While one struggle ends, another begins for Manipur’s Iron Lady5 min read
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” While it might read like a string of syllables stitched together, the aforementioned quote by John Dalberg Acton is laced with bitter truth, applicable to a frighteningly long list of issues.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 was first introduced in the states of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Tripura, later extended to Jammu and Kashmir in July 1990. As bureaucratic jargon usually goes, the act is meant to aid in the “maintenance of public order” in “disturbed areas”. What it actually does is grant any commissioned officer, warrant officer, non-commissioned officer or any other person of equivalent rank in the armed forces, the right to shoot to kill, based on mere suspicion. Other than giving unwarranted power and immunity to the armed forces in the conflict ridden areas, the law, which is draconian in its disposition, is responsible for some of the vilest transgressions of human rights.
Google the phrase, “Biggest voices against AFSPA” and the first link to pop up among the various search results, is a Wikipedia page of a certain “Irom Chanu Sharmila”. Unkempt hair, disheveled appearance and a nasogastric tube dangling from her nose is not the prettiest sight but for the last sixteen years, Irom Sharmila or the “Iron Lady” as she is usually referred to, has been on a hunger strike demanding the repealing of the AFSPA, a dreadful legislation, which is more often abused than used. Over the years, she has been both shunned and praised. She has won recognition from Amnesty International and received support from Nobel laureates and other social activists alike, while at the same time being charged with the “attempt to commit suicide by means of indefinite fast” and kept under house arrest in a small hospital ward. This ensured her sporadic mentions in media which would die down as quickly as they would commence. While there have been activists who have raised their voice against the violation of human rights facilitated by AFSPA, Sharmila has been the face of the movement.
Earlier this month, in a move that shocked and surprised many, Irom Sharmila ended her fast. Online news portals churned out articles headlined “11 facts you need to know about Irom Sharmila”. It was as if the floodgates had opened, and a deluge of media attention flowed towards the activist. Sharmila had not even clearly stated her stance, when the blame game started. With opinions varying from government brainwashing to love-struck, (the latter because she had contemplated getting together with her longtime fiancé) everyone seemed to be furious as to how the “Iron Lady of Manipur”, the face of the anti AFSPA campaign could bow down. What enraged the mass populous even more, was the statement that Sharmila was contemplating to stand for office, in the upcoming state elections. Manipuris, who had till very recently, placed Sharmila as the apple of their eye, couldn’t digest the fact that she would suddenly show interest to stand as the head of the state, a bureaucratic chair that had once been despised by both her and the people alike.
While a backlash was expected from the people, the events that followed in the next few weeks were both shameful and frightening to the idea of activism. Sharmila, who had sacrificed her youth and personal dreams for a tumultuous lifetime of activism, finally broke her fast taking a few drops of honey, as tears streamed down her eyes. That’s all it took to change the face of a movement that had been raging on for years together. Her frail and weak body, which hadn’t ingested a morsel of food for the last sixteen years would take a few more weeks to transition from the liquid concoction of nutrients which she had been force fed, to semi solid and eventually solid food.
Stepping out from her self-proclaimed solitary confinement, Sharmila finally walked out of her small hospital ward only to realize that she won’t be taken in by anyone. After being turned down by fellow activist and former doctor, Thiyam Suresh she didn’t find solace with her family, as locals protested against offering her shelter. Even the ISKCON temple wouldn’t grant her temporary residence, stating security reasons. She returned to the same hospital ward where she had been living for the last 16 years before eventually finding new lease of life at the Nature Cure Centre on the foothills of the Langol hill range. While Red Cross Society and several others outside Manipur were willing to take her in, it was as if the sole icon of the anti AFSPA establishment had found herself homeless in her own state.
Irom Sharmila’s face had become synonymous with the struggle of the North Eastern people suffering the brunt of the wretched draconian legislation. Although Manipuri people went on with their daily lives, they were content with Sharmila being the collective conscience keeper. It had started to look like it was Sharmila’s struggle and not the people’s struggle. The public discontent must stem from something more than just the momentary reaction. For years, people of Manipur were content with Sharmila being their collective conscience keeper. They accepted Sharmila as a superhuman idol who was capable of anything, with no cost too big enough, no sacrifice great enough to not be furnished. Now when Sharmila feels that time has come for a change in strategy, they feel that she has betrayed them. Her intentions of contesting the elections is been looked at by many as a sign that she is switching sides from the people’s Sharmila to something that they have together jointly fought their whole lives.
A rationale look into the situation, and it gets clear that a need for change of strategy had been slowly realized in the last five to six years. Even Mahatma Gandhi used fast as a means to an end and not as an end in itself. The fight against AFSPA is far from over, but no leader is greater than the cause and how much ever we try to immortalize a person, we are all but human.
With the winds of change blowing across the Northeastern hinterlands, the quest for an answer lingers in the moral conscience.
Rounak Bose is a reporter at The Manipal Journal.
All views expressed in this article are personal.