Irom Sharmila’s decision to end her fast is a moment for us to pause, and take stock. It is also a moment to celebrate not only her extraordinary grit but also the fact that she will live free once again. On August 9, she will resume normal eating, and by so doing, become a free citizen: No longer jailed, under a spurious charge (“attempt to suicide”).
Sharmila’s is a political fast. She began the fast on November 3, 2000, demanding withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur — a law which empowers armed forces personnel to shoot and kill on the mere suspicion of “a threat to law and order”. Documented atrocities — killings, disappearances, rape, harassment, torture — have piled up over the years. The AFSPA has been promulgated in most parts of Manipur since 1980. It is an anti-insurgency law, but under it, insurgency has multiplied manifold. The law is in force also in Jammu and Kashmir, and other parts of north-east India.
Sharmila’s stand points to the imperative need for a political solution, rather than a military one, to the problems faced by Manipur. There should be dialogue, rather than repression. A recent Supreme Court judgment provides much-needed corroboration for such a stand: The court ruled that that armed forces cannot use excessive force even in areas that come under the AFSPA. According to the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM), the petitioner in this Supreme Court case, there have been 1,528 fake encounters in Manipur by the armed forces and state commandos since the 1970s. The Supreme Court has questioned the impunity and noted that all these “must be investigated.”
What, if anything, has Sharmila’s fast achieved? The Indian state has not repealed the AFSPA. Does this mean she has failed?
Sharmila’s fast was an individual decision, born of deep conviction. It created a much-needed nucleus for protest, around which the pain and anger of Manipur’s ordinary citizens could coalesce. Her incredible act of endurance drew the attention of people across India, and elsewhere to the violence in Manipur. Many ordinary people, academics, human rights activists, feminists and more — began to take an interest in Manipur, learn about this state, its politics, people, culture and history. It is a part of the country long neglected by the “mainstream” — missing from the national imagination except in highly prejudiced ways.
Sharmila does not speak of secession or liberation — rather she emphasises respectful integration, people-led development, education and respect for the distinctive culture and way of life of her people. She has unshaken faith in certain goods — in human love, justice, peace, everybody’s right to lead a life free of fear.
If anything, she has sown the seeds for a different kind of politics, an intelligent revolt that relies on soul-force rather than brute strength.
Her firm, gentle persona demonstrates the power of non-violence. Dissenters need not shout or sloganeer or pick up the gun; we can challenge brute power, simply by refusing to succumb to it. The state has tried to browbeat Sharmila into silence, hide her away in a solitary cell. But this has only helped amplify her voice.
The struggle against AFSPA did not begin with Sharmila, but she brought a unique visibility to it. Meira Paibis (women activists, literally flaming torches), students and activists of Apunba Lup and organisations such as Human Rights Alert have all continued the anti-AFSPA struggle, strengthened by the growing awareness of people elsewhere. The Save Sharmila Campaign, for instance, a network of people across India, has been educating people against the AFSPA at every available forum; the National Association of People’s Movements has expressed solidarity; Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi frequently represented her cause; the United Nations Human Rights Commission has continually expressed concern for her situation. In Manipur, the first week of November is celebrated as a Festival of Peace, Justice and Hope, in solidarity with the anti-AFSPA struggle. Human rights organisations from Nagaland and Manipur come together in solidarity with Sharmila, even if they may disagree on much else. Ordinary people from Kerala made a play, Meira Paibis, in 2010, in support of Sharmila’s demand, and travelled across India, up to Imphal, staging it at various places; one woman, Ojas, thereafter performed the play over a hundred times.
Sharmila’s protest is an integral part of the tapestry of struggles woven by countless Manipuri women and men. On December 10, 2008, Human Rights Day, Meira Paibis began a relay hunger strike, in a shed just across the hospital where Sharmila was incarcerated. In the 2005 anti-rape protest, women activists challenged the state, disrobing in public, turning the spotlight on sexual violations. This compelled the Indian state to institute an inquiry into AFSPA (the Justice Reddy Commission). Both the anti-rape action and Sharmila’s fast come across as unique, non-violent and powerful forms of protest. They have creatively reinvented the power of the human body to communicate important truths, and formulate resistance — quite effectively.
With Sharmila withdrawing from her fast without achieving the stated objective, it may seem that the state has won this round. But, in fact it has lost — whatever credibility it had. By giving up a fast which the state failed to respond to, Sharmila has displayed courage, not weakness. In proving impervious to the needs and demands of a humane, democratic polity, the state has turned out to be an even worse bully than she had initially imagined.
What does the future hold for the struggle against the AFSPA? Do we continue to live with militarisation, impunity and worse? The answer lies not only in Sharmila’s hands, but in the hands of a much wider set of people. It may be salutary to recall the moment when Aung Saan Suu Kyi was set free, after years of confinement: She re-entered the political arena, as the world celebrated, and soon became, from a symbol of peace, a real woman, with her incredible strengths but also her flaws and limitations. The struggle is not forged by one person, but her leadership in the world outside may create a new impetus, the nucleus required to actually forge an alternative politics.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘The glow of soul-force’)