NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Human rights activist Irom Sharmila will end a 16-year hunger strike undertaken to protest alleged army atrocities in northeast India in order to contest local elections.
Known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, Sharmila has spent most of the last 16 years under judicial custody in a hospital and has been force-fed through a tube inserted into her nose by authorities.
Sharmila, 44, began her hunger strike after 10 civilians were killed in her home state of Manipur in 2000 by soldiers who enjoy wide powers to search, enter property and shoot on sight under a colonial era law that is still in existence in parts of India.
“She will start eating on August 9 and change the entire strategy of her protest,” said Babloo Loitongbam, a close associate of Sharmila.
On Tuesday, Sharmila met reporters outside court premises, where she is required to report regularly and announced her plans to contest local elections from Imphal, Manipur’s capital city.
Her decision to end her protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) comes at a time when the federal government has asked its forces to exercise restraint in responding to protests in disputed Kashmir, a northern state where the army has shoot-to-kill powers to fight militants.
At least 46 people have been killed and more than 5,000 wounded, including security forces, since protests erupted after the killing of a commander of Kashmiri separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen on July 8 in Kashmir.
Despite calls from judicial authorities and human rights groups, the federal government has kept in force the anti-terror law in parts of northeast India and mainly-Muslim Kashmir to contain insurgencies.
Sharmila’s protest has won her worldwide recognition, with Amnesty International describing her as a prisoner of conscience.
“Sharmila will fight the battle to free the state from the clutches of the army on the streets of Manipur,” said Loitongbam.
Reporting by Rupam Jain, Editing by Rafael Nam/Jeremy Gaunt