90 Votes Of Conscience
CHANDIGARH: Malom Makha Leikai incident on November 2, 2000 resulted in 10 deaths. It was followed by the ‘world’s longest hunger strike’ by an individual, in protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFPSA), from November 5, 2000 till July 26, 2016.
Irom Sharmila or the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’, launched a Gandhian satyagraha seeking the revocation of the AFSPA, instead of choosing the usual Manipuri narrative of launching yet another armed group (till date, over half of the 60 banned terror groups in India, are Manipur-centric).
The fast-unto-death that lasted nearly 16 years saw Irom Sharmila get force-fed and arrested multiple number of times under IPC Section 309, wherein ‘attempt to commit suicide’ is punishable, ‘with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year (or with fine, or with both)’.
The fiery cauldron of Manipur is the wounded legacy of local perceptions that reminisce the ‘forcible annexation’ of Manipur in 1949! This lingering perception, coupled by myriad ethnicities living cheek-by-jowl in an impermanent truce is always susceptible to flare ups and bloodbaths.
Ethnic militias clamouring for ‘independence’, also claim forcible space and bounty from amongst the people and each other, resulting in frequent violence that is equally directed against the Defence Forces, as indeed amongst themselves. AFSPA, that grants special powers to the Defence Forces in ‘disturbed areas’, has become the emotive signpost of local protests against the Armed Forces, and the sovereign.
The ‘Prisoner of Conscience’, as Irom Sharmila has been described by Amnesty International, was already involved in many peace movements prior to the Malom incident and it was only natural for a peacenik like her to idolize and subsequently, invoke Mahatma Gandhi, at the Raj Ghat.
During her over-500 weeks of fasting, she routinely met and courted social activists and politicians in order to muster the public pressure against AFSPA – her self-denials included not combing her hair, looking in the mirror, going to her home or even meeting her mother, before AFSPA got repealed. Her unique form of protest led to national and international recognition, besides pricking the conscience of New Delhi to address the larger and the real issue of neglect and integration of the North Eastern states and causes, economically, socially and even morally. AFSPA had acquired the most visible symbolism of stated and unstated angst.
The embers of insurgency in the North East have ebbed. Arunachal, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura are almost completely peaceful, and a relative normalcy has returned to Assam from the ULFA perspective. There have been some green-shoots of hope in the state of Nagaland with the signing of the peace treaty (albeit, the composite issue of Naga insurgency is still unsettled and it often slips into Manipur, where the Tangkhul Nagas of the Ukhrul hill district add another angularity, to the ongoing struggles in Manipur).
However, Manipur has remained insurgency prone and Irom Sharmila’s parallel efforts ensured that she was deified in popular imagination, both in Manipur and outside for her valiant and noble form of struggle and commitment, towards her cause.
However, her sudden decision to end the hunger-fast and a simultaneous announcement of wanting to pursue a political career was met with a collective sense of disillusionment by her supporters at Manipur, as there were whispers of her having ‘deviated from the goal’ and of ‘abandoning the cause’.
The father of one of the victims in the infamous Malom incident said, “by choosing a political path, she has come down from the highest Himalayan peak to a hillock”.
Yet, the political pundits in Delhi did not share the sense of irrelevance for Irom Sharmila in her new avatar, and given the impending state elections, furiously courted her to join mainstream political parties. Even though Sharmila’s claim of being offered Rs 36 crores by the BJP were summarily rejected by the party, it is a fact that even the Congress Party President had sought her, “We know she is a very determined and committed person. Once she takes a decision she will stand by it. Her becoming a part of the Congress is a decision of the election committee. We will welcome her if she wishes to join our party”.
Perhaps, carried away by the heady maelstrom of political headwinds, Irom Sharmila went solo and launched her own party, ‘Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance’.
In a completely unexpected come-down, she garnered only 90 votes against the winner Ibobi Singh who secured 18,649 votes. Not only was she behind the runners-up BJP candidate who bagged 8,179 votes and even the TMC candidate from the constituency– in a cruel twist of fate, even the NOTA (‘None of the above’) category got 143 votes!
Sharmila was notionally supported by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) comprising six parties including CPI, CPI(M), JD(U) and AAP, yet her decision to lead a ‘normal’ life and join the bandwagon of the electoral process made her constituents more irate than their supposed dissatisfaction and disgust with the existing candidates and their political parties – somewhere, something was terribly amiss and unsurprisingly, the disheartened Irom Sharmila immediately announced her decision to quit politics.
The tragedy is not in her electoral defeat, or even in the magnitude of the loss – it is the failure of the people (both the constituents and the rest of the country) to appreciate the spirit, nature and means of her protest.
As a military man who has served extensively in the North East, I do not agree with Irom Sharmila’s deciphering of the AFSPA – this is not to condone, brush aside any violation that may have happened. But to state that the perception that AFSPA is basically a ‘privilege’ or a ‘perk’ that is routinely abused is as untrue, as perhaps stating that acts of dereliction never happen.
But, the Iron Lady’s unwavering choice of the methods of protesting her point of view were extremely brave, commendable and spirited – it takes a very large heart to stand up against public pressure for assuming more belligerent and violent postures, especially in Manipur.
Her civic transformation to adopt an even more conventional route of participative democracy is reminiscent of similar rapprochements that were successfully encouraged, and yielded the much-needed peace in Mizoram and Punjab, with some who had gone so far as taking up the gun, against India.
At a fundamental level, it is the loss of a potential template for many frustrated Indians who unfortunately transit from genuine socio-economic protests to acquiring more hostile and violent tangents. Her political success could have re-endorsed the magical formula for integration and inclusivity e.g. for the Maoists. The fickle public charm for a tireless protester is only till the time sacrifice and pain is publicly endured.
Ultimately, 16 years of almost inhuman renunciation could yield only 90 votes of conscience, with nearly 30,000 other votes swaying towards the familiar appeals and promises of the political classes.
(Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)