'Thanks for 90 Votes': In Four Words, an Elegy for Indian Democracy

The electorate was happy to give a huge majority to criminals and strongmen in the fray but the face of a poet whose eyes were moist and whose nose had a tube inserted inside left them unmoved.

Malom, Manipur, the date is November 2, 2000. A young poet is standing at a bus stop. An army detachment reaches and opens fire indiscriminately, killing 10 young men. The poet’s heart cries. There is no provision in the Indian constitution to treat even criminals or terrorists like this.

How can anyone be killed in this way, the poet asks. She decides to fight against the black law that made such a crime possible. What is this law? The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA, which is applicable in some states of the northeast and in Kashmir. This law gives the security forces the right to shoot someone at will and not face any legal consequences.

The name of that young poet was Irom Sharmila Chanu. Sharmila started fasting against AFSPA the following day. This was not like the fasts of Anna Hazare. She kept her fast going for 16 years, something unheard of in the annals of righteous struggle the world over. The courts ordered that she be kept in police custody for trying to commit suicide, where she was given liquid nourishment through a tube inserted into her nose. She kept fasting, waiting for a victory that would never come.

Finally, in a Delhi court last year, Irom said with tears in her eyes, “I want to stay alive. I want to live. I want to marry, I want to love,  but before I can do that, I want the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act removed from Manipur.’ This was the demand for which she kept fighting and losing for 16 long years.

Sharmila decided that she would fight against this black law by taking part in electoral politics. In the assembly elections this time, she contested against the chief minister of Manipur and secured only 90 votes. The very people whose right to live she had fought to defend for over 16 years have brutally killed her political dream. Irom had entered the electoral arena with a dream in her eyes; on Saturday, her eyes brimming with tears, she announced her departure from the ring. ‘I will never set foot in here again’, she declared. For 16 years, she denied herself food, and love and companionship. Now she has been forced by the system to renounce electoral politics without ever having the chance to experience what a life in politics would look like.

Irom Sharmila, who went on an epic fast against AFSPA for 16 years, has lost, just as Manorama, the woman killed in custody in 2005 by the Assam Rifles lost, just as the women of Manipur who staged a naked protest to demand justice for Manorama lost, just as Madkam Hidme and Sukhmati in Bastar have lost. Responding to this defeat, Irom Sharmila’s supporters stoically said, ‘Thanks for 90 votes’.

Sharmila has been struggling and losing for 16 years. All she is saying is that the army should not be given the right to shoot whoever it likes merely because it suspects them of wrongdoing.

All she has been saying is that soldiers should not be allowed to rape and kill a Manorama, to open fire on young people standing at a crossroad, or to declare a 12-year-old child a ‘terrorist’ and shoot him in an ‘encounter’ in front of his mother.

Just as the 150 people who died because of demonetisation were not an issue in the elections, just like the fact that half the women in Uttar Pradesh are under-nourished was not an issue, just like the death each year of thousands of children from diarrhoea or encephalitis was not an issue, in the same way, the fact that Irom Sharmila gave up 16 years of her life to struggle for the lives of ordinary Manipuris was not an issue in the election.

In a democracy where Amarmani Tripathi’s son, Amanmani, can win his election from jail (where he is serving time for murdering his wife), where the mafia don Mukhtar Ansari can win his election from jail, where strongmen like Sushil Kumar, Raghuraj Pratap Singh and Vijay Mishra can win their elections comfortably, the defeat of Irom Sharmila – who extinguished her life to protest against violence and murder – was preordained. The electorate was happy to give a huge majority to criminals and strongmen in the fray but the face of a poet whose eyes were moist and whose nose had a tube inserted inside left them unmoved.

On polling day, voters in her constituency ensured not just the victory of the sitting chief minister and the defeat of Sharmila; they also scripted an elegy for Indian democracy.

Translated from the Hindi by Siddharth Varadarajan. You can read the original article in The Wire Hindi.

Note: An earlier version of this article identified the status update ‘Thanks for 90 votes’ on a Facebook page to Irom Sharmila Chanu. The administrators of the page, who are supporters of Sharmila, have since clarified that the page is not operated by her.