Irom Sharmila being escorted out of court in Imphal on Tuesday

Khelen Thokchom, TT, Imphal, July 26:  Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady who has been on a hunger strike for the past 16 years, stunned the civil rights firmament today by announcing an end to her fast, a decision to contest the Assembly polls next year and an intent to lead a normal life that may include marriage to her boyfriend.

An extraordinary crusade that began with a vow 16 years ago that she would call off her fast only after a controversial martial law was repealed took an astonishing but poignant turn at the end of a routine court hearing.
“I have decided to change my strategy. I will end my hunger strike. I have decided to contest the Assembly election as an Independent candidate to continue the fight. I will fight the election on the single issue of scrapping AFSPA (the Armed Forces Special Powers Act),” Sharmila, 44, told reporters.
The AFSPA, hated in the Northeast and Kashmir, arms security forces with sweeping powers to search, enter property and shoot on sight. The law continues to be in force in several parts of the country, including Manipur and Kashmir.
Sharmila has spent most of the past 16 years in custody in a hospital and has been force-fed through a tube inserted into her nose.
Her emergence as an enduring symbol of stoic and graceful resistance often overshadowed the human aspect of her life and questions have been asked whether she was unwittingly becoming a prisoner of her own cause. Such questions were not encouraged by some of those around her.
Her brother and some activists today expressed their disappointment with her decision to end the hunger strike. But some activists said the decision should be left to her.
Against this backdrop, Sharmila today made a telling statement: “If I am defeated as a result of the people selling their democratic rights, I will not be disappointed. I will also not resume my hunger strike. If people reject me, I will lead a normal life.”
By normal life, Sharmila said, she meant a plan to marry her friend Desmond Coutinho, 54, a British-Indian of Goan origin. “I will marry my boyfriend, who is a British national. We will lobby the British government to take up the issue of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act with the Indian government,” she added.
Coutinho, a writer and activist, visits Imphal to meet Sharmila during her routine appearance in court. He was not present in court today. Sharmila had got to know him through an exchange of letters and they finally met in Imphal in March 2011. The Telegraphhad broken the news of her romance soon after.
Charged with attempted suicide, she has been routinely arrested, released at the end of her maximum one-year sentence and re-arrested after two days as an annual ritual since November 5, 2000, when she began her hunger strike demanding the repeal of the army act.
The Ryle’s tube, through which she has been fed for the past 16 years, hung from Sharmila’s nose and a team of policewomen kept guard while she spoke to reporters.
Sharmila said she had realised that her 16-year hunger strike could not move the government and decided to continue her fight against the act as a lawmaker. “I am now convinced that my hunger strike can’t bring me to my goal. I want to achieve my goal during my lifetime. So I decided to change my strategy,” she said.
Sharmila expressed unhappiness over the lack of mass support from the people of Manipur for her cause. Stating that people need to change the system by getting their voices heard, she appealed to them not to sell their democratic right but elect people who can serve them.
Sharmila is expected to contest from the Khurai Assembly constituency in Imphal East district, about 2km from Imphal city. Khurai is now represented by Ngairangbam Bijoy Singh of the ruling Congress.
Sharmila’s immediate plan is to make her routine appearance in the court on August 9. After returning from the court to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences here, she wants to break her fast with schoolchildren.
“I appeal to teachers to send their students to me when I came out of jail. I want to break the fast with schoolchildren. I also want the children to bring some juice for breaking my fast. I wish to share the juice with the children,” she said. She expressed her unhappiness at “using” schoolchildren whenever some citizens’ groups resort to an agitation.
Sharmila’s elder brother Irom Singhajit told The Telegraph: “I am not happy to know that she has decided to end her fast. What upsets me more is that she did not consult me or her mother before taking this important decision. I haven’t been able to break this news to my mother because I am not sure how she will react. My mother always told her to fight till the end – till the demand to repeal AFSPA is met.”
On her marriage plans, he said: “As a human being, she has every right to marry anyone. We don’t object to it.”
Suhas Chakma, former director of the Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights, said: “This is bad judgement on her part. By taking a rigid stand, Irom had squandered any chance of negotiation and has achieved nothing. The ideal time for her to break the fast would have been 2004 after the submission of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission report that asked for the repeal of the AFSPA. What reason would she have to stop her fast now?”
Suresh Singh, former director of health services who has filed a PIL in the Supreme Court challenging the AFSPA, said he had “recently” met Sharmila.
During the course of their interaction, Singh said, he advised her not to contest elections and also to postpone the announcement of her decision to end her fast till August 8 and 9, when his PIL, seeking repeal of the act, is expected to come up for the final hearing.
But Babloo Loitongbam, executive director of Human Rights Alert, said: “To begin and end the fast is her decision. We salute her 16-year-long sacrifice and struggle for the cause of human rights. She also exposed the insensitivity of the government. We wish her success in her future endeavours.”
Asked whether he or any other supporter of Sharmila would contest the election, he replied in the negative.