When 44 year old Irom Sharmila Chanu came out of the Imphal court yesterday morning to announce that she will break her 16-year old hunger strike and instead run for the Manipur assembly, she took not only Manipur but the rest of the country by surprise. Even pressure groups, human rights activists in the state and even her own family were caught unawares by her unexpected announcement.
Sharmila’s own discontent had been apparent for the past few years. In interview after interview with various newspapers and news channels, Sharmila would talk of wanting to “lead a normal life.’’ She would often talk of her frustration with even her own people, for having appointed her a god-like figure, a symbol of their struggle and movement, bypassing her own desires and needs. “I want to tell my people to treat me like an ordinary human being and not like a God,’’she said in interview after interview.
She would make known her disappointment with the political leaders of the state and the country, none of whom would visit her in the special ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, where she has been kept as an under trial prisoner and which has been her home for these 16 years. Painfully force fed via a Ryles tube through nose, when Sharmila was released briefly in 2014, after an Imphal sessions court said that the charges against her were invalid (Sharmila has been facing charges under section 309 of the IPC, attempt to commit suicide) she held a press conference where she made a heart rendering appeal to the government and the people to repeal AFSPA, to help her “have food again.’’
For years Sharmila kept herself well informed, with the police personnel guarding her, and the hospital staff attending to her medical needs, bringing her news of the outside world and in the state. And while muted rumblings in Manipur have emerged, of pressure groups questioning her move, Sharmila’s decision is far more understandable than it seems at first glance.
Sharmila has decided to change tactics. After 16 long years of a hunger strike and personal sacrifices that have rightfully earned her great national and international acclaim, her personal story seems to have been unable to make even a dent in central and state government policies. The draconian provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that Sharmila has been fighting against, remain intact and in force in the state — despite Sharmila’s own struggles, and despite opinions such as that of the former Home Secretary of the country GK Pillai who had recommended that the law be repealed in Manipur.
Sharmila’s decision to join politics may seem like a whim, but it is better planned than first meets the eye. When she was released in 2014, and visited Ima Keithel, Imphal city’s largest and only women’s market, thousands of Manipuris thronged to catch a glimpse of their iron lady. Women rushed to her, many weeping, hugged her, blessed her.
The sheer number of people who had turned out to meet their hero is rumoured to have not only surprised but alarmed the Manipur government who then ensured that within days of her release, Sharmila was charged with the same offenses and sent back to JNIMS. At the time Sharmila had been approached by the Aam Aadmi Party to fight the general elections, which she had turned down.
But her move nevertheless remains a gamble. She has been known to tell friends close to her that she would have broken her fast yesterday but decided on the August 9 hearing because she wanted to “test the waters and the reaction of the people.’’ Her support base is now split in two: those who believe that her move may just derail and jeopardize the Manipur people’s struggle to repeal AFSPA from the state and those who have decided to lend her full support, whether inside or outside the jail premises. Whatever the reaction, if Sharmila were to indeed contest the upcoming Manipur assembly elections expected in February next year, she will change the complexion of politics in a state where votes are easily bought and muscle power backed by various insurgent groups decide winning candidates and the outcome of elections.
For now, the security around the special ward at the hospital has been tightened more than ever before and Sharmila remains more isolated than she has been in years.