Irom Sharmila and the Challenge of Dirty Hands

Irom Sharmila licks honey from her hand to break her fast during a press conference in Imphal on Tuesday. Sharmila ended her fast after nearly 16 years demanding repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Credit: PTI

Irom Sharmila licks honey from her hand to break her fast during a press conference in Imphal on Tuesday. Sharmila ended her fast after nearly 16 years demanding repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Credit: PTI

After Irom Sharmila broke her 16-year hunger strike, she made a striking statement on politics: “People say politics is dirty, but so is society.”

The statement is remarkable for two reasons. One, it breaks the shallow middle class binary between politics and society, and challenges the temerity of Hindus who consider their caste-ridden society clean, and fantasise of politics as muck lying outside their own lives. Two, it shows Sharmila has thoughtfully grappled with the limits of her politics of fasting and is looking for larger possibilities within or outside the Gandhian norms of politics.

For all these years, Sharmila chose a pure form of protest, untainted by the dirt of power-seeking politics. It gave her moral credibility and she earned respect and empathy from people all across the world. But it did not make the government repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Manipur. Her non-violent mode of protest by fasting, which drew obvious similarities with Gandhi, was a moral struggle against a law whose implementation was political. But it was also a case of individualising the idea of a struggle that wasn’t about achieving individual ends. There are easily visible paradoxes in both the cases, which create uncomfortable contradictions in Sharmila’s admirable determination to seek a moral response from the state. By this, she was doing Gandhian politics by half. But she was also doing something else – bringing in the politics of gender into the ascetic-mode of using the body for politics.

Her politics, partly Gandhian, was also legitimately, rather more interestingly, non-Gandhian at the same time. A big proof regarding the latter comes from the fact that today, Sharmila, after years of practicing a politics without pleasure, wants to fall in love. This ‘affective turn’ in her idea of politics is a radical break from the Gandhian politics of ascetic self-control, which was, for Gandhi himself,  aimed also at the curbing (and gradual erasure) of sexual feelings. By not denying her body in her quest for self-purification through fasting, Sharmila places a radical critique of Gandhi’s attitude towards sexual bodies.

In all these years, trying to draw a moral response from the modern state, Sharmila exposed its masculinist apathy. Every serious constraint ended up convincing her of the futility of her expectations in concrete, political terms. The fact that she has decided to change her mode of politics after 16 years of immense moral belief and personal hardships is immensely admirable. It is also an expression of how differently women respond to the constraints of the world of politics which is overwhelmingly masculine.

Coil of a snake

Writing in Young India in 1920, Gandhi justified his entry into the political realm in negative terms, describing modern politics as “the coil of a snake”, and his determination to “wrestle” with it. In 1946, Gandhi would say, “I felt compelled to come into the political field because I found I could not do even social work without touching politics… In democracy no fact of life is untouched by politics.”

These sharp realisations made Gandhi weave into his politics of fasting other ways of doing politics. Gandhi wasn’t always fasting. He was also marching with a huge number of people and conducting hard political negotiations. These marches and negotiations were no less part of the Gandhian politics of truth as his fasting. Fasting was a way of self-purification and contemplation, of making strenuous demands on the body as much as on the body politic and the state. This was undoubtedly the moral core of Gandhi’s politics, something that Sharmila emulated for an incomparably longer time. But if the state does not recognise or respond to this politics of truth, one has to make other political moves to draw the state out of its apathy and deliberate indifference. That is where the collective nature of Gandhian politics, where it could exert the force of a mass movement became crucial. In Sharmila’s case, her pure and individual form of protest did not have the transformative potential of a mass movement against AFSPA. This does not, however, mean she was found wanting in her use of Gandhian politics. It rather shows the lack of means a woman faces in her practice of such a politics.

In another statement, Sharmila has said, “I am not a goddess. I want to be a human being. I want to be chief minister of Manipur…” She could have well replaced the word “goddess” with “saint”. Sharmila has realised the dangers of being recognised as someone who is outside the realm of the ordinary world, which is dirty and political. The symbol of a “goddess” as much as that of a saint is the surest way to cut a human being off politics. Gandhi realised and suffered it well enough during his time. There is a politics of purity that will always haunt such figures, marked by a certain expectation of incorruptibility.

But politics, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in one of his famous plays, is about “dirty hands.” The play, Dirty Hands, set in a fictional Eastern European country during the latter stages of World War II and first performed in 1948, raises questions regarding morality and violence in politics. Sartre’s conclusion is well known: To abolish social classes, one must dirty one’s hands if necessary. The character, Hoederer, says, “We shall not abolish lying by refusing to tell lies”. We can rephrase this statement where Sartre throws a political challenge to morality, saying: We shall not abolish politics by refusing to join politics. And this is precisely where Sharmila’s statement about politics being as dirty as society becomes pertinent. The “goddess” trapped by public perception must dirty her hands as an ordinary human being, in order to grapple with this double-dirt of politics and society. Rather than a fall from grace, this is proof of Sharmila’s grace and honesty, which, to top it all, is a clearly political message to her people and the political class of this country.

Even now, Irom is throwing a double-challenge, to herself as well as her political opponents, when she says: “This is my life. I want equality… I am called the Iron Lady of Manipur and I want to live up to it.” It is only as an ordinary woman-citizen that Irom can claim her equality, even though she acknowledges the responsibility of the epithet, “Iron Lady”. By refusing one identity (that of a goddess) and accepting another (that of an Iron Lady), Irom has already stepped into the contentious language of politics. There are people who think a logical extension for Irom, if she wanted to breakaway from the singular politics of fasting, would be a Gandhian style mass movement. But politics, even in the Gandhian sense, is a matter of calling rather than mere logic. She has chosen what she thinks is currently the most effective way to engage with power. Without a priori judgement, we need to see what language she manages to introduce in politics.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi