Numbed by the brutal gunning down of 10 civilians by Assam Rifles personnel in her village, Malom, Irom Sharmila Chanu, a witness to the massacre, started a hunger strike for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Sixteen years since, the authorities have refused to heed. The AFSPA is still in force in parts of Manipur but on Tuesday, Sharmila announced that she was calling off her strike and that she planned to enter electoral politics. Her decision to go on a satyagraha was personal, so too is her move to battle the AFSPA from a new platform. She has also expressed the desire to get married and live a “normal life”. Her unrelenting commitment to a cause in the face of intense pressure from the state had turned her into not just a political icon but also a living “goddess”, a state she has been uncomfortable with. There is bound to be pressure on her to rethink the decision since the state has refused to yield ground on the AFSPA. She ought to stay with her decision and continue her battle from the platform of electoral democracy, surely the most legitimate avenue to transform politics and policy.
Sharmila’s act of protest was a return to politics as a moral act. She had reinvented a Gandhian practice to ask difficult moral questions about the state and statecraft. Her protest turned into an education for people outside Manipur and other states, where the AFSPA is in force, about this draconian law. The exceptionalism that the act claimed for security forces has since come under public scrutiny and triggered a debate about the law. Sharmila’s contribution to undermining the legitimacy of the AFSPA — the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee and, recently, the Supreme Court have underlined the undesirability of the act — is immense. The state ignored these censures but the reliance on the AFSPA to police restive populations is now increasingly seen as a sign of its weakness. The state responded to her defiance by criminalising her protest. That endeared her even more to the protesters: She became a representative mother figure of all Manipuris who silently opposed the state’s highhandedness and insensitivity to a people’s demand for justice.
At a time when violence has been the signature language of dissent and protest, Sharmila offered a different vision. It is facile to claim that she failed; the truth is the state that claims the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi had failed her.