Anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila. (Photo: File)
Mumbai: On November 2, 2000, a young poet stood at a bus stop in Malom, Manipur, waiting for her bus. Suddenly, an army detachment reached the spot, and opened fire indiscriminately. 10 young men were killed.
The poet was Irom Sharmila Chanu. Shattered by the incident, the now-famous activist began a fast the very next day, against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allowed the armed forces to carry out atrocities without fear of the law.
Incredibly, Sharmila’s fast continued for a record 16 years, something unheard of anywhere in the world, in any righteous struggle.
The courts made attempts to force Sharmila to abandon her fast. They ordered she be moved to police custody for "trying to commit suicide", and a feeding tube was inserted into her nose to feed her liquids.
But Sharmila refused to end her fast, though victory was nowhere in sight. Last year, 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.’
However, Sharmila ended her fast on August 9 last year, and decided to contest the elections. Her decision was perhaps the result of the realisation that her fast would never achieve its goal. But incredibly, many of those who had supported Irom turned their backs on her as soon as she ended her fast, including some members of her family.
In the end, contesting against Manipur CM Okram Ibobi Singh in his constituency of Thoubal, Sharmila managed to get just 90 votes.
On Saturday, her eyes brimming with tears, she announced her departure from the ring. ‘I will never set foot in here again’, she declared.
Sharmila had lost, just as s 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 Hikme and Sukhmati in Bastar lost. Responding to this defeat, Irom Sharmila stoically wrote on her Facebook page on Sunday, ‘Thanks for 90 votes’.
All Sharmila had said was that the army should not rape women. All she said was that soldiers should not open fire on pedestrians, or declare 12-year-old children "terrorists" and shoot them in an encounter.
In the just concluded Assembly elections in 5 states, Mukhtar Abbas Ansari, the gangster-turned-politician, won from Mau by a huge margin of over 97000 votes. Incredibly, he earned his victory while sitting in a jail cell. Amarmani Tripathi’s son, Amanmani, won from jail too, after being convicted of murdering his wife. But Irom Sharmila, who waged a singular, life-defying struggle against AFSPA for 16 years, ended up with 90 votes.
Responding to her defeat, Sharmila posted a short but heartbreaking statement on her Facebook account:
Sharmila, in a statement to the media, also blamed the system, which allows the corrupt to win elections through money power. She announced that she was quitting politics.
Ahead of the elections, Sharmila had also revealed that the BJP had offered her Rs 36 crore to contest the elections on the saffron party's ticket after she ended her fast, a claim denied by the party.
In order to meet the party’s monetary requirements, PRJA took to crowdfunding online to raise funds. However, with just 90 votes, it seems Sharmila was eventually abandoned even by many of those who funded her.
"I am fed up with this political system. I have decided to quit active politics. I will move to south India as I need to calm my mind," Sharmila told PTI after the election.
"But I will continue my fight against AFSPA until and unless it is repealed. But I will fight as a social activist," she said.
Her party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Party (PRJA), has said that it will continue to fight elections without her. Sharmila has pledged moral support to the party.
But Sharmila's struggle has probably reached a dead end. Where does she go from here? She fasted for 16 years, and then she lost an election badly. Both paths, of agitation and of electoral politics, seem to be closed to her now. Through what new methods can she continue her struggle? Only time will tell.