When Irom Sharmila won a meager 90 votes in the recent Assembly elections in Manipur, she elicited two distinct reactions.
One, was liberals guilt-tripping the people of Manipur for not voting Irom Sharmila to power. The second reaction, mostly from right-wingers, was to mock her guts, to call her a media-created goddess. Irom Sharmila, who had spoken of her desire to get married, have children and lead a normal life after the elections, vowed never to contest elections ever again.
THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
Irom Sharmila (not ‘Iron’ Sharmila as a lot of people confuse her as) began her fast in the year 2000. Hrithik Roshan had made his debut and his film was still playing in some theatres. Govinda was a popular actor, and the Internet and mobile phones had just made inroads into India’s cities.
Her fast began on Nov. 3, 2000 and was triggered by the gunning down of 10 civilians while waiting for a bus. She demanded the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, that has been in force since 1958. Ironically, AFSPA owes its roots to the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942, enforced by the British to quell the ‘Quit India’ movement.
The AFSPA gives the state extraordinary powers in order to retain the peace and harmony of the land. Currently enforced in five of the seven North-eastern states and Kashmir (and temporarily in Punjab), the nitty-gritties of AFSPA have been debated for decades now.
Under AFSPA, congregations are illegal, the forces have the right to search, frisk, raid, arrest, interrogate and shoot at sight suspects without citing any reason or warrant. The Act also provides protection to the armed forces, as the steps taken are purported to be to in good faith. The Central Government’s intervention is needed for any prosecution of the armed forces/officers.
Since it was enforced in 1958, there have been a number of humanitarian mishaps attributed to the armed forces. There have been reviews, promises to repeal AFSPA in parts, commissions set up by Central governments to analyse the impact of the Act, and a number of extra-judiciary killings have been reported, in a country with a recurring judicial killings problem. It must be remembered that AFSPA can be repealed by the state governments, as seen in Punjab and Tripura, which successfully lifted AFSPA from their states.
IROM SHARMILA’S FAST
Irom Sharmila’s protest, where she vowed not to eat, drink or cut her hair till AFSPA was repealed in Manipur completely, made her the world’s longest hunger striker. Support and awards flowed in, editorials and interviews continued to be published in her name.
Irom Sharmila’s name featured in quizzes, GK Refresher booklets, posters in universities, and articles by foreign correspondents in India. For 16 years, Irom Sharmila presented herself in court every two weeks. For 16 years, Irom Sharmila protested against AFSPA and demanded its removal. It was a unique protest, one woman taking on the system through nonviolent means for 16 years.
Somewhere along the 16 years, her family turned its back on her. Somewhere along the 16 years, she fell in love with a man and got engaged to him. Somewhere along the line, support for her within Manipur reduced, with even death threats sent out for her choice in partner. For 16 years, Irom Sharmila was confined to a hospital ward, tubes running through her body as she was force-fed by the state since it is illegal to take one’s life.
And then, on August 9, 2016, Irom Sharmila decided to end her fast, and contest electoral politics.
In spite of offers from a few political parties, Irom Sharmila decided to fight it out alone.
She vowed to repeal AFSPA in Manipur if elected as the CM, and took on Okram Ibobi Singh, three time Chief Minister who was nicknamed ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ for every deal signed in the state, according to a leak by Wikileaks.
While it might have been a courageous move, it reeked of political immaturity. Politics, unlike people’s movements, is a different ballgame. No amount of visibility, experience or public life can guarantee political victory. It’s like Sachin Tendulkar competing in Table Tennis – he has to start from the basics all over again!
A protest is based on foundations of ideals, beliefs and devotion to an idea. Politics is based on nothing at all. No ideals, no principles, just numbers. Cold statistics. Going with the Congress was out of question, as the INC was in power for 10 of Irom Sharmila’s protest years. Partnering with BJP was impossible as it is the ruling party at the Centre.
Irom Sharmila formed her own party – People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance and took on the Chief Minister in his own den. On paper, it was a victory for the movement – the face of a movement who entered the political arena to take the battle to the domain of electoral politics. JP Narayan did it in 1977, as the nation bent under the Emergency enforced by Indira Gandhi. More recently, Arvind Kejriwal stormed to power, winning nearly every single seat in the Delhi Assembly elections. So it certainly wasn’t the first time.
But it had had happened too suddenly, and seven months in politics is equal to the blink of an eye. JP’s campaign was built from the grassroots through hundreds of rallies and arrests. Kejriwal’s routing at the Delhi elections came on the back of a nation-wide anti-corruption campaign that hogged headlines for weeks at stretch. Irom Sharmila got the support of intelligentsia, Kejriwal (who also gave her Rs. 50,000) and supporters in social media, magazines and journals.
Unfortunately though, India does not vote in the boardrooms of newspaper offices, or in university campuses. India votes in its zillas and gram panchayats. In government schools and lanes of roads wide and narrow. In government ration shops and dispensaries, in farms and factories, in huts and houses.
Irom Sharmila won only 90 votes. There were more NOTA (None of the above) votes than the votes she won. After 16 years, Irom Sharmila jumped on to a different domain and lost a heartbreaking election. Articles, memes and editorials guilted the people of Manipur for not choosing Irom Sharmila.
16 years of protests, brought to an end by one false move.
Irom Sharmila swore never to contest elections again. She fought the system for 16 years, but the world has changed in these 16 years.
Perhaps Irom Sharmila will get to lead a regular life now. Perhaps she will get married and have kids like she professed a few years ago. May be Irom Sharmila will get to enjoy the joys of regular life, of marital bliss, the reassuring banalities of everyday married life. Or will she?
Will Irom Sharmila lead a regular life? Is it possible to dive right back into a life that one gave up nearly two decades ago? Will Irom Sharmila be able to cook for herself and take an afternoon siesta?
Will Irom Sharmila buy her groceries?
Featured Image Courtesy: NDTV