Responding to Irom Sharmila

August 11, 2016 02:09 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:01 pm IST

Under a high Imphal sky on August 9, >Irom Chanu Sharmila finally set herself free from an indefinite hunger strike . As the events of the day unfolded in the Manipur capital, it became poignantly clear that the act of breaking the fast was as much an uncommon act of resistance as her long and brave struggle these past 16 years against atrocity. She has done so with a sense of individual agency, writing poetry, and constantly speaking up with moral clarity. Ms. Sharmila had refused to take food or drink since November 5, 2000, >till the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was rolled back and the security forces were denied the cloak of immunity in suspected human rights violations. Soon enough she had been arrested, force-fed in a Special Ward at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences that served as her prison, to be released every year and re-arrested. She made the occasional journey out of Imphal, but never one to her family home within the city, >having promised her mother that they would meet only once AFSPA was repealed . Now, when she chose to call off the fast, to join the electoral process and even try to become Chief Minister of Manipur, >she found she had nowhere to go . Driven, variously, by a sense of betrayal and a fear of underground groups, nobody would shelter her on Tuesday. And she found herself back at the hospital.

> READ | Red Cross opens doors to Irom Sharmila

The fresh turns in Ms. Sharmila’s story — the ending of the fast, her desire to join the political process and her peculiar isolation — set a mirror to the state and society. As long as she was on fast, she was in a comfortable zone for both. For the state, the Gandhian non-violence implicit in her method allowed a comparison with the violence of others, positioning her as the good protester, as it were. And in fact it was the unflinching protest by Manipuri women at Imphal’s Kangla fort in 2004 that forced New Delhi to withdraw AFSPA from parts of the State. For others, Ms. Sharmila became the representative of a popular desire to hold the highest moral ground, even as they went on with their lives, though all in the face of the kind of government apathy in Manipur that must shame this country. Reading the intent behind Ms. Sharmila’s decision to pick up the threads of a personal life is akin to a Rorschach test. It’s pointless. But the breaking of the fast is a highly political act too. It demands that we respond to the cause she has given her adult life to. For herself, she has chosen to place faith in the electoral process for reform, a far more messy and risky option than the high pedestal of unyielding non-cooperation she had secured.

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