Irom Sharmila : Looking beyond Manipur for building bridges of love and peace

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat 

It was an entirely unplanned encounter with Irom Sharmila and her husband Desmond in Banguluru last month. I was having my breakfast in the morning when she along with her husband too came.  We started our conversation on the breakfast table which was not recorded and after an hour or so, I asked Desmond and Irom that I want to record it. I was unprepared and hence during the recording the battery of my camera went off and I had to use the mobile camera to record it.

The one thing that I found during the entire conversation was the conviction of Irom Sharmila, her deep faith in non-violence and this despite all the setbacks which I feel are ‘reserve’ for all of us who are honestly doing something for the people. For almost 16 years, Irom Sharmila became the voice of non-violent resistance against the brutalities inflicted in Manipur in the name of national interest. The fast that started on November 5th 2000 ultimately culminated on August 9th, 2016.  She was disturbed at the situation there when activist like Manorama faced brutal torture and Armed Forces Special Power Act became a tool to harass innocent particularly women became more vulnerable. There was a strong sentiment and popular demand in the state for repealing AFSPA. There were many who though respected her commitment for a non-violent protest but were not satisfied. It is a fact that all those who talk of reasoning and sanity are unable to ‘qualify’ the confidence of the people in this ‘democratic’ set up which is becoming highly difficult for the common person to take on those with money and muscle power.

Her basic instinct is non-violent.  She talks of justice, peace and human kindness and looking beyond Manipur to spread the message of love and peace.  I asked her whether she wants to go to Manipur again to which her reply was a bit hesitant. The fact is each one of us love our land and would definitely like to be acknowledged for the work we are doing. What can be much more painful than this that a woman who dedicated her life for the cause of people’s right in her state was unable to muster more than 90 votes when she contested election of assembly? That shows the irony of democracy where we talk about inability of good people to join it while despite all good works it is difficult to defeat the might of those who knows the pros and cons of this system.

The pain was visible in her face about her inability to go there.  She did not speak of it but the body language, the talk reflected her pain which is normal given her sacrifices. She married to her friend Desmond Coutinha in Kodaikanal sometime in August 2017. Desmond is an Irish citizen of Indian origin who was born in British colony of Zanzibar, in the African region. Though her family including her mother and brothers saw no reason to oppose her marriage, it looks somewhere there was some hitch.

Both of them are wonderful couple. Desmond understands the political issues in India particularly the caste dynamics here, the attitude towards the north east people. Both of them like to live simple life though activism in her continues.

Unfortunately the past always come. Today, the society and the political situation in India has become too polarized. It was difficult for Sharmila and Desmond to stay put in Kodaikanal as they were unable to get a house. I was informed by a friend that they wanted to settle there but could not and that reflect what kind of society we are now becoming. There was a time when such powerful symbol would always get a hearing and positive responses from the places they wanted to settle. There are many legendary people settling faraway places, nothing common with their cultural value system yet warmly adopted by the people but in Sharmila’s case it did not happen. She still does not have a passport which means she can’t go out even if she wish or somebody invite her to listen to her views.

During the time, we were conversing, she informed that her mother was nearing hundred and was not well. She wanted to be with her but could not go there. She told me that her family particularly her brother and mother was happy with her decision of marriage but a number of people disrespected her when she went on fast unto death. That was painful. Even her brother was not that forthright in defending her as she should have been defended. She had that pain that her own people where she grew, passed her youth was not that forthright in defending her as she expected.

That is a dirty and dark reality. You can always fight with enemy but it is deeply painful if you have to explain things about yourself particularly to those for whom you dedicated and sacrificed your life. She still feel that despite all these setbacks her basic trait is deep faith in nonviolent democratic movement and at the time when there is a growing factory of hatred all over the country, those who continue to speak of reason and be counted must listen to her ethical voice. Her presence would strengthen any movement for democracy, inclusion and social justice. Unfortunately, after the fast was over, people, it seems, forgot her. May be her defeat in the elections and routing of her party might have compelled them to think whether this country will ever respect the social activists who are with people 24 into 7?

It is a serious question to ponder whether as a society we really stand with people when the time come or have plenty of mischiefs and local identities that clash with each other and ultimately benefit the power elite. It is not that Irom Sharmila was the first person in social life, who pricked her conscience and yet got defeated miserably in politics. We have seen numerous other friends who got isolated and humiliated in politics which reflect the nature of manipulations that happen in our polity. It is not that the issues and sacrifice of Sharmila was not relevant but the political mechanism does not allow the honest to make an impact. People might talk about a certain Arvind Kejrival or Assam Gana Sangram Parishad but the fact is that these people too have the support of the power elite based on their positions.

It is also important for the social activists, intellectuals or many others to demystify the ‘power’ and ‘politics’. It is not that we cant influence our polity without being part of it. Even most of the time attempts are being made to turn the polity a non political issue to support the status quo. Today, the tempetation to enter Parliament and state assemblies have grown under the pretext that if we have to ‘change’ the system we have to enter it but we can understand that what is important is to support democratic movements and democratization of polity and governance. Right now, democracy is just once a five year event and most of the political parties and institutions are individuals and revolve around a personality. There is no social democracy resulting in social chaos and its legitimacy through political democracy. It is time when all the activists who are really concern about the situation rise above the narrow political interest and work towards democratization of our society. Democracy is actually strengthening the status quo at the moment and all the voices of ‘democracy’ are being throttled and termed as the threat to ‘democracy’ but the fact is voices like Sharmila and others are not threat to democracy but obstacles for those who  are autocratic and dictatorial which is legitimized through our ‘political democracy’. The problem with our political democracy is that the real dissent in India is only emerging through social movements and not through political democracy. Once you are part of mainstream political forces you are coopted and often defame the social movements.

The process of democratization and politicization must begin with our society as it will ultimately compliment the democracy and strengthen it. A weak social structure which itself is authoritarian will always throw same kind of leadership which is being reflected in our political parties, a majority of whom are undemocratic and support the status quo. In fact, success of persons like Irom Sharmila is a threat because modern day politics and political system will not be able to digest people with radical views or those who are changemakers. In the din of manipulations based on diversities of caste, region, ethnicities, those who speak of sense, reasoning and reconciliations will be thrown away. The current political trends in India popularize people with extreme positions and in that those would succeed who have calculated their numbers well. Ultimately, democracy is now reduced mere statistics of diverse groups and those who are at the margins will remain the so despite the facts that leaders will emerge and claim but the fact will remain that democracy function on the ‘legitimacy’ of ‘sovereignty’ of the people. Ironically, people are never ever asked for their opinion on any important subject which are bound to affect their lives. Asking question in democracy today is called ‘subversion’ and that is why Irom Sharmila was voice of Manipur for many but a ‘ church’ supported subversive for the ‘nationalists’. It is easy to put people into a particular bracket as fixed by your ‘national identity’ and all those who do not agree in those fixed brackets become anti-nationals or subversives.

Irom Sharmila and many others like her should join hand and build a huge movement against social and cultural oppression prevailing for thousands of years and often cleverly ignored by our social-political activists. We know if you raise the issue for political purposes or getting a seat here or there then it is a betrayal. We need a long term battle against this caste and gender prejudices in our society and for it all the like-minded people who have devoted their time and energy for the people need to reject the temptation of joining politics and then ‘serving’ the people. We would definitely like good people to join politics but we wish a strong socio-cultural force outside political structure which guide the polity of our time. Remember, the biggest nonpolitical, political organization is guiding our destiny today. If you don’t understand things then read the history of orgnisation born in 1925 in Nagpur and how it influenced India today. Only a counter culture movement to the brahmanical hegemonists in India can protect and strengthen democracy India both at social and then at political level which would be inclusive and respect India’s diversity at all levels.

Born on March 14th, 1972

November 5th, 2000 Irom Started her hunger strike

Ended on August 9th, 2016. Almost 16 years.

November 2nd 2000 incident at the Malom Valley where 10 persons were shot dead at a bus station. The incident is known as Malom massacre.