Manipur Polls: Irom Sharmila's 'Whistle' Brings AFSPA Centre Stage
ITANAGAR: On Saturday when the first phase of poll begins in Manipur, there will be many ‘firsts’; most of which relate to rights activist Irom Chanu Sharmila’s new political party.
Last August, Irom Chanu Sharmila ended her nearly 16-year long fast opposing the implementation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Manipur and announced that she will contest the legislative assembly elections to bring a political solution to the issue.
Her announcement was met with mixed response, with some even criticising her decision to take the plunge into electoral politics. But, take the plunge she did and she chose to do it from an unknown platform.
The Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) is the new political party that was floated on October 18 last year with the stated objective of “rebuilding a just, self-sufficient, and peaceful Manipur” through “transparency and accountability on the part of those with a political mandate; and competent leadership and followership to collectively work towards establishing more humane policies”.
Not only will this election mark the debut of the party and Sharmila, but alongside her will be two of its other debutant candidates- Najima Bibi and Erendro Leichombam.
The Hijab-donning social activist Najima Phundreimayum, popularly known as Najima Bibi, will make her electoral debut in the second phase of the election on March 8 from Wabagai constituency. Not only will this mark her entry into politics, it is also the first time that a Muslim woman will be contesting the elections in the state.
Manipuri Muslims or Meitei Pangals make up about 8.40 percent of the total population of the state as per the 2011 Census and are proportionally represented in the state assembly (all men). However, no woman from the community has ever contested much less made it to the legislative assembly since it became a full-fledged state in 1972.
Another debutant who will have his first brush with politics is party convenor Erendro Leichombam.
The 33-year old Harvard alumnus who was also a former World Bank Fellow returned to Manipur four years ago after a ten-year stint in the US. Aspiring to bring about changes in the existing socio-political scenario of his home state, Erendro will be the first from the PRJA to face voters when the assembly constituency he is contesting from, Thangmeiband, goes to poll on Saturday.
Candidates and party aside, it is also for the first time that the controversial AFSPA is being discussed as an election agenda- at least by the PRJA.
Despite frequent reports of protests demanding the repeal of the Act from Manipur, it has never really been an election agenda among politicians and voters alike.
“Electoral politics is very different from political fight in Manipur,” a young rights activist from Imphal says before adding that “the public doesn’t really care about AFSPA, to be honest”.
Whether the public has any interest in the repeal of AFSPA or not, the party definitely does.
Geetika Sehmay, the PRJA’s media manager, says that the party has made AFSPA an election issue this time around and that it is an issue that “needs to be dealt with politically”.
Erendro says that “AFSPA is a top priority” but is quick to add that “it’s not the only one”.
The party convenor is confident that all three candidates from PRJA will win, “and win by a huge margin”. He adds that the “public’s faith in the existing politicians is completely dismal while PRJA candidates have revived faith in clean politics and action-oriented approach to politics in Manipur”.
As confident as he is, many, including those who sympathise with Sharmila and her fight against AFSPA, don’t share his confidence.
Commenting the chances of the party securing a seat, one Imphal-based journalist says that it looks “very grim” while another, even more cynically, feels that the PRJA will “not create any change”.
A prominent environmental activist from Imphal also sings a similar tune, stating that the core issues that people face is not in the agenda and that the present chief minister Ibobi Singh has managed to “pull the agenda towards Manipuri (territorial) integrity”.
Another activist says that although the party does not have much prospect of actually winning a seat, “it's a good moral fight they're putting up”.
The three candidates of the PRJA, whose election symbol is a whistle, will hope to put more than a moral fight and blow the competition away.