Humanity in Prison

The human rights campaigner, Irom Sharmila Chanu was aged 28 years, on 02 November 2000, when she began her fast, after ten civilians were shot and killed while waiting at a bus stop in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Activists accuse the army of the shootings. Sharmila’s primary demand, rather one-point demand has been the repeal of a law that gives India’s military sweeping powers to search and detain anyone suspected of being involved in armed revolt. On 05 November 2000, Sharmila was arrested and charged with ‘an attempt to commit suicide’, which is illegal under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). She has been kept alive in a prison hospital. The punishable offence is for an imprisonment of one year. She has subsequently been rearrested a few days after each release. On 19 August 2014, a Manipur sessions judge in Imphal ruled that Sharmila was wrongly charged with attempting to suicide, since her protest was ‘in support of a political demand through lawful means’. After so many years of virtual solitary confinement and force-feeding, she has amazing clarity of thought. Three days after release, Irom Sharmila was re-arrested on 22 August 2014, and forcibly taken away from a protest site in Imphal, after she continued with her hunger strike, against the Controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). She had refused a medical check up by a team. Sharmila is now under judicial remand. The Manipur government is moving the High Court against the Sessions Court order.

They won’t allow Sharmila to live in peace and lead a normal life. As for the Government of India AFSPA is not negotiable under any circumstances. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was lucky enough that the British didn’t keep him behind bars for years for utilising hunger-strike as a weapon of protest against injustice. For one thing Indian Penal Code is an outdated piece of legislation of British vintage, enacted in a different era to serve the interests of the foreigners. Hunger strike is now being used by civilian protesters across the world to make their points heard and respected. Prisoners in America these days frequently resort to hunger strike to highlight inhuman conditions they are being forced to live in.

Prisons are often test beds of the tools of government power abuses prior to them being tested against the people in the streets. From testing the limits of subtle or open repression, to testing what atrocities can be best used to ‘legally’ break a person’s mind and resolve to fight for justice, prisons reflect society at large, especially in the way that the prison-police establishment conducts its business.

Indian prisons are living hells and men who run them don’t bother about democracy and civil rights.

Sharmila is the voice of the voiceless. She has galvanised a generation across the country to talk about violation of human rights with impunity by the powers that be. At stake is not only a question of rights and Sharmila’s unconditional release but basic human solidarity against the Indian state’s inhumanity.

Sharmila has spoken her mind, she has been insisting on speaking the truth to power for the last 14 years. The Sessions Court’s judgement seeking release of Sharmila and declaring her detention illegal itself suggests among other things that this ‘criminal justice system’ is facing opposition from within.

Vol. 47, No. 10, Sep 14 - 20, 2014