Irom Sharmila and the Will to Live a Normal Life

She fasted for 16 years to demonstrate to the rest of India that there can be no normality when the armed forces have the right to shoot to kill. The burden of ending impunity must now be shared by us all.

On March 30, 2016 a Delhi trial court acquitted Irom Sharmila on charges of attempting to commit suicide, recognising that hers was a political fight for the right to life, and not a death wish. When a friend and I visited her the previous evening in Manipur house, she expressed satisfaction that she had been able to make her point freely before the judge. Denied the opportunity to talk to friends or political comrades, shut up alone in a hospital room for nearly 16 years with only her minders for company, Sharmila’s fast was always about more than abstinence from food – it was also simultaneously the story of India’s longest serving political prisoner and her singular courage under incarceration.

Sharmila started her fast on November 2, 2000, when the security forces killed 10 people in Imphal. She was on a customary Thursday fast, and never went off it in protest at the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), an act which guaranteed impunity for such criminal acts. In the decades that have passed since the Act was passed in 1958, thousands of people have been killed, with the most recent count being the 1,528 cases submitted to the Supreme Court by the Extra Judicial Executive Victims Families Association.

Sharmila’s seemingly sudden decision to end her fast – without any obvious victory in sight – is almost as brave as her decision to embark on it in the first place.

Few have the independence to take a decision in the light of cold reason, even at the risk of losing support from those who place the burden of high expectations on them. One has only to recall the last scene of Guide where Dev Anand dies under the worshipful gaze of his followers, convinced that it is his fast that has brought the rain. Perhaps, as Seram Rojesh, a close associate of Sharmila put it, she also realised that in the last two years, youth in Manipur had developed many other concerns like the Inner Line Permit issue, and were not so focused on AFSPA. Continuing to fast without any sign of the state relenting and in the light of waning interest by the public would be pointless. And a fast like this can only be sustained with the conviction that comes with public support.

No victory for the state

Sharmila’s simultaneous announcement that she plans to marry her fiancé, Desmond Coutinho, is likely to be unpopular – though that should hardly matter since her personal life is her business alone. Even if few would deny her the right to happiness, some of her ‘supporters’ are convinced that Coutinho’s presence in her life is a form of love jihad sponsored by the Indian state to weaken her resolve. But at the meeting in Manipur Bhawan in Delhi, we came away as much saddened by her situation, as in awe of her will that no ordinary person can even think of emulating. Manipur Bhavan was dark, and when we went to meet her, there were no crowds of supporters, no media presence. We chatted for a long time, much of it about Desmond. She was full of longing, as any separated lover might be, describing how he sent her so many books and gifts and she didn’t have the money to reciprocate or even send him letters by air mail. She said, quite frankly, “I am fed up”. In that instant, we we wanted nothing more in the world than for AFSPA to be repealed, and for this frail but beautiful woman to be allowed to live a normal life.

Till AFSPA is repealed, Sharmila’s will still not be a ‘normal’ life, since she has only announced her plans to give up her fast and not the political struggle for justice and democracy. Whether or not Sharmila succeeds in electoral politics is another story – had morality or dedication been the basis for winning, people like Medha Patkar would not have lost in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Some supporters attracted by the purity of purpose symbolised in a fast may also disperse once she enters politics, though she is hardly likely to become like every other political candidate.

Much as the state may wish to claim victory from the end of her fast, nothing else shows up the Indian state’s colonial attitude towards the Northeast, and the degree of its arrogance. In any other part of the country, had someone been fasting for 16 years, they would have got much more attention from the state. Not a single prime minister or prominent politician has bothered to meet her. With what face can the Indian state claim that the states where AFSPA has been imposed are an ‘integral part’ of India when its attitude towards these ‘integral parts’ is so manifestly different from the way it treats the rest of the country? Sharmila’s fast has only strengthened the justice of her cause – even as it has exposed the state’s hollow claim to be responsive to its people.

Second, Sharmila’s surprise announcement also puts an end to the constant low-level insinuations by the security establishment that she was propped up by the underground, and that if they listened to her, they would de facto be negotiating with insurgents. The state would like to reduce every moral action by citizens to the kind of sordid politics it can understand and engage in. Irom Sharmila’s 16 year fast and her decision to break it challenges the state’s claim to speak for the soul of its people.

Sharmila’s decision to break her fast is also, however, a rebuke to civil society in the rest of India – which failed to provide the support needed. The struggle for the repeal of a draconian law like AFSPA and an end to militarisation cannot and should not have been left to the people of Manipur and Kashmir alone – it is a blot on Indian democracy as a whole. Moreover, if nothing else, there should have been much more outrage at her imprisonment. When the state was anyway force feeding her (through a nasal drip), why was she not allowed to meet people?

Sharmila may have given up her fast but the struggle for the repeal of AFSPA has not ended. The Supreme Court, for one, must take its recent judgment towards a logical conclusion and say that not only must every case of killing by the army and security forces be investigated but that the Centre cannot withhold permission to prosecute. Political parties must go beyond ‘welcoming’ her decision to join politics to engage seriously with the issues she represents. As for the rest of us, perhaps her active presence in our midst will remind us of our own obligations more than her fast could have done in the years to come.

Nandini Sundar is a Professor of Sociology at Delhi University