Restive Manipur is divided over Irom Sharmila’s decision to end her fast and enter electoral politics

Irom Sharmila ends her 16-year fast but does she have the political capital to fight onPTI
Voices Human rights Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 17:49

By Sunzu Bachaspatimayum

Playing to the media gallery, she licked a drop of honey from her fingertip at a press conference on Tuesday, held outside the special ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) in Imphal.

But the cameras captured more than that historic moment of Irom Sharmila visually breaking her fast. After a drop of honey was poured on her right palm, she stared at it, winced and fighting back her tears in vain, dipped her left index finger and tearfully looked at the media that surrounded her and finally licked the honey. With that, Sharmila broke her 16-year fast.

For someone who has refused to eat or drink for 16 years and has been kept alive by force-feeding through a nasal tube, it must have been an unsettling sensation and Sharmila’s expression said it all.

Described as the "Iron Lady of Manipur", the iconic activist ended her 16-year hunger strike on August 9 declaring that she is changing her strategy for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

 “I’ve been fasting for the last 16 years. I haven’t got anything from it yet. I want to try a different agitation now. I am ending my fast today. I will contest in the upcoming state elections. I want to become the Chief Minister of Manipur and the first thing I’ll do is repeal AFSPA,” announced Sharmila after a court granted her bail.

On 2nd November 2000, troopers of Assam Rifles, the oldest paramilitary force of the country, gunned down 10 civilians, including a child bravery award recipient when they were waiting for a bus at Malom, a nondescript village in the outskirts of Imphal. This massacre provoked Sharmila to launch a hunger strike against alleged atrocities perpetuated under AFSPA, alleging the Act gives sweeping powers to the military to arrest and even kill people on suspicion.  

Charging her of attempting to commit suicide under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, the Manipur government has, for all these years, been arresting, releasing and re-arresting her every time the 365-day judicial custody lapses.

Her unwavering spirit for the hunger strike propelled her as the daring symbol of resistance across out the country. All through, she has maintained, she isn’t attempting to suicide but is engaging in a non-violent, political protest to force the government to repeal AFSPA.

Sharmila reiterated that by ending her fast she is not giving up her campaign against AFSPA but only changing strategy. She asserted that she needed political power to achieve her goal.

“I want to be the CM of Manipur to make a positive change. I know nothing about politics and academically I’m mediocre. But I want to convince our people that in a democracy, power is of the people, for the people and by the people. I want to invite around 20 independent candidates to join me and fight the upcoming state election and make real democracy work for once,” replied Sharmila when asked how she alone can repeal the Act in the numbers game of democracy.

Restive Manipur is divided over Irom Sharmila’s decision to end her fast and enter electoral politics. Besides being surprised by her decision, the state has by and large accepted it gracefully. However, her move to join politics and get married to her pen-pal turned fiancé, Desmond Coutinho is harder to swallow for the people.

Last week, radical groups had appealed to Sharmila to review her decision to enter politics. The Alliance for Socialist Unity Kangleipak (ASUK), a radical group and two other insurgent outfits Kangleipak Yawol Kunna Lup and Kangleipa Communist Party issued a four-page appeal, arguing why contesting in the election will only demean her heroic struggle against AFSPA. Some media organisations interpreted the appeal as a threat to Sharmila, drawing parallels with the assassination of a former rebel supremo in 1995, who offended an armed organisation he founded by contesting in the state assembly election.

Certainly, her decision to join politics has been criticised with many refusing to comment and even some going to the extent of saying her statement desiring to become the Chief Minister is too farfetched. Arun Singh, a doctor at JNIMS while accepting her decision to end fasting refused to support her as a politician. “Her decision to join politics is totally wrong. I’ll never support her as a candidate as she will never be able to achieve what she wants because politics is a number game and she simply does not have it.”

“I’m totally shocked to learn of Sharmila’s sudden change of game plan to end fasting and join electoral politics. I’m inclined to think there is a large political design in this. You know, Manipur state assembly election is around the corner.” said a rights activist from Imphal. He also revealed that many political parties are approaching Sharmila to join them through her close associates and family members.

When asked to comment on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who she had appealed to repeal AFSPA, Sharmila said he continues to alienate the Manipuris. “Oh, Mr Prime Minister, you continue to indulge in violence. You need to govern with fatherly affection, without discrimination.” 

Why is someone as principled as Sharmila, who has in the past said, “there is no real democracy in Manipur” and admitted that society is as dirty as politics itself, coming down from her high ground onto the dirt?  What would she achieve in the nasty game of politics when she herself admitted she has no political clout nor knowledge? These are some of the pertinent questions most are quietly asking after her announcement.

There is tremendous respect and love for Irom Sharmila and for her fight against AFSPA. Whether this new strategy will translate into votes and give the “Iron Lady of Manipur” the political power she thinks is instrumental in repealing AFSPA is doubtful. Manipur’s political culture is steeped in money power, and is not issue-driven.

The image of a tearful Sharmila tasting honey is indeed moving but the expression she wore after tasting something for the first time is uncomfortably profound. One hopes her decision to join politics, does not leave her with a bitter taste.

Sunzu Bachaspatimayum is a freelance journalist cum documentary filmmaker based in Manipur.

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author