In 2014 two parties asked her to stand in the national election, but she declined. She was then denied the right to vote as a person confined in jail cannot vote according to law. On 19 August 2014 a court ordered her release from custody, subject to there being no other grounds for detention. She was re-arrested on 22 August 2014 on similar charges to those for which she was acquitted, and remanded in judicial custody for 15 days. Amnesty International has declared her as a prisoner of conscience.
Sharmila grew up and lives in Manipur, one of the Seven Sister States in India's northeast, which has suffered from an insurgency for decades; from 2005 to 2015 about 5,500 people died from political violence. In 1958, the Indian government passed a law, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 that applies to just the seven states and grants security forces the power to search properties without a warrant, and to arrest people, and to use deadly force if there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person is acting against the state; a similar Act applies to Jammu & Kashmir.
She was already involved in local peace movements with regard to human rights abuses in Manipur when, on 2 November 2000, in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley of Manipur, ten civilians were shot and killed while waiting at a bus stop. The incident, known as the "Malom Massacre", was allegedly committed by the Assam Rifles, one of the Indian Paramilitary forces operating in the state. The victims included Leisangbam Ibetombi, a 62-year-old woman, and 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Bravery Award winner.
Sharmila, who was 28 at the time of Malom Massacre, began to fast in protest. Her primary demand to the Indian government has been the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). She began her fast in Malom on 5 November, and vowed not to eat, drink, comb her hair or look in a mirror until AFSPA was repealed.
Three days after she began her strike, she was arrested by the police and charged with an "attempt to commit suicide", which was unlawful under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) at that time, and was later transferred to judicial custody. Her health deteriorated rapidly, and nasogastric intubation was forced on her from 21 November in order to keep her alive while under arrest.
Sharmila has been regularly released and re-arrested every year since her hunger strike began.
By 2004, Sharmila had become an "icon of public resistance." Following her procedural release on 2 October 2006 Sharmila went to Raj Ghat, New Delhi, which she said was "to pay floral tribute to my ideal, Mahatma Gandhi." Later that evening, Sharmila headed for Jantar Mantar for a protest demonstration where she was joined by students, human rights activists and other concerned citizens. 30 women protested naked in support of Sharmila in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters. They held a banner saying "Indian Army rape us" and all of them were imprisoned for three months.
On 6 October, she was re-arrested by the Delhi police for attempting suicide and was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, where she wrote letters to the Prime Minister, the President, and the Home Minister. At this time, she met and won the support of Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Laureate and human rights activist, who promised to take up Sharmila's cause at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In 2011, she invited anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare to visit Manipur, and Hazare sent two representatives to meet with her.
In October 2011, the Manipur Pradesh All India Trinamool Congress announced their support for Sharmila and called on party chief Mamata Banerjee to help repeal the AFSPA. The Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI ML) also stated its support for her and for repeal of AFSPA, calling for nationwide agitation. In November, at the end of the eleventh year of her fast, Sharmila again called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to repeal the law. On 3 November 100 women formed a human chain in Ambari to show support for Sharmila, while other civil society groups staged a 24-hour fast in a show of solidarity.
In 2011 the Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign (SSSC) was launched to highlight Sharmila's struggle and in December 2011, Pune University announced a scholarship program for 39 female Manipuri students to take degree courses in honour of Irom Sharmila Chanu's 39 years of age.
She has only met her mother once since the start of the fast as seeing her mother's anguish may break her resolve. She said "The day AFSPA is repealed I will eat rice from my mother's hand."
On 28 March 2016, she was released from judicial custody as charges against her was rejected by a local court in Imphal. Sharmila kept her vow of neither entering her house nor meeting her mother till the government repeals AFSPA and went to continue her fast at Shahid Minar, Imphal on the same day of her release. She was again arrested by the police under the same charge of attempt to commit suicide by means of indefinite fast.
On 26 July 2016, Irom Sharmila, who had been on a hunger strike since 2000, announced that she would end her fast on 9 August 2016. She also announced that she would contest state elections in Manipur.
The objective of her fast and entering politics is to fight for the removal of AFSPA as she has asserted "I will join politics and my fight will continue."
Sharmila was awarded the 2007 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, which is given to "an outstanding person or group, active in the promotion and advocacy of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights". She shared the award with Lenin Raghuvanshi of People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, a northeastern Indian human rights organisation.
In 2009, she was awarded the first Mayillama Award of the Mayilamma Foundation "for achievement of her nonviolent struggle in Manipur".
In 2010, she won a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission. Later that year, she won the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, which came with a cash award of 5,100,000 rupees, and the Sarva Gunah Sampannah "Award for Peace and Harmony" from the Signature Training Centre.
In 2013 Amnesty International declared her a Prisoner of conscience, and said she "is being held solely for a peaceful expression of her beliefs." The influence made by Irom Sharmila is often considered as powerful as the influences by personalities in the past and present.
In October 2016, she launched a political party named Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance to contest two Assembly constituencies of Khurai and Khangabok. Khangabok is the home constituency of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh. In the 2017 elections, the winner in Thoubal, Ibobi Singh, received 18,649 and Sharmilla received 90 votes; the fewest of the five candidates.
Deepti Priya Mehrotra's Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and the Struggle for Peace in Manipur details Sharmila's life and the political background of her fast. IronIrom: Two Journeys : Where the Abnormal is Normal (2012, with Minnie Vaid and Tayenjam Bijoykumar Singh)
Ojas S V, a theater artist from Pune, performed a mono-play titled Le Mashale ("Take the Torch"), based on Irom Sharmila's life and struggle. It is an adaptation of Meira Paibi (Women bearing torches), a drama written by Malayalam playwright Civic Chandran. The play was performed at several venues in several Indian states.Fragrance of Peace (2010)