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Why Indian activist Irom Sharmila is ending her 16-year hunger strike

After 16 years of being force-fed through a tube, Ms. Sharmila says she will break her fast in order to enter politics. 

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    Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila speaks to the media outside a prison hospital in the northeastern city of Imphal, India, on August 20, 2014. After being force-fed through a tube for sixteen years, Ms. Sharmila says she is ending her hunger strike and setting her sights on a new strategy to incur change: running for office.
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After being force-fed through a tube for 16 years, Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila says she is ending her hunger strike and setting her sights on a new strategy to invoke change: running for office. 

In November of 2000, Ms. Sharmila stopped eating to protest the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, known as AFSPA, which grants immunity to military troops in Kashmir and other officially declared "disturbed areas" if they kill, arrest without a warrant, or confiscate property from suspected militants. Days before, 10 civilians waiting for a bus had been shot in her home state of Manipur, allegedly killed by a paramilitary group. 

Soon after her hunger strike began, Sharmila was arrested on charges of attempting suicide, which carries a one-year sentence, and has been rearrested every year since. She lives in a hospital cell, where she has been forcibly fed through a nose tube. 

But on Tuesday, Sharmila told a court in Manipur state that she plans to start eating voluntarily again on Aug. 9 in order to enter elections next year as an independent candidate from Malom constituency. 

"The only way to bring change is electoral process," Sharmila told local media on Tuesday, The Times of India reports. "My single issue would be to remove AFSPA from the state." The activist, who has developed a relationship with an Indian-born British citizen via email, also suggested she might get married.   

Friends, family, and associates said the announcement came as a surprise. 

Some, like Babloo Loitongbam, director of the Human Rights Alert and founder of the Save Sharmila campaign, say they support the decision. 

"It was a shock. But I can understand why this is happening," he told The Indian Express. "If after 16 long years, her fasting has had little impact on the government and there has been no progress in the move to repeal AFSPA, then what is the guarantee it will happen if she fasts for another 16?" 

Some associates suggest her boyfriend, Desmond Coutinho, may have had a role in breaking the fast. "But it is also her frustration at the government for not listening to the demands of the people. So she is changing her path from activism to politics. Her goal remains the same - revocation of AFSPA," one source, identified as an "associate," told the Times of India.

But other activists worry that Sharmila ending her iconic hunger strike "may jeopardize the movement," the Express reports, and sources say pressure groups in her state are displeased with the decision.

"There are some in Manipur, including amongst her supporters, who think Sharmila's decision may unsettle the campaign against AFSPA, and grudge her for this," writes Pradip Phanjoubam for Quartz India, after noting the slim chance she could make a difference as an elected politician without the support of a political party. "Yet others are of the opinion that to believe the anti-AFSPA campaign depended solely on Sharmila’s reputation would betray the movement’s weakness. The leader – any leader, even Sharmila – as flagbearer of the cause is important, they argue, but the cause must remain more important than any individual."

Nongthombam Biren, vice-president and spokesperson of the state Congress Committee, told the Indian Express that while the Congress has not yet approached Sharmila, he supports her entrance into politics. 

"If the fasting hasn't helped, maybe this will," Mr. Biren said. "She has been isolated from people for years. She doesn't get to meet any political leaders. Maybe as a political leader, she will be able to meet leaders at the Centre and convince them to repeal AFSPA. We all want AFSPA to be repealed in the state." 

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