Other than the conspicuous presence of reporters, there was little out of the ordinary at the wedding in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. The bridesmaid held a bouquet of flowers, the bride smiled as her beau slipped a ring on to her finger. That ordinariness was, perhaps, Irom Sharmila’s most treasured wedding gift. At the age of 44, she has married her long-time partner, Desmond Coutinho, a British of Goan origin, under the Special Marriage Act.
Sixteen of those years were spent fasting against the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur — a protest of such moral might that it moved people across the world, except the Indian state. Since she broke her fast in 2016, Sharmila has had to negotiate a complex relationship with the people of her state. Many of her supporters turned away when she decided to call off her hunger strike, as it became evident that it was losing its power as a political tool. Her relationship with Coutinho, too, had driven a wedge between her and the Meira Paibis, with whom he did not get along. Sharmila insisted on the right to her love.
This wedding is, partly, a reclamation of her personal life from the role of icon. It was, perhaps, set in motion by her staggering loss in the assembly elections in March, when she got 90 votes in a contest with then CM Okram Ibobi Singh. It was a verdict she read, in anger, as betrayal by her people. The lessons of politics tell us that it was, perhaps, more complex than that. It showed up the limits of individual resistance, as well as marked a break — Sharmila was now her own person. In Kodaikanal, her wedding was objected to by groups which suspected that her presence might lead to social unrest. Perhaps it is true a person with such fierce moral charge can hardly settle down to a life of happy domesticity, and not inspire others to lead their own battles. Perhaps, this is only a caesura in the remarkable political and personal life of Irom Sharmila.