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Romancing the Activist

As a new bunch of young followers lend hashtag support and start a social media campaign in her name, the process of moving on, of forgetting begins.

But she needs to remember, for in that memory alone is lodged her identity.

Irom Sharmila Chanu, known to the world as “the longest hunger striker in the world” and a prisoner of conscience, broke her 16-year-long fast with a drop of honey. Soon enough media commentary that had earlier given her a pedestal warmed to the altered position and began to humanise her, quite forgetting that it was her inherent humaneness that made her take such an extreme and committed step to fight the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the North Eastern state of Manipur. AFSPA allows the army to shoot at sight, arrest without warrant, use any ruse to spot “contravention of the law”.

On November 5, 2000, anguished upon seeing pictures of blood-soaked corpses of ten civilians shot dead by the Assam Rifles, she gave up food. As she said some years ago, “I was so upset that I didn’t eat. My colleagues told me to take my fasting from outside the bedroom and into the public sphere…”

She became the face of the movement.

Attempting suicide is a crime in India, so she was put under house arrest. A room in the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal served as home, where she remained incarcerated with a nose tube force-feeding her. The state spent Rs. 10,000 a month on her liquid diet of vitamins and protein. $150 does not seem like a huge sum, but Manipur ranks second highest in the below poverty line index. Around 40 people, including doctors and cops, kept vigil.

As simple as the beginning of the hunger strike was, her decision to end it without getting anywhere close to the goal is wrapped in mystery.

There are no visible shackles now. Is it the undertrial who has been liberated from prison, or the activist from lobbies, or the woman from her nurturer of the cause role or the wannabe politician from martyrdom?

Sharmila did not tell anybody about her decision. Her mother Irom Sakhi who had blessed her, her brother who was her supporter, her close associates, nobody knew. Would they have coerced her to remain the totem?

On August 9, not only did she end her fast, she also announced that she would get married and contest the state elections. But the man she wanted to marry was nowhere in sight and she has no identity card to even prove she is a citizen of India. A friend said, “It is unimaginable for anyone without a voter ID to be a people’s representative.”

For 16 years without any tangible evidence of her status she fought as one who belonged, who felt the pain. Nobody asked her for documents of proof; the supporters accepted her as their symbol of struggle and hope. For 16 years she was the people’s representative.

***

She says she wants a normal life. In many ways by fighting for a people’s right to life she challenged life itself by denial and self-destruction. She may not have wanted to become an icon but her act, tenacious and brave, was iconic.

Such was her position in the state that it was said there could be riots were she to die. As late as 2013 Human Rights Alert director Babloo Loitongbam reiterated it: “Then there would be incalculable damage to this country.”

Sharmila did not think she could have a national impact. She had no hopes from politics at the time: “Could Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have afforded to ignore me for 10 years if I belonged to a state in mainland India?”

What changed her perception overnight? Manipur remains on the fringes; the army has killed and raped many in the years she was tied to the hospital prison. Politicians did nothing.

Yet, only the government can change the status quo and repeal a law. However, unaccustomed to the territory and with new admirers, she will have to continue in the civil society mode. The system is usually quite relaxed about it, for while the protests get teeth they are in no hurry to bite. For the trouble-makers there can always be trumped-up charges.

Loitongbam, a close associate, believes, “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?”

There is no guarantee that contesting elections will bring any result. Proponents of the new strategy ignore the fact that in politics fighting as an independent candidate does not amount to remaining independent. The major parties have welcomed her decision. Those who sponsor strikes on civilians – which her battle was against – want to woo her now that her status reads ‘single’. Her rebel resume will add edginess to their drab portfolio.

Politics is not the best strategy for the idealist.

Soni Sori, tribal leader imprisoned and abused for being a Maoist, is now a card-holding party politician. She continues to be beaten up, her face blackened. Worse, diversted of dissidence, the opposition accuses her of using the victim card for petty politicking. Sharmila is more ambitious. She wants to be chief minister – to bring about positive change.

These are genuine emotions, but in their utterance they seem to negate all that has transpired before, whether it is decrying that she did not receive the kind of mass support that the Anna Hazare movement did or of being isolated.

It is indeed possible that had she conducted her hunger strike in a public square many more would have joined in, but it would not have sustained itself the way it did. Her strike is important precisely because it was not coopted by the leadership or big corporate houses. Only a Mahatma Gandhi could get away and remain a saint with such populism.

***

A teenager was one of the victims of the November strike that inspired Sharmila’s fast. His father Tokpam Somorendra is disappointed today: “By choosing a political path, she has come down from the highest Himalayan peak to a hillock.”

She has every right to choose her life but she had chosen a public form of protest for a public cause. Her decision would affect both. Those closely associated with her and the movement against AFSPA feel let down. The Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign) that carried her name has been dissolved. From a fight for the common good it has transformed into a love gone sour.

Her supporters are being criticised for questioning her ostensibly impromptu decision to give up the fast and enter politics. The media needs a vulnerable hero even if all it wants to do is pay lip service to the cause. For one who said her supporters considered her public property, she will now be crowd-funded with every rupee contributor claiming her. But she is enjoying what she sees as a fresh wind blowing: “I have been deprived of this for the past nearly 16 years and it is overwhelming to be a part of this change that we all yearn for. The distance between me and society is now clearing.”

While she has reiterated her commitment towards it, she might no more remain the light of the movement.

***

Desmond Coutinho, even in absence, looms like a shadow in the Irom Sharmila story. It was a role he was prepared for. He had written once, “I am like Yoko Ono. Or Gandhiji’s wife. I will enable her to do her thing, which is give witness to the oppressed. I am marrying a mahatma and I have a rough idea that it’s not going to be an easy-going life.”

Normality is seen as antithetical to activism. As goddess Irom Sharmila could be canonised, but the woman preserving gifts from a man she barely knew was viewed as brimming with illicit promise.

It was after reading a book on her that Desmond wrote to her. All they’ve shared is a short meeting, and waiting. He has been demonised, and those doing so have their reasons. He claimed to be Sharmila’s spokesperson; he was said to influence her, despite having access to her only through letters; he was an outsider, a Goan Indian UK citizen. Perhaps the biggest threat he posed was that he made her desire life.

Her confessions about Desmond may have fractured opinion, but he anticipated it quite some time ago when he said, “I am grateful to our opponents for putting so many obstacles in our way that it has forged in her mind that I am some kind of picaresque romantic warrior monk…” He would not have anticipated that her feet would stand on shifting sand. Within a week of declaration of intent he has become conditional to her public acceptance: “I’ve imposed one condition on entering my personal life. If the masses ignore my new strategy and abandon or insult me, I’ll begin a new chapter of my life.”

What sort of ordinariness and normal life is Irom Sharmila seeking? How well does she know her new supporters? If she sticks by her resolve to contest as an independent she will remain isolated; if she goes along with a political party, she will have to toe their line.

She may have chosen a utilitarian option, but it is not a normal life. Perhaps, all she might have wanted to do is to savour the taste on her tongue and hold a hand and reclaim at least some of the dreams of the youth she has lost. Another struggle has just begun.

More articles by:

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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