attention to her quiet protest in the tiny northeastern state of Manipur against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
Under the law, in effect in Indian-ruled Kashmir and parts of the country's northeast, troops have the right to shoot to kill suspected rebels without fear of possible prosecution and to arrest suspected militants without a warrant. It also gives police wide-ranging powers of search and seizure.
Dubbed the "Iron Lady" by her supporters, Sharmila has become a rallying point for those demanding the law's repeal.
Sharmila had her last voluntary meal on Nov. 4, 2000, in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, one of several northeastern states facing insurgencies. She was arrested three days later and has been force fed through a tube in her nose ever since. Under law, she has to be released once a year to see if she will start eating. When she doesn't, she is taken back into custody and force fed.
The current charges stem from a 2006 protest she attended in New Delhi. Police took her from the protest venue, hospitalized her and registered a case of attempted suicide against her.
Magistrate Akash Jain charged her Monday with attempted suicide. Appearing in court with her nose tube in place, she pleaded not guilty.
"I love life. I do not want to take my life, but I want justice and peace," the Press Trust of India news agency quoted her as saying in court, which she attended after flying in from Manipur over the weekend.
Jain set her trial for May 22. If convicted, she faces one year in prison.
She remained unbowed as she left the courtroom.
"I will continue my fast until the special powers act is withdrawn," she said.
Sharmila's supporters held a demonstration outside the court demanding the repeal of the act.
"The Indian army should leave Manipur state and authorities should withdraw all the cases against her," said one protester, Sucheta Dey.
Human rights workers have accused Indian troops of using the law to detain, torture and kill rebel suspects, sometimes even staging gun battles as pretexts to kill.
The army opposes any weakening of the act, saying it needs extraordinary powers to deal with insurgents.
Indian Law Minister Ashwini Kumar defended the act, saying it is needed for conflict zones where the onus and burden of proof were not easy to resolve.
"Therefore, the opinion of the defense establishment and intelligence agencies was critical in such matters," Kumar was quoted as saying by The Hindu newspaper on Monday.
Student activists in Manipur said they disagree and complain the Indian army misuses the extraordinary powers and treats civilians as insurgents.
Kennedy Sanabam, a member of the Manipur Students Association, said the military has failed to contain the insurgency despite its powers, and instead "the number of insurgents has gone up."
The arrest last week of an army officer with illegal drugs worth millions of dollars in Manipur suggests the special powers are misused to carry out extortion and drug trafficking, said Pranshu Prakash, a research scholar at a New Delhi university.
The law has come under fire amid India's re-evaluation of its sexual violence laws following the gang rape and killing of a student on a bus in New Delhi in December. Women's rights activists have said the law allows troops to rape women without fear of arrest or punishment.
A panel appointed by the government recommended in January that the law be re-examined and that protections be removed for soldiers accused of sexual violence. The government declined to amend the law when it approved new measures to protect women.
The law prohibits soldiers from being prosecuted for alleged rights violations unless granted express permission from the federal government. According to official documents, the state government in Indian-ruled Kashmir has sought permission to try soldiers in 50 cases in the last two decades. The federal government has refused every one.