The first time since 42-year-old Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike, since the year 2000, to pressure the central and state governments to lift the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from the state, a sessions court on Tuesday ordered her release. The court overturned an earlier order by a judicial magistrate earlier last month slapping section 309 of the IPC, attempt to commit suicide on the civil rights activist. But even as the entire state waits in anticipation for their icon to be released finally from her house arrest (Sharmila has been kept in judicial custody in a ward at JNIMS hospital), the consequences of this historic judgment is being debated.
The actual release itself is unraveling in the midst of great confusion in the capital city of Imphal.
Her family as well as activists in Manipur, who have supported her cause for over a decade now believe that it is just a matter of time that Sharmila is re-arrested and taken into custody by the state government once again. Many believe, and rightly so, that Sharmila is perceived to be too much of a threat for the state government and too dangerous “to be let lose”’ with no restrictions on her movement and exposure to people.
The question to be asked now, is what charges the state government will come up with to ensure that she can be taken into custody again. With the court throwing section 309 out of the window, the only recourse the state government may have is to approach the Manipur High Court for a stay.
Why? In this distant small land locked conflict ridden north eastern state, during this decade of her fight against what is perceived as a draconian law, Sharmila is much more than just being an icon – she is a Goddess. What Sharmila will have to see once she comes out is how much actual support she can garner – this is just a matter of logistics. The state government rightly fears that masses of Manipuris, cutting across differences in religion and tribe – are likely to flock to her.
Activists in Manipur are ecstatic about her release, Sharmila fasting in judicial custody gave an unprecedented impetus to their cause, outside judicial custody she will be a force to be reckoned with. Freedom of movement will allow her to travel across the state garnering support, binding communities together for the first time.
She will be able to travel to Delhi and other cities in the country taking her appeal directly to the people of India herself. She will be able to take her message to international forums as well. One of the ways, activists here say, that Sharmila’s powers have been kept curtailed and her wings clipped has been by keeping her in complete isolation. It is easier for someone from Delhi to receive permission to meet her than a local Manipuri. The government tactic has been to keep her disconnected from her people.
But Sharmila’s stature in the state as goddess has its own attendant problems. In an earlier interview to The Indian Express she had said that she wanted to be seen as “simply a human being and not a God”. Her dilemma had been brought on by a romance with the Goan born British citizen Desmond Coutinho. His attempts to meet her and coverage of their romance in national dailies had led to violent protests in the state. An activist admits that while those who work with her treat her as a normal person, to the average Manipuri she is no longer a political leader but a spiritual one.
So what happens once she is released? Coutinho come to Manipur? Which he is likely to. Will they get married? A desire that Sharmila herself has often expressed. This is unlikely to be taken well by the people of the state. Will Sharmila’s personal life then bring to an end her decade long campaign?
With the state government fearful of Sharmila’s effect on Manipur, will they finally woo her? Or will the BJP, which has been making overtures since they came to power, step in? After the Modi government was formed Sharmila sent a number of her poems, translated into English by a DIG of Police, to the PMO. The PMO sent a letter of acknowledgment, another first.
Questions regarding her health also persist. Once out of JNIMS, how will Sharmila survive. She is to continue her fast till AFSPA is repealed, but will the state government take care of her medical care once she is no longer under house arrest.