Not just AFSPA, force-feeding Irom Sharmila is also a bodily autonomy debate
The manner of how the Indian state has dealt with Irom Sharmila is not just a debate about AFSPA but about what constitutes bodily autonomy.
A day after her release, Irom Sharmila’s moment of triumph and freedom proved to be short-lived as disturbing visuals of a small, seemingly benign woman struggling as she was dragged away by the police, practically disrobed in the process, splashed across our TV screens.
“The fact that she was almost disrobed when she was arrested again shows just how callous the state has been in handling her. Using a drip to feed her, inserting something in her body against her will – its state-sanctioned rape,” says Binalakshmi Nepram, author and founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network.
The drip, usually seen connected to her nose—photographs of which have made her the face of the struggle against Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)—was missing as well.
Sharmila’s struggle started on 2 November, 2000. Nearly 14 years ago, at 3 pm, Chandramani, an 18-year-old gallantry award winner stood at a bus stop in a small Manipuri village named Malom. An Assam Rifles convoy drove past him as an explosion went off, preventing the convoy from driving further. Moments later, Chandramani had been gunned down along with nine others, including his brother and 62-year-old aunt, as soldiers indiscriminately beat up villagers, in their hunt for the insurgents behind the explosion. The same day, then-unknown 28-year-old Sharmila began her fast, demanding the repeal of AFSPA, which has given the armed forces extra-judicial powers in the northeast for over five decades.
The government has consistently maintained that Sharmila would die if she continues fasting, which the state claims is legitimate grounds to force-feed her. “The element of intention,” says senior lawyer in the Supreme Court and Aam Aadmi Party member Prashant Bhushan, “is missing in her case. She isn’t fasting because she is suicidal. No depressed person can go without food for 14 years.”
“For the state,” says Suhrith Parthasarthy, advocate practicing in the Madras High Court, “the question becomes whether Irom Sharmila’s fast is an attempt to suicide or not.”
But as Sharmila continues to be force-fed for the 14th year now, the question of her bodily autonomy—the right to make decisions about her body, and her physical and mental well-being free from duress, which is fundamental to every citizen—has been taken away from her.
Even the seemingly triumphant Manipur Sessions court order releasing Sharmila from charges imposed under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code does little to ensure Sharmila’s freedom and rights over her body and allows the government to continue force-feeding her.
“…The agitation of Irom Chanu Sharmila is a political demand through lawful means of repealing a valid statute. From her past conduct, it seems that she may continue with her fast till her demand is met politically by the Government. In the circumstances, the State Government may take up appropriate measures for her health and safety, such as nose feeding, etc. in case she decides to continue with her fast,” says the court order, simultaneously flaying the state for charging her under Section 309 and dismissing those charges.
“As long as a person is in a proper frame of mind, they can do as they want and make choices about their health and well being—even if that means fasting unto death. Sharmila is conscious and as long as she is able to make that decision, she should be allowed to make it,” Bhushan said.
The state’s method of force-feeding Sharmila is looked upon as torture and violation of international law. A report in the New York Times explains: “For decades, the international community, including the International Red Cross, the World Medical Association and the United Nations, have recognised the right of prisoners of sound mind to go on a hunger strike. Force-feeding has been labeled a violation on the ban of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The World Medical Association holds that it is unethical for a doctor to participate in force-feeding. Put simply, force-feeding violates international law.”
“As a doctor, ethically speaking, we don’t support any forced interventions. But at the same time civil society doesn’t want her to be faced with the choice of dying. It’s a tricky situation,” said doctor and activist, Binayak Sen. “I don’t support the imposition of AFSPA for such a prolonged period,” he added.
The state’s justification is grounded in the idea that citizens don’t have the right to die, even if it means curtailing their right on their bodies. “The state is holding the symbolic fast to the standard of freedom of speech and expression under article 19 (1)(A), which allows for reasonable restrictions. And the issue when talking about Sharmila with respect to these things is that there really isn’t much precedent,” says Parthasarthy.
Parthasarthy explains that the right to control one’s body and everything that pertains to it is part of a citizen’s fundamental right to life and liberty. “The fundamental rights that are already in place ensure that right,” he says.
Further, during Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev’s protest at Ramlila Maidan, the Supreme Court ruled that hunger strikes are “a form of protest which has been accepted, both historically and legally in our constitutional jurisprudence.”
Yet, Sharmila remains the only one who has been force-fed for exercising her right to protest, even if it is through a hunger strike.
Speaking to Firstpost, activist Medha Patkar said, “They’ve arrested me twice and booked me under Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide). We even fasted in jail. Such sections shouldn’t apply to a protester. Sharmila isn’t fasting to die, she is an indomitable fighter who is demanding her right to a safe and secure existence.”
In rare and exceptional cases the state can use established channels under the law to curtail someone’s bodily autonomy. The approach to Sharmila reflects a larger unease with discussing AFSPA, and the last 14 years of haphazard law enforcement especially in her case. “If she dies, Manipur will burn and they [the government] know that. That is why the law has been applied arbitrarily in her case,” says Nepram.
In Aruna Shanbaug vs Union of India, the Supreme Court ruled that it was the absolute and fundamental right of a citizen to decide on what medical treatment they need or wish to avail, even if discontinuing treatment could cause their death. However, the same outcome in case of a hunger strike, and in Sharmila’s case specifically, has seen repeated interventions.
“The right to refuse treatment or determine how your physical needs should be tended to derives from the idea that citizens have the liberty to determine their destiny. This automatically follows that no one can force any food down your throat,” Bhushan explains.
The manner of dealing with Sharmila, the constant violation of her physical autonomy has also given the government the option of curtailing civil liberties as its first response: a poor and frightening precedence to set.
After all, any hunger strike does what most other forms of protests can’t: It shifts the site of protest from any physical space to the physical self. As seen in Sharmila’s case, the state’s desire to control the site of protest has led to an inconsistent application of the law—the very issue the Iron Lady of Manipur set out to protest.
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