Almost 16 years after she started a hunger strike, India’s “Iron Lady”, Irom Chanu Sharmila, is expected to eat her first meal on Tuesday.
The 44-year old campaigner, detained under a law that makes attempting suicide illegal, has become a symbol of resistance against state violence in the conflict-torn north-eastern state of Manipur.
On Tuesday she was granted bail after assuring a judge that she planned to end her fast.
Sharmila was escorted by police from court after the judge’s ruling and taken back to the hospital where she has long been detained. Babloo Loitongbam, a rights activist close to her, said he expected her to be freed later on Tuesday, once the court paperwork had been processed.
Sharmila has been fed through a nasal tube since November 2000, spending much of the time since in judicial custody in the hospital in Imphal, the state capital of Manipur.
As part of judicial proceedings she has had to appear in court every fortnight. At her last hearing she announced that her struggle against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was not working and that it was time to try another route. At the time her hunger strike began she said she would continue her fast until the government stopped using the act, which grants the military unchecked power to use force in “disturbed areas” to quash insurgency.
On Tuesday she told the court she wanted to end her fast so that she could be released from custody and run in local elections. “I have to change my strategy. Some people are seeing me as a strange woman because I want to join politics. They say politics is dirty, but so is society. I want to stand in the elections against the government,” she said.
Sharmila gives statement to press pic.twitter.com/FJ31JDnYCx
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Sharmila’s journey from prison to politics has led to comparisons with icons such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela.
The end of the hunger strike coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Quit Indiamovement, a symbolic day of remembrance for India’s struggle for freedom against British colonisers. Choosing to end the fast on the same day has been interpreted by some as a sign of her disillusionment with India’s democratic process.
Sharmila started the hunger strike in November 2000 after the Malom massacre in a small village on the outskirts of Imphal, in which 10 people were reportedly killed by a government-controlled paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles.
It is thought that the decision to end her strike now was influenced by a British-Indian boyfriend, Desmond Coutinho. Sharmila has been released from custody sporadically over the last decade and a half, but only a handful of people have been allowed to visit her in recent months.
Her family members and closest aides were not aware of her decision to break the fast before she announced it.
Television news crews, journalists and human rights activists have gathered en masse in the small town of Imphal to witness the end of the fast.
“I have got at least 60-70 calls from journalists today,” said Irom Singhjit Singh, her brother.
“All the news stations have been here. I’ve told them all the same thing, I don’t want to say anything until I talk to Sharmila first. I am a farmer, not a human rights activist.”
Her mother, 84, who has not seen her daughter since she started her strike said: “I give her my blessing.”
Sharmila vowed not to set foot in her own home until the special powers act was lifted, and her mother too has said she won’t see her daughter until her mission is achieved. She did not attend court on Tuesday.
Sharmila’s announcement that she will enter politics has already garnered interest from opposition parties in Imphal. Her fast has made her synonymous with the resistance movement in Manipur, and she could control huge swaths of votes throughout Manipur.
Babloo Loitongbam, director of the campaign group Human Rights Alert, and former colleague of Sharmila’s, said Aam Aadmi party and the Bhartiya Janata party had shown interest in her joining them.
Meanwhile, one radical party, the Alliance for Social Unity, sent a note to local media urging Sharmila to continue her fast and marry a local man rather than Coutinho, whose Indian origin represents a threat to separatists. The note reminded her that “some former revolutionary leaders were assassinated” after leaving activism for politics.
The village of Tulihal, from where five men died in the Malom massacre, is divided over her decision.
Tokpam Somorendra, who lost his son Shantikumar, said: “I’m not going to say her decision is wrong. I respect her next to God. She has sacrificed so much in the last 16 years and for that I cannot fault her. She has not fought for herself, or for some one she knows, but for all of us. She has fought our struggle.
“But why has she suddenly changed her mind so quickly, without giving us any information? She has so many supporters but she didn’t give us the chance to see her break the fast.”
In a nearby home, the family of Chandramani Sinan, the first victim of the massacre, were more supportive of her political ambitions.
“She has not eaten for 16 years and yet she can’t achieve her dream,” said Sinan Chandrajni Devi, his mother. “This is her own strategy, and we must support her. If she runs for election, absolutely we will vote for her,” she said.