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Iron Lady of India: Sharmila trades hunger for politics

by Shaikh Azizur Rahman, aljazeera.com | Published: Saturday, September 24, 2016

After facing harsh criticism for ending her hunger strike, Irom Sharmila seeks support as she plans to run for office.

Kolkata, India - As she ended her epic 16-year hunger strike last month in protest against alleged brutality and sweeping powers by India's military in the country's northeastern state of Manipur, Irom Sharmila announced her intention to run for office to carry on her struggle against the abuses.

Sitting on her bed at a Vaishnava monastery in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, the 44-year-old rights activist, who had begun her hunger strike demanding the repeal of the controversial security law of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA (PDF), told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview that many of her supporters are now unhappy with her decision.

"I pledged that I would not end my hunger strike until AFSPA was withdrawn ... But I fasted for so long, and it failed to impact the government ... I decided to change the course of my fight and join politics," she said.

However, the human rights activist's decision has come at a price, costing her much of the support of those who had stood by her side during her 16-year-long hunger strike.

Being confined to a hospital bed for so long, the woman who has become known as the Iron Lady of Manipur has indeed emerged to a thorny political scene, finding herself isolated and rebuked by the very supporters and fellow activists who once stood by her side.

"Many even wanted me to not end the hunger strike," Sharmila said. However, she describes that what made her end her strike was the realisation for the need of a new strategy.

"While I was fasting, at one point, I began to realise that many of my co-activists were withdrawing their support, and I was left all alone in my fight," she says.

Sharmila has evolved in her beliefs and now sees that political participation is what will bring change from inside the system.

"Through politics, I can attain power," Sharmila told the local media last August, just after the tube used by the authorities to force-feed her through her nose was removed. "If I can win the elections, become the chief minister of Manipur, then I can get the AFSPA repealed using my political clout."

According to human rights organisations, the AFSPA of 1958 has been in force purportedly to curb insurgency in areas like Kashmir and northeast India, including Manipur. The act gives troops sweeping powers to make arrests without warrants and even shoot suspected insurgents without fear of prosecution.

Several organisations, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, have been calling for this controversial law to be repealed, alleging it perpetuates human rights abuses.

Sharmila insists it is her right to decide what to do with her life. If she fails in her political strategy, she says, she will move away from Manipur and live a quiet life away from politics.

"Manipur and its people continue to be my first love. If the people vote me to power the way I need, I shall indeed continue to work in Manipur," she told Al Jazeera.

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