Hunger strike ends with new beginnings
Irom Sharmila’s legendary fast not only dominated the Manipuri political landscape but also once challenged the leadership in Delhi from the interior most corner of North-East India, decided to suspend her hunger strike, which she began 16 years ago in November 2000, making her protest the longest fast in history.
The intensity of Sharmila’s fast does not stem merely from its length but from sheer epic courage. It is a legendary act of ethics. It was the greatest challenge to Delhi as a regime, challenging its humanity, its integrity. Sharmila has been arrested time and again for attempted suicide. The state was forcibly feeding her and the picture of her with plastic tubes has become iconic of the Manipur’s struggle against AFSPA.
When Sharmila announced that she has decided to conclude her fast, she caught both government and her supporters by surprise. She explained: “I have to change my strategy. I will contest elections with the agenda for the repeal of AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act).” She added: “I want to see my agenda being fulfilled while I am alive. My new strategy is to use democratic power”. Sharmila’s act will demand discussion. While concluding the fast, she made two statements of hope. She decided to stand for elections and she decided to get married to her Goan-British boyfriend, Desmond Coutinho. It is the double-edged power of her announcement that needs to be celebrated. Sharmila’s statement is the very embodiment of normalcy, of the everydayness that she fought for 16 years.
People might cynically laugh that the Iron Lady, as Sharmila Chanu is called, is getting rusty after years of struggle. Yet what she was revealing was the tensility and resilience of her steadfastness. She knows she is fighting AFSPA but with a new set of strategies which has to be seen beyond questions of locality and biography. Sharmila first of all admits that government, whether Congress or BJP, has not been too responsive to her protest. This was despite the fact that the Jeevan Reddy Committee, a five-member panel which attempted to review AFSPA, recommended it be replaced by a more humane law. One among the five members in the panel was eminent Journalist and Managing Trustee of Centre for North-East Studies and Policy research Sanjoy Hazarika, who while speaking to Uday India said, “there is life beyond AFSPA. It is a good decision by Sharmila and we should respect her decision. She had done what no other people could achieve so far from such an interior corner of the country. She is not leaving the battlefield, she is just changing her strategy. So we must welcome her decision.”
The beauty is that despite the failure of law and despite the cynicism of politics, it is Sharmila who is showing faith in the political process. Her 16 years of struggle, which began as a naïve school girl who thought she would be home in a week, convinces her about the resilience of the political, her faith in Manipur and the people of India. The wonderful sense of surprise is not about breaking the fast but her deep faith in democratic politics.
Sharmila’s act is a magnificent tribute to democratic politics as a wager, as an act of faith and as a statement of her belief in the resilience of the political. It could not have been easy. Her decision follows the logic of this suppleness. What she is suggesting is that no method, no matter how ethical, should be fetishised. A method is a means to an ethical end. She seeks the repeal of AFSPA, not the continuation of her iconicity.
There was a second part of her decision, which many people are ambivalent about. Sharmila has decided that she wants to get married. If her decision to contest elections is one claim to normalcy, her enthusiasm to be married is another wager on normalcy because it is precisely normalcy that Manipur has lacked for 50 years.
Sharmila’s statement also shows the deep difference between protest as an ethical act and insurgency or terror as a vested investment in politics. Protest does not seek to perpetuate itself while terror and insurgency become self-reproductive acts where violence is perpetuated to sustain a vested interest in terror. Many insurgent groups in the Northeast became extortionate groups living off taxes rather than engaging in any act of liberation. They also became conduits for drug running along the border. Sharmila as a woman, a Manipuri and a citizen is showing a zest for life, for her gender, her culture and for democracy that one rushes to celebrate. It is a celebration of womanhood that Manipur has been famous for. It is the mothers of Manipur who paraded courageously naked before the Assam Rifles headquarters to protest against rape and violence. Sharmila’s every act is part of that tradition.
As the legislature and the courts are getting psychologically ready to repeal AFSPA, Sharmila is hinting that peace has its own problems, that returning to normalcy is an act and craft that women have to work for. There are many men who have a vested interest in war. It empowers them and gives them meaning. The coming of peace makes them purposeless. Sharmila is hinting like many wise women before her that women’s peace, like women’s work, is a craft that has to be taught to a people who may have forgotten what normalcy and everydayness is.
She fasted for 16 years to demonstrate to the rest of India that there can be no normality when the armed forces have the right to shoot to kill. The burden of ending impunity must now be shared by us all.
On March 30, 2016 a Delhi trial court acquitted Irom Sharmila on charges of attempting to commit suicide, recognizing that hers was a political fight for the right to life, and not a death wish. When a friend and I visited her the previous evening in Manipur house, she expressed satisfaction that she had been able to make her point freely before the judge. Denied the opportunity to talk to friends or political comrades, shut up alone in a hospital room for nearly 16 years with only her minders for company, Sharmila’s fast was always about more than abstinence from food – it was also simultaneously the story of India’s longest serving political prisoner and her singular courage under incarceration.
Sharmila started her fast on November 2, 2000, when the security forces killed 10 people in Imphal. She was on a customary Thursday fast, and never went off it in protest at the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), an act which guaranteed impunity for such criminal acts.
In the decades that have passed since the Act was passed in 1958, thousands of people have been killed, with the most recent count being the 1,528 cases submitted to the Supreme Court by the Extra Judicial Executive Victims Families Association.
Sharmila’s seemingly sudden decision to end her fast– without any obvious victory in sight – is almost as brave as her decision to embark on it in the first place.
Sharmila may have given up her fast but the struggle for the repeal of AFSPA has not ended. The Supreme Court, for one, must take its recent judgment towards a logical conclusion and say that not only must every case of killing by the army and security forces be investigated but that the Centre cannot withhold permission to prosecute. Political parties must go beyond ‘welcoming’ her decision to join politics to engage seriously with the issues she represents.
by Joydeep Dasgupta