New Delhi: In the run-up to the March assembly elections in Manipur, if there was one poll prediction that most reporters on the ground could easily make in the otherwise indecisive battle between the Congress and the BJP, it was the defeat of human rights activist Irom Sharmila.
A woman of few words with the heart of a child and the mind of a poet, 45-year-old Sharmila – widely celebrated for her near-16-year fast demanding repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) – chose to stand against then chief minister and Congress stalwart Okram Ibobi Singh in his stronghold Thoubal constituency. She contested as the candidate from the newly formed Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA), of which she was the co-convener.
Although voters expressed their love and regard for her whenever she addressed them in her campaigns (I was witness to one such meeting where some voters fell at her feet), they didn’t support her decision to “dirty” herself in politics, thus indicating which way the wind was blowing in Thoubal.
“Politics in our state is murky, full of money power. Eche (elder sister in Meiteilon) should have remained an activist; that way she would have been above politics,” a student at the Thoubal College had told The Wire then, when asked why he would not vote for her despite her years of sacrifice for the people of the state.
Many had wondered why Sharmila stepped back from her initial decision to also contest from Khurai, her home constituency, which, they felt, would have certainly increased her chances of getting elected to the assembly.
In early February, on pointing out her looming defeat to a local reporter considered close to Sharmila, I was told something that turned out to be true.
The reporter said, “The defeat will be good for her. It will free her at last to get married to the person she has been wanting to for some years now. I think both she and him want it that way so that she becomes free from public life. If the public rejects her, it will give her the moral right to defy the huge public opposition to her marrying a mayang (outsider), particularly someone they can’t stand. Politics is not in her mind.”
You may consider the right to choose one’s partner to be one’s personal choice. But when Sharmila wanted to marry her British friend Desmond Coutinho (he reportedly fell in love with her when he read about her) when she was on her fast, it became a public affair and many in Manipur expressed their stiff opposition to it. Clearly, it was a case of the community before the personal.
That there is no love lost between Coutinho and most members of Manipuri civil society, who were otherwise the strength behind Sharmila’s long fight against AFSPA, has been clear from the beginning. Over the years, many have accused Coutinho of “weakening her fight for the people of Manipur by professing love (to her)”. The distrust of the people towards New Delhi in the conflict-ridden state is such that some even see him as “an Indian agent, a spy sent to break her resolve”.
Though Coutinho calls himself an activist, not much is known about his work, which is also a question many Meiteis raise to further cement their notions about him.
Countinho might have been outraged by the hostile attitude of many Manipuris towards him, but this has to be seen from the lens of the deep distrust that people, not just from Manipur but from the Northeast in general have towards “outsiders”. The insider-outsider binaries in the entire region are complex and often touch raw nerves, more so in a wounded society like that of Manipur. That the king of Manipur was kept under house arrest in Shillong by New Delhi till he agreed to join the Indian union post independence, that he was not even allowed to discuss the matter with his cabinet members and that on joining the Indian union it was not made a state for a long time, even though Manipur was an independent kingdom, still rankles in the state. The kernel of the ongoing conflict lies in this discontent.
Over the years, with security forces allegedly engaging in many cases of rights violations in the state and justice not forthcoming from New Delhi, the distrust and discontent towards mainland India has only widened.
Incidents like the members of Meira Paibi, the powerful women’s organisation backing Sharmila, asking Coutinho to leave Imphal in August 2011 and no hotel in Manipur willing to give him a room must be seen from this perspective. That he once apparently stayed in the Assam Rifles guesthouse in Imphal was also looked with suspicion.
In August last year when she announced her decision to end her fast without consulting those fighting against AFSPA alongside her, fingers were pointed at Coutinho, with the entire episode being seen as “a conspiracy” by the powers in mainland India.
In March, after her disastrous show at the hustings, a sentimental Sharmila accused the people of betraying her and announced her decision to leave Manipur, pledging never to return. It was a tragic outcome of her years of struggle for the people of the state.
She moved to Tamil Nadu’s Kodaikanal town where Countinho joined her. Both knew this would have been impossible in Imphal. It was only a matter of time before they announced their marriage.
On July 12, Sharmila and Coutinho filed an application at the sub-register’s office in Kodaikanal under the Hindu Marriage Act.
However, if one thought this would finally deliver Sharmila a life that she had chosen for herself by being away from the people of her state, there came another spanner, first, by a local social activist, and then by the Hindu Makkal Katchai (HMK).
A day after she filed the application, local activist V. Mahendran submitted a petition to the sub-registrar’s office urging it to deny permission to her to marry Countinho.
“When I met Sharmila in Kodaikanal during her visit to Bodhi Zendo near Perumal Malai, she said that she has come to Kodaikanal to lead a peaceful life. I welcomed her then as she is a renowned activist. However, she recently said in some interviews that she would extend support to the tribals in the area,” Mahendran told reporters. He also saw Coutinho to be a “threat to peace and stability of the hills”.
On August 4, The Hindu reported yet another petition objecting to her marriage to Coutinho. The HMK demanded that the marriage application be rejected “keeping in mind the interests of the local people”.
According to a news report, HMK’s state general secretary R. Ravikumar said Kodaikanal is a peaceful place attracting thousands of tourists from within and outside the country. If Sharmila is allowed permanent stay there, it would disturb the peace. “Moreover, the police should investigate if there were any foreign forces behind her plan to stay in Kodaikanal,” the petition said.
Like Mahendran, the right wing organisation also condemned her expression of support to the tribals in Kodaikanal. The HMK cadre, the report said, “also tried to go on a procession to her house but were stopped by police”.
The sub-registrar’s office has already rejected Sharmila’s application to marry under the Hindu Marriage Act as her marriage to Coutinho would be inter-religious. She has since filed a fresh application to marry under the Special Marriage Act, which requires a 30-day period before the marriage can take place.
Brushing aside the opposition to the marriage, Coutinho, however, told the media, “Once the paper work is accepted, within three months we can pick a day for our wedding. We will speak to the press post marriage and till then we would love to be left alone.”
Meanwhile, PRJA convener Erendro Leichombam expressed his “disappointment” over Sharmila’s decision in a Facebook post on July 14. Urging mediapersons “to refrain from calling (him) on the issue,” he wrote, “Her partner despises us Manipuris. I am disappointed she decides to marry a Manipur hater. I wouldn’t say such a thing without concrete proof. But I wish her all the best; it’s her personal decision, and one must respect that. Similarly, it’ll be wrong to blame all the Manipur people for an election defeat, as she has done. Electoral politics is a reflection of the people’s priorities. And in a democracy, we must respect that.”
When asked by a local reporter on social media whether Sharmila would still remain the party’s co-convener, Erendro replied, “According to the PRJA constitution, when an office holder misses a certain number of executive meetings consecutively without notice for an extended period of time, her primary membership is revoked, and consequently her position.”
This effectively means she is no longer a part of the organisation she launched.