Irom Sharmila’s decision to call off her fast is as powerful as her 16-year struggle. We need to understand what she’s telling us
A saint or a satyagrahi is often put on a pedestal freezing her acts of goodness in time. Goodness acquires an act of fixed quality embedded in amber. Rather than becoming a living creature, a saint or an icon becomes a hoarding, a permanent spectacle or a redundant quotation. Saintliness or heroism becomes a bundle of pictures in a calendar, a statue standing inflexibly. Goodness becomes a stencil fixed for time.
Two people, however, challenged this stereotype of heroism by being constantly inventive. One was Mahatma Gandhi, for whom every fast, every act of protest involved self-criticism. Gandhi often withdrew from an act of Satyagraha if he felt there was unnecessary violence. He would often critique his own life of Brahmacharya if his protests were not functioning the way he expected. In that sense, whether it was fasting or protest, they were seen as constant bodily and thought experiments subject to constant revision. To cope with Gandhi in these moments of critique and perfectibility was not easy because his was an attempt to make the ethical creatively political.
Story of another experiment
Another such experiment haunts India today. Irom Sharmila, whose legendary fast dominated the Manipuri political landscape, >decided to suspend her hunger strike that she began in November 2000, making her protest the longest fast in history. The iconicity of Ms. Sharmila’s fast does not stem merely from its length but from sheer epic courage. It is a legendary act of ethics which needs no Guinness World Records to certify it. It was the greatest challenge to Delhi as a regime, challenging its humanity, its integrity. Ms. 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 struggle.
When Ms. 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”. Ms. 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. Ms. 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. Ms. 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 can add to it the c >omments of politicians like Omar Abdullah and P. Chidambaram that AFSPA should have been abandoned years ago if political parties had the required courage and wisdom. Mr. Chidambaram’s essay on impunity and immunity in his latest book is a poignant footnote to Ms. Sharmila’s struggle.
Affirmation of the political process
The beauty is that despite the failure of law and despite the cynicism of politics, it is Ms. 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. Ms. 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. In fact, she is signalling that she does not want to be turned into a Tussauds of politics, as something frozen and immovable. If politics is muscular, it must be supple. 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. Ms. 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. The innuendo that her domestic enthusiasm has weakened her political will does not ring true. In fact, in an interview a year ago, I asked her what she would do if AFSPA was repealed. She laughed, literally, giggled in delight at the prospect, and said, “I want to live like a normal woman, and get married.” She hinted that some people might have a vested interest in her image but she felt no urge to support them. She suggested it was normalcy for Manipur she fought for, and it is that sense of normalcy she wanted for herself as a woman. Her accompanying laughter was a toast to life and her enjoyment of the small routines of life. I remember she showed her child-like drawings with great enthusiasm as if she was as proud of her art as of her politics. Maybe both revealed the link between laughter and normalcy.
Of a deeper tradition
Ms. 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. Ms. 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. Ms. Sharmila’s every act is part of that tradition.
One of the beauties of a great book like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is that it does not end when war ends. Tolstoy realises a novel is much more kaleidoscopic. It ends when the hero gets married, settles down to a life of routine, even boredom. To end at the moment of heroic drama would have destroyed the integrity of the novel. I think in a similar way Ms. Sharmila is already prescient of the future. As the legislature and the courts are getting psychologically ready to repeal AFSPA, Ms. 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. Ms. 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.