KOLKATA: With the central government deciding to decriminalise attempt to suicide, there is fresh hope for the release of civil rights activist Irom Chanu Sharmila who has been on a fast-unto-death for 14 years.
"We are very happy to know that the government will have to release Sharmila once the law is changed. Whatever happens she will continue with her fight for the repeal of the 'draconian' Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)," Sharmila's brother Irom Singhajit said from Imphal.
The family is, however, worried about what will happen to the 'Iron Lady of Manipur' if she is not forcibly nose-fed in Imphal's Jawahar Lal Nehru Hospital, a special ward of which acts as a prison for her.
"There will definitely be a risk to her life in that case but she will carry on her fast. Her resolve is very strong," he said.
Demanding repeal of the AFSPA, 42-year-old Sharmila has refused to eat or drink anything since November, 2000.
On the charge of making an attempt to commit suicide, she had been arrested, released and then re-arrested from time to time. The maximum punishment under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code is a one-year jail term.
Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary recently told the Rajya Sabha that with the backing of 22 states and Union territories, the government decided to delete Section 309 of the IPC.
Manipur ADG (Intelligence) Santosh Macherla said the only charge brought against Sharmila was under Section 309.
"There is only one charge against her for which she is kept under judicial custody. We follow the magistrate's decision according to the law of the land," he said.
Sharmila's long-time associate Babloo Loitongbam said that the Section 309 turned Sharmila's political fight into a criminal act.
"When the law is passed, her movement would become fully political," Loitongbam, who runs "Just Peace Foundation", said, adding that to keep Sharmila alive a magistrate can pass orders to feed her.
"Since the state has a responsibility to protect life they can feed her whenever she collapses," said the human rights activist.
Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network founder Binalakshmi Nepram, however, said the main issue was removal of AFSPA and not Sec 309.
"It is AFSPA which is the bigger question before us. Removal of Section 309 is not the concern for the people of Manipur," she said.