There are many firsts to the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance or, as it has quickly come to be known in Manipur, PRJA. It is led by Manipur’s most popular face, Irom Sharmila, it has fielded the state’s first Muslim woman candidate, Najima Bibi, it is fighting on money raised through crowd funding, and it has got financial support from other political parties. Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal sent Rs 50,000, workers of the Left parties have been urging people to vote for it, and a former Congress minister, Bimol Akoijam, has extended his backing.
Most importantly, the PRJA has the support of youth, with many of them volunteering to carry out its campaign, and others rallying behind it on social media.
Watch What Else Is Making News
Will all that prove enough though is the question. On March 1, three days before Manipur votes in the first phase, when the PRJA held a public meeting near the district commissioner’s office at Porompat in Imphal East, only a smattering of people turned up to hear its three candidates (it fielded four, but one has dropped out). Chairs remained empty and the mats on the ground, anticipating a large crowd, looked forlorn.
The venue was just a stone’s throw away from Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS), home to Irom’s iconic and unparalleled 16-year-long fast for removal of the draconian AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) from Manipur.
The PRJA convenor and its candidate for the Thangmeiband assembly constituency, Erendro Leichonbam, argues the party is not just about this election. It is a beginning, he says, to change Manipur’s electoral politics.
However, there is more at stake. The election is also a testing ground for the legend that is Irom Sharmila Chanu. Shunned by her own people after she broke her fast on August 9 last year, Irom is hoping these three electoral fights will vindicate her stand:
The Irom Sharmila who is about to begin today’s campaign in the quiet Leishangthem village of Thoubal assembly constituency is very different from the one who spent 16 years in the special ward at JNIMS hospital.
Her characteristic child-like shyness has disappeared. The 44-year-old ‘Iron lady of Manipur’ seems more confident, as determined in her new mission. As she steps out to seek votes in the constituency, Manipur’s toughest, represented by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, she dons the traditional Manipuri dress — a mustard-colour phanek, a sea-green shirt and a Tasar Chadar — and pairs it with sneakers. A string of beads hangs from her frail neck.
“This string was much longer earlier, down to my stomach. My fiancé gifted it. But when I was rearrested once, in the scuffle, the string broke. The beads scattered,” she says. The shorter string she wears now has the beads she managed to salvage.
“No, I have not met him (Desmond Coutinho) since I got out. You see, he had a heart attack last year and hasn’t been able to come,” she says, of her fiancé. For her followers, her involvement with Coutinho has been the one sour note in these 16 years.
The election marks a new, uncharted chapter. After living with one of her party candidates, Najima Bibi, for two weeks, Irom recently shifted in with Nangbam Debendro, a fisherman. Nangbam says he would watch Irom cycle up and down the lanes of Leishangtham. “I did not like that she was alone and had no help. So I invited her to my place to stay during the campaign. Both my sons are in boarding schools. It’s just my wife and I, we have plenty of space,” he says.
Since Irom moved in, Nangbam says, people of the village have been sending them vegetables and rice. Sometimes they send cooked meals, so that the burden of hosting her, and the two India Reserve Batallion personnel issued to her by the Election Commission, does not fall on him alone.
Irom says people have been helping in other ways too. “There is a mixed reaction to my joining politics. People are still dissatisfied with me (for breaking the fast and contesting elections), but they love me. They all support me morally. Three people came this morning and offered me their vehicles so I could campaign.”
When she first began campaigning, Irom would cycle everywhere, like she used to all those years ago before starting her hunger strike. But she has since stopped it. “It is not convenient if you want to move around with people,” she says.
Before leaving today, Irom cleans off a plate of colourful mithai. “This is my absolute favourite!” she smiles. “I am vegetarian though, pure vegetarian. Which makes me different from other Manipuris.”
Her elder sister Gomti is here from Imphal to be with her. “It’s not about the elections for me, it’s about following Irom wherever she goes,” says Gomti.
Irom’s family too had been angry with her initially for giving up the fast, but they have made up. Irom held her flag-hoisting ceremony — all candidates in Manipur, across party lines, hold a ceremony putting up their party flags — at her brother’s home, where all the family members came. “My mother was there too. I haven’t gone to my own home still, since I took a vow to not enter it till AFSPA was repealed. My mother gave me Rs 2,000, clothes and her blessings.”
Irom says it is all about elections for her now, and she hasn’t been doing much poetry or painting, which kept her occupied in hospital. “I have too many thoughts running around in my head,” she says.
Apart from her sister, Nangbam and his wife, and her bodyguards, Irom is accompanied by a couple of supporters in her rounds. Nangbam carries two bags, one filled with black whistles (the PRJA symbol, denoting a whistleblower), and the other with mango-flavoured toffees, to hand out to both children and adults. As Irom visits every home in the locality, they are greeted with warmth.
She begins by explaining why she decided to contest. “Fasting had reached a stalemate, it was not getting any results… I think it is important to become a part of the system and then fight it. I still fight for repealing AFSPA,” she says.
This is the favourite part of the elections for her, Irom says — “meeting and connecting with people”.
As she makes her way through the village with 4,700 voters, people keep joining her group. At one home, around 40 people gather to hear her. She exhorts them to rise above narrow differences. “Sharmila does not belong to one place. I am not only the Sharmila of JNIMS or of Imphal. I belong everywhere, to everyone — to both Meiteis and tribals. For the sake of Manipur, tribals and Meiteis must unite. When Mahatma Gandhi started his satyagraha, everyone joined. It became a people’s movement. But that was not the case with me, I was alone… I got sympathy, but the movement did not become a force to change Manipur. It became idol worship. I realised everything in Manipur is politically connected and I had to join politics to change this. Everything in Manipur is about money, they will try and buy your votes. But remember, you will be losing out on a lot more — infrastructure and tourism development and employment.”
At one home, 36-year-old L Nabachandra, a poor fisherman, offers Rs 500 for her campaign. “We all love her for what she has done for us. We want to help her,” he says.
At another, an old man is stunned to see her, and mutters, “How do I address you? As sister?” He then proceeds to bless her.
However, in the constituency that has been Ibobi Singh’s undisputed stronghold for 15 years, the outpouring of love and support for Irom may not translate into votes.
Naorem Manju, 40, runs an eatery in Thoubal Bazaar. She says she has always voted for Ibobi Singh, and will do so again. “It is true that Sharmila is irreplaceable. We love her very much, we were heartbroken when she gave up her fast because we felt it was selfish. We have gotten past that anger now. But I, like most people here, will vote for Ibobi Singh. He has done a lot for Thoubal, given us good infrastructure. We are reaping the benefits of his work,” Manju says.
Back in Imphal city, L Momon, the head of Sakal — the group of Meira Paibis who looked after Irom during her fast — says that the Imas (mothers of Manipur), who feel betrayed by her decision, will not be supporting the PRJA in the elections. The Meira Paibis hold great influence on the social norms and political movements of the state.
“We have a history of struggles that precedes Sharmila’s. We have been fighting against AFSPA and addressing other social issues long before she entered the scene. When she began her hunger strike, we supported her because her struggle coincided with our ideals. When she broke her fast, we felt betrayed. It was embarrassing that she wanted to end her hunger strike because she wanted to get married. And although we respect her, it was time for us to part ways,” Momon says.
In her response, Irom says, “They say that their movement has nothing to do with politics. But they take money from MLAs and other political leaders — that is the irony.”
At Santhel village, Najima Bibi Chesam is surrounded by women relatives, including her sisters. There is excitement about the 46-year-old mother of five being the first ever Muslim woman to contest elections in Manipur — particularly because of what it has cost Najima.
Her husband, she says, beat her when she first told him she wanted to contest. “He used to beat me quite a bit. And now, he is so excited, he is running around campaigning even more than me.”
Recently, the head maulvi of her village issued a fatwa against Najima for contesting. “The fatwa says I will not be allowed to be buried in my village when I die. I asked the maulvi to give me the fatwa in writing,” says Najima, the fifth of nine children of a high school teacher of maths and science. Najima says her father ensured all his children went to school, but while the boys are among the most qualified in Santhel (an engineer, a lawyer and an IT professional), none of the six girls except her cleared Class 10.
Najima claims it was her engineer brother who motivated her to get into social work and now politics. “After he finished his engineering, he had gone to Imphal looking for a job. They asked him for Rs 6 lakh for a government job. He decided to become a social activist,” she says.
There is a rumour doing the rounds that Najima is divorced. Najima is not surprised. “In our community, women don’t study, they don’t have a voice and they definitely don’t fight elections. So when I announced I am a candidate, many said I must have separated from my husband. It confounded them that he may actually support me,” she says.
Najima says it was when she got into social work that she realised men would try and stop her every step of the way. “Domestic violence here is rampant, all the women are beaten by their husbands, and girls are either not sent to school or drop out early. I formed 12 self-help groups with 100 women each. We would receive vocational training to become financially independent. I taught them how to deal with moneylenders and pay off debts. The men in the area started a signature campaign against me. Certain maulvis initiated that as well,” she says.
The anger even led to the call for a boycott against the Chesam family. They were not allowed to take water from the village pond. Her daughter, 16-year-old Zarina Chesam, says children would not talk to them. “I used to come home crying. But now I’m proud of my mother. I feel that if she wins, she can right all that was done to us,” she says.
The sitting MLA from Wabagai seat is Fazur Rahim of the Congress. He polled nearly 50 per cent of the votes last time.
The office of the PRJA is located in the house of Erendro Leichonbam’s brother-in-law. The two-storey green building buzzes with activity. On the roof-top, food is being prepared for the volunteers — young men and women, including doctors and lawyers, who have taken time off to help out Irom’s party. As others keep streaming in, there is an endless supply of Manipuri Lal Cha (red tea) from the kitchen.
On one wall is a large map of the Thangmeiband assembly constituency, with homes in the area located on it. Red marks denote the homes that have been covered by party workers or volunteers. A board lists the volunteers and the activities they are in charge of. On a staircase in a corner lie bags of potato and rice. Eco-friendly bags carrying Leichonbam’s face as well as the PRJA symbol are stacked in another corner.
Politics is an unlikely choice for Leichonbam, 33, also the PRJA convenor. Both school dropouts, his parents ran a canteen at D M College in Imphal, before opening a grocery store. “I used to work in the canteen and study at night. I did this till I was 15,” he says.
All along, Leichonbam says, he nurtured a “dream to go to America, to its best university”. “People used to laugh at me, call me ‘hotel boy’. They said, ‘Forget about America’. But I worked hard.” Leichonbam eventually went to Kennedy School in Harvard University and studied public administration.
He came back to Imphal in 2013. “I met various officers after I returned. I told them I wanted to contribute to Manipur and didn’t want a high salary. They laughed at me and said, ‘You have the expertise to fly a rocket and want to drive a car in Manipur!’. Then, they asked me to pay them in exchange for a government job,” he claims.
Leichonbam gestures around the room to show what all has come as donation. “We have been sent rice, potatoes, tea by people. Arvind Kejriwal sent us Rs 50,000 from his personal account. Other AAP members have also helped financially. This is probably the first time a political party has helped another without any self-interest. People of all backgrounds have volunteered. Three of our volunteers are non-Manipuri. Someone has donated a laptop, another a printer.”
The PRJA has also raised money through crowd funding, and across the office lie donation boxes with ‘Ten4Change’ written on them, indicating the upper limit of Rs 10 that the party fixed. With the election set to draw to a close on March 8, almost all the money is used up and the boxes are empty.
Explaining why they kept the money donation limit so low, Leichonbam says, “Rs 10 is an amount anybody can donate, so there is no pressure. Also, we want everybody who contributes to feel like they have ownership in the party. Nobody should feel small because they have contributed less. This party is for everyone,” he says.
Leichonbam says that so far, there have been over 7,000 physical donations, and over 1,000 online donors.
Mumbai-based fund-raising organisation Ketto volunteered its services. “We also reached out to the Manipuri diaspora, and they helped. Between the funds that they helped us raise, and the physical donations, we raised Rs 22 lakh for the campaign. We are only using half of this. The rest we are saving for expansion of the party and our future plans,” Leichonbam adds.
Last time, Kh Joykishan had won the Thangmeiband seat on a Trinamool Congress ticket, with 7,670 votes. He switched to the BJP last year, and recently to the Congress. The Congress’s 2012 candidate, on the other hand, is fighting on a BJP ticket.
Talking about how he got involved with the PRJA, Leichonbam says he heard about Irom contesting elections when he came to Imphal last year from Guwahati. “I met her. I told her ‘Eche (elder sister), politics is not easy. You may have to do things you wouldn’t want to,’” he says.
Together, on October 18 last year, the two launched the PRJA. He says the PRJA “isn’t just about AFSPA or any other issue”. “When I came back to Manipur, I realised young people are not encouraged to achieve or to follow their dreams. The PRJA is aimed at being a people’s movement for the resurgence of Manipur. To help the Manipuri regain self-respect.”