A defeat foretold

No one doubts Irom Sharmila’s heroic resistance to AFSPA. But somewhere, she lost her bearings, confused moral strength with temporal power

Written by Pradip Phanjoubam | Published:March 20, 2017 1:22 am
irom sharmila, irom, irom manipur, irom AFSPA, AFSPA protests, manipur elections, iron lady, irom sharmila prja, india news, latest news Sharmila’s humiliating defeat, then, is certainly not a question of Manipuris ceasing to respect her or not being grateful for her superhuman contribution to their struggle. Express photo

Watching Irom Chanu Sharmila — the woman who spent 16 years of her youth in a lonely special cell in an Imphal hospital while on a hunger strike against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958 — humiliatingly dismissed from politics with just 90 votes while taking on the incumbent chief minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi Singh, was very painful. Sad though this is, it must be said nobody in the state was in any doubt about what she was headed for. But Sharmila herself remained oblivious of the dark forebodings.

There is a genre in Manipuri traditional theatre, Shumang Lila (literally ‘courtyard plays’) called Ipom that borders on the farcical and the satirical. One of these plays has a joke that goes “Nakhon yam phei, pung thillu”. Literally translated, it means, “You have a good voice so take to drumming”. This translation does not have the punch of the original joke. But its message is simple: Being good at one thing does not necessarily make you good at everything. Sharmila, the simple, steadfast and courageous young woman, who took on the might of the state, developed a hubris large enough to make her ignore the message of this joke which she, like all ordinary Manipuris, would have heard at some time or the other.

Few people would doubt Sharmila’s contribution to the cause of Manipur and its people. They, however, were also never in doubt about her ability to be a good politician. The 90 votes she received were probably a form of NOTA, given not as an affirmation of Sharmila’s capabilities, but because the voters did not believe the promises made by the other parties.

Sharmila’s humiliating defeat, then, is certainly not a question of Manipuris ceasing to respect her or not being grateful for her superhuman contribution to their struggle. It was, instead, a statement acknowledging that politics is much more complex than a one-agenda resistance campaign. The elections were not just about liking or hating the AFSPA. People’s voting decisions are determined by issues pertaining to multiple insecurities, such as unemployment, falling standards of living, a drop in the quality of education and the existential threat to the state on account of deep divisions between ethnic communities — AFSPA is just one among several insecurities.

Sharmila’s tragic hubris, which did not allow her to foresee her defeat, can be understood from one perspective. She has been on a public pedestal for long and her 16-year struggle has deservingly earned her a reputation of moral invincibility. But in her loneliness, she has had no strong or honest critics amongst those close to her, who could shape her approach to life outside the hospital cell. Somewhere, she lost her bearings and confused moral strength with temporal power.

It is difficult not to recall a rather wicked quip by V.S. Naipaul in an interview to an Indian weekly in the wake of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 after the publication of The Satanic Verses. The Nobel laureate for literature said the fatwa was a severe form of literary criticism.

The cynicism notwithstanding, in the case of Sharmila too, the only real criticism she has had to face since she decided to end her fast and join politics was of a severe kind from her long-time supporters. These elderly women of the Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign) were outraged and even went about physically obstructing her movements after her release on August 9, 2016. In an interview I had with her, much later, Sharmila said she made up with her former supporters in a community feast, and it was agreed they would part ways, campaign against the AFSPA in their own ways.

That “criticism” was startling, but Sharmila has had no other criticism to test the merit of her decisions, and therefore remained blind to messages of caution. She, instead, was nudged by many into believing that she was invincible. One of her major influences is her boyfriend, an NRI of Goan origin with very condescending opinions of Manipur and Manipuris. He extracted a power of attorney from her that he will be the sole spokesperson and arbitrator of her decisions, and posted the document on social media. This association could have turned many more of Sharmila’s supporters against her. Sharmila ought to have also been advised that some aspects of a public personality’s private life need to be kept away from public political space.

But there was also an adulating horde, which often deified her in social media or expressed moral solidarity with her struggle, and often vilified those around her. They too are responsible for the hubris which pushed Sharmila into contesting, not from her home constituency, Khurai, but from Thoubal which meant taking on Ibobi Singh on his own turf. Sharmila has now declared she would not be contesting elections, but would continue to be the moral backbone of her party, People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). This declaration can only be good for her and the PRJA’s future. Sharmila is a non-violent resister par excellence but a very naïve politician.

Phanjoubam is editor, ‘Imphal Free Press’and author of ‘The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers’

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  1. R
    Mar 20, 2017 at 12:28 pm
    Feel bad that she lost.
    1. R
      Mar 20, 2017 at 12:06 pm
      She lost because of Kejri chor supported her. He is a curse. lt;br/gt;But I admire her resolve and strength.
      1. J
        Mar 20, 2017 at 2:27 am
        The article talks about her protest by starving herself for 16 years as a heroic act of resistance that had ability and merit vs this political stint. Actually she was the same idealistic, hopeful and naive person in both instances who believed her symbolic act would galvanize even cynical people. For starving herself for 16 years we would like to act like we admire her, but clearly if people in the country cared enough for her or the people of the North-East then she would not have had to starve for 16 years.
        1. G
          Gyanen Khumbongcha
          Mar 20, 2017 at 8:36 am
          Respect her contribution but we people of Manipur need mature and experience politicians to run the state.
          1. J
            Jemma Thomas
            Mar 20, 2017 at 9:51 am
            she was nothing but a media hype. who cares about such stunts. people have shown her a door to get out of their place. she was funded by so called NGO traitors just to bully dumb pm like manmohan but won't work with real PM like Modi. so she got the message and packed her bags up. It all happened in just in 2 years. This shows what a pathetic impotent govt we had for 10 years and wasted time and money that too poor people's money. If this happened in China, they would gon to the firing squad range and we never would have heard about them again. But in country like India, they are let to roam around and keep demoralising the country. I don't when India will learn how to get on fast track by getting rid of these dead woods.
            1. M
              Mahender Goriganti
              Mar 20, 2017 at 4:03 am
              India is infected with a lot of 'paid social workers as army' to wage war on national security and well being from all angles in the name of all kinds of fancy names like BGOs social workers Maoists, human rights org. missionaries, Madras, animal rights environmentalists etc.apart from UN, WTO, aid groups relief organizationsm World bank, other international organization
              1. S
                sajjan Kar
                Mar 20, 2017 at 5:13 am
                Very nice analysis
                1. H
                  Mar 20, 2017 at 3:37 am
                  She should have taken up social service instead of politics, which is the game of scoundrels. People though she will not be fit as a politician, which is good for her. Hope she takes a lesson and not enter politics. People like Kejriwal should also do this.
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