Irom Chanu Sharmila’s >announcement that she would end her hunger strike on August 9 has taken almost everyone by surprise. Hers has been a powerful act of peaceful resistance that effectively undermined the government’s legalistic, obfuscatory defence of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, exposing its corrosive effect on democracy and humanity. Days after 10 persons were killed, allegedly by the Assam Rifles, near Imphal in November 2000, Ms. Sharmila began a fast seeking the revocation of the Act, which gives immunity to security forces in “disturbed areas”. Manipur was brought under the Disturbed Areas Act in 1980, and in the purported effort to combat insurgent groups, there were frequent cases of suspected extrajudicial killings that stoked anger and helplessness. Ms. Sharmila’s forced nutrition through a pipe, and confinement in Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital on charges of attempting suicide, have been the backdrop to continued protests in Manipur. In 2004, for example, 12 women led an agitation against the killing and suspected rape of a young woman, Thangjam Manorama, by the Assam Rifles by stripping themselves at Imphal’s Kangla Fort and proclaiming, “We are all Manorama’s mothers.” In Manipuri society, the “mothers” are a courageous constant, organising the daily commerce of life and standing up defiantly to oppression. In this tapestry of protest against injustice, Ms. Sharmila acquired a place that quickly seemed timeless. The government has given in incrementally — for instance, withdrawing the Assam Rifles from Kangla and AFSPA from segments in Imphal. But overall, AFSPA remained in force, with Ms. Sharmila its constant conscientious objector. By ending the fast, she ironically managed to bring the issue back to the headlines.
For years now, another narrative has played out: she has given periodic signals that she wants to reclaim her life. For instance, by seeking her right to vote, or by indicating that she was in love and would like to marry once the objective of her fast had been achieved. Her statement that she would stand for Assembly elections is a culmination of this. This too is a form of resistance, against being branded forever as the face of a cause and thereby denied a personal life. Perhaps she has done all she could by the fast. Certainly, it is too much to ask an individual to put her own life in abeyance. The cause remains. This month the Supreme Court gave hope that >crimes committed under the cover of AFSPA could be investigated and justice won for 1,528 deaths in Manipur. Yet Manipur’s people must wonder, what headline-grabbing protests must they come up with to end apathy to their neglect.