Irom Sharmila’s 16-year-long peaceful hunger strike to protest against State violence in the form of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, despite the fact that she chose to end it earlier this week, makes her a modern living legend. It simply doesn’t matter that her campaign hadn’t succeeded, and the chances of AFSPA being removed from the statute book any time in the near future is remote. However, her epic fast for a major cause against the State is unique. This alone gives Sharmila an exalted status in the roll call of honour over non-violent resistance. A defiant fast is a deeply political instrument. Sharmila tried it unsuccessfully, but her individual effort shines. She showed she had no hesitation in courting death by refusing food for long.
She says she remains steadfast on her cause and voiced the wish to change tack and try another way — by becoming an independent legislator to promote her cause from inside the precincts of the Manipur Assembly. Sharmila, now 44, also wants to marry. Now that Manipur’s “Iron Lady” has decided to end the 16-year-long fast it marks a change in her tactics. But instead of respecting her wishes as an individual, and appreciating the intensity with which the anti-AFSPA battle was fought by her single-handedly, Sharmila’s immediate community in Imphal — her friends and family — have shown displeasure with her. The great fighter could not even return to her mother’s home from where she began her incredible journey, presumably for want of welcome.
Evidently, Sharmila’s erstwhile supporters want her to carry on being a saint in their midst, and refuse to see her in any other way. This is typical of the subcontinent where fasting is a religio-cultural act. It is worth asking if Mahatma Gandhi would have been seen as great if he didn’t have fasting as the principal weapon in his satyagraha armoury. The response of Sharmila’s supporters smacks of hypocrisy. It appears that they would like to have someone else die for their cause even as they lead their lives normally. In an insurgency-wracked state like Manipur, people’s reaction could have also been orchestrated by a section of militants, who appear to have been disappointed with this development. Even in absence of overt threats, it is but natural for people in miltancy hit states like Manipur and Kashmir to toe the line of extremists. Of course, we do not know the truth in this case. But it is apt to state that Sharmila’s status as a fearless warrior for the people’s cause is assured in the annals of history.