New Delhi: Six days before Irom Sharmila was to break her 16-year-old fast, a Manipuri separatist outfit, the Alliance for Socialist Unity, Kangleipak (ASUK), had asked her to rethink her plans to join electoral politics, as per local news reports.
On August 3, in a statement released to the press in Imphal, ASUK chairman N Oken and vice chairman Ksh Laba Meitei also asked her to reconsider her decision to marry “a non-local”.
On July 27, speaking to media persons outside the Imphal district court premises during her periodic appearance for being charged under IPC Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide), Sharmila announced her decision to break her fast on her next date of court appearance — August 9, and also enter electoral politics and settle down with her boyfriend of some years — Desmond Coutinho, a British citizen of Goan descent. It was a momentous decision, given that she had been on a fast since 1990 to demand the withdrawal of the AFSPA (Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act).
Sharmila was quoted as saying, “I don’t think my fast will help repeal AFSPA. I want to contest elections to get our voices heard at the Centre. I will continue the fight.”
As per the Imphal-based Sanghai Express, the ASUK statement said, the 44-year-old activist “is the only living icon of mass struggle against draconian laws after the popular pre-independent mass leader Lamyanba Irabot.”
Lamyanba or Hijam Irabot, was a celebrated social activist in Manipur in pre-independence India who went on to found the Communist Party of India in that state. It was under him that the years between 1939 and 1951 (he passed away in 1951) are widely considered in Manipur as a phase of social reforms as he fought for the rights of the state’s peasants and other labourers.
The statement further said, “We are using the salutation Iche (which Sharmila is locally referred as) not on the basis of seniority but out of respect for her iconic status. All those people who joined electoral politics chose the same path knowing well that it was a cul-de-sac.” ASUK went on to appeal to Sharmila “not to degrade her status by joining electoral politics.” It also gave her a veiled threat by pointing out that some former revolutionary leaders were assassinated as they turned against the revolutionary movement soon after they got elected as people’s representatives.
“I don’t think this threat will make any impact on Sharmila. She has seen bigger threats to her life—this is not likely to stop her from breaking her fast on August 9,” human rights activist and one of the figures behind the Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign Babloo Laishngbham told The Wire on Friday.
Considered close to Sharmila, Babloo should know her mind, more so because on the morning of July 28, a day after Sharmila announced her decision, he, along with a colleague from his organization Humans Rights Alert and Sharmila’s brother Irom Singhajit had met her. So far, they are the only people from civil society groups to have interacted with her after her July 27 announcement.
“Every morning, Sharmila is freed for 15 minutes for her morning walk. That was the time we met her on July 28. She told us she is not dropping her fight but is thinking of changing her tactics,” Babloo told this correspondent from Imphal.
“She said, ‘I could have broken my fast on July 27 itself but I wanted the civil society groups to be prepared for it.’ She also expressed her feelings of living a lonely life in a prison, in confinement, for so many years. It is not an easy life. We told her, we respect whatever you decide. It is her call. We all have to salute her for giving 16 years of her life to the people,” said Babloo.
About Sharmila’s decision to fight the next year’s assembly elections, he said, “There is nothing wrong in it; it is ultimately her decision but she should also gauge the fact that politics in the North East is unlike in Delhi. An Arvind Kejriwal can win an election on the basis of his reach amongst the civil society but this is not a reality in Manipur. I fear she might lose the elections. I feel she should come out of detention first and not be in a hurry to join politics. She should look at the reality first. She has already done a lot of ground work and won immense respect for it. The hawks in politics are only hungry for power and money, so they don’t always enjoy the respect of the people.”
Opinion among civil society activists in Manipur has been divided on her decisions While some have expressed disapproval of her breaking her fast, some others have opposed her joining politics and marrying Coutinho. Some though have supported it as these are her personal decisions.
“It is understandable why those who are disappointed are feeling so. Sharmila is a part of contemporary Manipuri identity. She is an iconic figure. Many suddenly felt a vacuum. But they also have to understand that it is finally her life,” pointed out Babloo.
The August 3 statement released by ASUK also expressed the fears expressed by a section of the public. “Iche’s campaign as a champion of human rights has exposed the hypocrisy of the Indian State. The UN and many other international bodies have lambasted AFSPA…when there is no people’s movement against AFSPA in Manipur and WESEA (West South East Asia), neither the United Nations nor any other country will do anything for our people,” it said.
In this context, the organization also asked Sharmila to also “respect people’s identity politics” and not marry Coutinho as he is “a non-local”.
“Even though the man is an NRI (non-resident Indian), he is still an Indian in the eyes of the people of Kangleipak (the ancient name of Manipur). The ongoing mass movement for protection of indigenous people can be attributed to the growing incidences of inter-marriage between (the) Indian people and (the) people of Kangleipak and incessant influx from India.”
The separatist leaders expressed the apprehension that Coutinho may be “an intelligence agent of the Government of India.” “It was also possible that the Government of India used the particular agent to win the heart and mind of Sharmila. As such, the particular man needs to be observed for some time. It is crucial to ascertain if he has any vested interest.”
Driven by this doubt, many people had forced Coutinho to leave the state in 2010. No hotel in the state offers him a room. Organisations like Meira Paibi, which have been “trying to meet Sharmila for the last five days” but were denied permission by security forces, feel it may have been “the Indian state which has tried to puncture the resistance against AFSPA.”
“Coutinho stays in the Assam Rifles guest house whenever he visits Imphal. It is strange because it was against the Assam Rifles shooting of 10 Manipuris that Sharmila resorted to fast in 2000,” said a local rights activist on condition of anonymity. She said, “On being asked, Coutinho once gave his London address to some people. However, on visiting that address no one confirmed that he lives there. He continues to suddenly pop up in Imphal. He also took the court’s permission to meet Sharmila a couple of times besides writing to her regularly and sending her gifts like soft toys. His conduct has made the civil society doubt him.”
Said Babloo, “People may commit mistakes. Sharmila might too. But my only advice to her as someone who stood by her all these years is that she should not take any step which will make it difficult for her to return to her long struggle against AFSPA.”