The present-day buzz
Post the Manipur Assembly elections results, the one thing that has been commonly spoken aloud is about the number of votes that Irom Sharmila has been able to get- 90 to be exact, 53 less than NOTA (None Of The Above). The social networking sites have been flooded with several texts and messages, through which the users have shown their solidarity with the ‘iron’ lady.
“Her decision to contest the elections was a big mistake. The day she announced that she is ending her fast; Sharmila lost half the support she had from the people of Manipur. Irom was ‘Irom’ for her 16-year old fast otherwise, she is just like any other person like you and me,” says Robert, a Gauhati University student.
“I can stand by her in her figh to repeal AFSPA (Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act). She gradually turned to a demigod-like figure and I could hardly stand with her when she withdew her fast citing a personal reason. No, this is not acceptable to me. But then again, she is an individual having her own choices. I should respect her choices, but the problem with me is that for the past 16 years I have lived with the belief that her struggle was the only option she had and there was no place for any other option in her life, for her struggle was my struggle too. But then, suddenly, one day…my belief was shattered. You are no ‘god,’ but just a human like you and me. I felt cheated. I felt I was lied to,” Robert adds on further.
Blast from the past
Irom Chanu Sharmila, an activist from Manipur, in 2000, began a hunger strike which she ended on August 9, 2016, after 16 years of fasting. The hunger strike began after ten civilians on November 2, 2000, were shot dead while waiting at a bus stop. The incident took place in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley. The incident is also known as ‘Malom Massacre, ’ and it was ‘allegedly’ committed by the Assam Rifles. The victims included a national bravery award winner as well.
The then 28-year old Sharmila was deeply moved by the incident and demanding the Indian Government for the removal of AFSPA, she sat on an indefinite hunger strike and she ‘vowed’ not to eat, drink, comb her hair or look in a mirror until AFSPA was repealed.
Sharmila was arrested three days after she began her hunger strike and she was charged with an ‘attempt to commit suicide’- which was unlawful under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) at that time. Her health gradually deteriorated and nasogastric intubation was forced on her to keep her alive. Since then she has been in-and-out of jail.
Decoding election debacle
On a personal note, I feel that Sharmila (for the Manipuris) was never the ‘hero’ who we thought she was. She was respected, yes she was, and she was looked up as a pedestal of strength but the hero that we (non-Manipuris) thought she was, I feel was a fluke and it was nothing more than that line on the horizon. It always seemed to be near, but it ran far away as we leapt closer. I respect Sharmila for what she did, but somewhere I feel this respect, which most of the non-Manipuris have in their hearts, is missing from a major chunk of Manipuris. However, this is just an assumption.
News related to ‘alleged’ atrocities of the Indian Army upon the Manipuris is not new. Blasts, shootouts, etc, have mostly been the news headlines. In a nutshell, whenever I think about the ‘Princely’ state of Manipur, the only feeling I get is that ‘this is a lost state.’
Coming back to Irom Sharmila, the Indian Army, AFSPA and Sharmila’s fight and the public support, let us ask ourselves- did Manipur support Sharmila ever? The reply to this question will be tough for an outsider like me to answer. It is further difficult for me to respond as because I have not set foot in Manipur yet, but from what I have observed from the news and my interactions with friends from Manipur, I have developed an answer and this is a big ‘no’. Yes, Manipur (in the majority) never supported Sharmila. Except for a few organisations, most organisations stood by her for their own ‘profit of mileage’.
“From say around 2011-12, a lot number of Manipuri youths are joining the Indian Army. In some recruitment, the recruited belonged to those families in which some member or the other was allegedly killed by the Indian Army, or say AFSPA preyed upon them. Will you say now thatManipur hates the Indian Army or dislikes it? If they would have, then we would have never ever joined the Army and seated by Sharmila’s side. But did we do that? Emotions and practicality are two different coins,” says a mid-level journalist from Manipur seeking anonymity.
“Yes we have problems with AFSPA and so does Assam. But see the vast difference between your state and my state. AFSPA is just one issue and believe me people have learned to live on with it,” he says further, before adding, “We condemn Malom Massacre even today and we hate the Assam Rifles for it. But…”
Another journalist from the State, also seeking anonymity and speaking in similar veins says, “There comes a time when people are frustrated with something, and they need freedom from it. AFSPA is something like that. But as we are brave only on the face, we needed someone to shoulder the responsibility of fighting our fight so that our normal lives continue the way it should and then we found Sharmila. She was our hero. But when she called her fast off, we lost our only hope, and for us, our hero died. And a dead hero is no good. Don’t know about others, but I felt betrayed, and if my hero betrayed me once, then there are chances that she would betray for the second time. She should not get a second chance.”
I really don’t know if these comments reflect some bit of truth or not, but we cannot sideline these in totality. If these don’t reflect the complete truth, these are not blatant lies as well!
Quoting a BBC report from August 9, 2016, ‘Sharmila told the court in the state capital, Imphal, that she was a prisoner of conscience and she wanted to end her fast, be free and fight in local assembly elections.
“I have to change my strategy. Some people are seeing me as a strange woman because I want to join politics. They say politics is dirty, but so is society. I want to stand in the elections against the government,” she said.
She told reporters she had decided to ‘try a different [form of] agitation’ because “I have been fasting for 16 years and I have not got anything from it yet.”
Sharmila accepting of not achieving anything out of her ’16-year-old’ struggle speaks volumes of what she has been going through. A person who has given her 16 years of life to a cause, when finally feels that she got ‘nothing out of it’ means either her ‘own people’ ditched on her or maybe some other plans have popped into her mind.
“People drove on her back to gain mileage. Had she continued the fast for two more years, I am sure she would have won the Noble Prize. Many felt that they lost this opportunity, an opportunity to earn name and fame for the State. Sharmila was Sharmila only because of her hunger strike and sans the strike she is nobody,” Dibakar Sinha, a first-time voter from Manipur quoted to my Manipuri journalist friend, who helped in collecting quotes from the state.
Closing the box
Even though we are talking about alternate politics creating a wave in the country, but apart from Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP (Aam Aadmi Party), we have witnessed nothing making a mark. And Kejriwal worked actively and relentlessly on the ground for years before taking thr political plunge. Apart from having a ‘clean image,’ the Delhi CM during his initial days had a different platform and plethora of issues that he touched upon. He was dynamic and not one-dimensional, which I feel Sharmila is.
Having a strong persona and a personality that can motivate and inspire a third person towards you is different. Sharmila’s decision to end her fast was a shocker for several of those who were in her support.
‘Had she consulted with the people of Manipur before taking this decision, the mandate would have been different,’ is what I read in an article (http://www.newsnation.in/india-news/why-manipur-rejected-their-iron-lady-irom-sharmila-know-reason-here-article-164387.html), published in News Nation on March 12. This opinion, according to the author (Aniruddha Bhakat), was quoted by a senior journalist. But what difference would the consultation have brought in the final outcome of votes? For me, nothing! She was destined to lose, and she lost. Maybe her vote share would have been a little more. Sharmila received 18, 559 votes less than Okram Ibobi Singh, the winner from Thoubal Constituency from where Sharmila contested the polls. Now if the journalist who said ‘mandate would have been different’ seriously feels that had Sharmila consulted the Manipuri people than she would have received another 19000 votes, then…! Maybe, he is right as I am an outsider and I really don’t know about the ground situation out there.
Manipur is a state that is in constant conflict, and it needs a lot more attention and reform. Poor governance, ignorance from the Centre, insurgency-related problems; continuous economic blockades have forced the state to limp towards progress. Over the years the State has produced some extraordinary filmmakers, theatre activists, and sportspersons. There is the necessity of a political solution, and I am sorry to say but (as of now) Irom Chanu Sharmila is not the face or the person who can tackle all these situations. Even if she had won from Thoubal Constituency but what would have Manipur gained from her victory? We know the harshness of our Indian politics, a lone survivor is either crushed or forced to join hands with those whose ideology he/she opposes.
Sharmila’s loss should not be considered as a failure of ideology, but only of an individual. Sharmila’s thinking is great, and I feel it still lives in the hearts of many. AFSPA is still a draconian law, and it should be repealed, and the road is still murky. The fight to repeal it should be on, and Sharmila should continue on her with the fight. She was alone even then when she began her fight, and she is alone even today.
She was never a hero. She is an ordinary person, whose consciousness is stronger than you, me and many of us. When she sat on fast, she did what her conscience demanded. She did the same on August 6, 2016, and she further followed her consciousness while contesting in the polls.
Irom Chanu Sharmila should be respected for what she and not the demigod that we have created out of her.
Did Manipur betray Irom Sharmila by not voting in her favour, no, they did not! Manipur betrayed her long back and the election mandate was just the final nail in the coffin!