Sharmila ends fast, but continues fight

Sharmila ends fast, but continues fight

Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila’s decision to end her 16-year fast has surprised some, but has nevertheless been welcomed. She has been protesting against the continuance of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which has been in force in the state from 1980. Sharmila has become a potent symbol of protest against injustice and resistance to a draconian law, and her fast is considered the world over as an inspiring example of rebellion by an individual for a good cause against the establishment. She started the fast in November 2000 after some Assam Rifles personnel, who enjoyed the protection of the
AFSPA, shot dead 10 people, including an old woman and a teenager, at a bus stop. The army and para-military personnel deployed in the state are not held accountable for their actions, and this has led to the killing and maiming of a large number of people by the forces without the fear of legal consequences. Sharmila’s fast has helped expose the unjustness of this law.

Irom Sharmila’s decision to end her fast should not be taken as an acceptance of defeat. She created awareness among the wider public about the need to respect civil and human rights even in troubled situations and to have just and human laws to deal with them. Her success should be judged by this. She has said that she decided to end her fast because she no longer believed it would lead to the repeal of the AFSPA. But the fact that the AFSPA could not end insurgency in the state even after 35 years of operation shows how ineffective it has been. If anything, it has increased public disaffection and protests in Manipur and in other states where it is in force. The Supreme Court’s recent critical observations about the law and its assertion that citizens have equal rights everywhere, disturbed or otherwise, are enough to prove this and to validate Sharmila’s long fight against that law.

Fasts as means of protests against governments and their policies have a long history. Gandhiji used them against the British government. Irish nationalists and others have also resorted to them. Their efficacy in moving governments and influencing policies has been a matter of debate. The modern state is too powerful to be moved by individual protest actions and rebellions. But they create public awareness and sometimes lead to public action. They underline the vital role of individual dissent, courage of conviction and readiness for sacrifice in society and polity. Sharmila spent the best years of her life fighting for a cause. She will hopefully pursue her cause and ideals in the political career she has opted for herself.
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