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Irom Sharmila's decisions have upset equilibrium in Manipur

This dismal balance shall soon get restored. In that lies our collective disgrace

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi 

Irom Sharmila did not only break her 16-year-old hunger strike and promise to join electoral elections. She upset the equilibrium that had come to envelop the weary Manipur state over years. It has momentarily broken and that has upset some in her Meitei community. Not everyone. She would carry on with her struggle ignored by the state. AFSPA would continue. Brutality, violence and everyday harassment would be commonplace. Impunity would be a standard. Bandhs would be called every other day. Civic life would continue to crawl in a militarised state. This was the equilibrium the society achieved over time as it realised Irom’s sacrifice or Manipur’s continued misery would not break India’s apathy. It’s this weary balance that has been lost. Those upset or surprised by the sudden turn of events shall get over and reorganise their life around a new dismal balance. The question really is, will India’s apathy continue unabated? Media turned up at Imphal for a momentous occasion and instead found itself beaming and emailing back images of a disagreeable event. These stories of irate reaction, distrust and even suspicion about Irom’s decisions by a section of the Meitei community left many in rest of India confounded. What do you make of this? Why are they angry at her? How dare they be angry at her? How can ‘her’ people be so ungrateful for her grand sacrifice? Why won’t they accept her personal decision? Perhaps, rest of India could have legitimately asked these questions of Manipur’s people if it had also asked the more pertinent and searing questions of itself — the ones it has steadfastly refused to over 16 years. India annotated a general solidarity with the icon, appreciating the melancholic aesthetic of her struggle to avoid facing up to the violence and despair her people suffered. Less said of the state’s shameful cold reaction the better. Irom Sharmila’s journey began as a personal sacrifice 16 years ago. Over years her she turned into an icon around which the public movement against AFSPA and militarisation of civil life in the region coalesced. But, let us give agency here. It didn’t happen on its own.

Many from the vibrant civil society in the region worked to make it so. Like all movements, besides an icon, this one too has had its many leaders, ideologues, followers, hanger-ons, doubters and critics – that is the nature of a movement. Out of many of them who were taken by surprise, some got upset. To repeat, not all. If one wants to, one can read and hear enough voices from Irom’s community which are angry and disappointed at the section of local civil society that has reacted badly. Emerging media reports suggest the community is quickly going through a self-correction. As Thockchom Ramani Devi (a senior among the meira paibi – the mothers’ collective) told media in Imphal, “We respect and appreciate all she had done for last 16 years, for the issue and the people, we highly appreciate that but her decision to join politics is something I cannot appreciate.” A more nuanced acceptance of the altered balance is fast developing in the people of the valley. Lassitude shall soon return to reclaim its equilibrium. Irom shall venture along her new personal journey. Electoral politics shall be played like it always is in militarised and conflict-hit regions – ineffective and at the same time a good mimic of the real version. Kids shall go to school and mothers shall run their markets on days the valley is not arrested by bandhs, curfew and protests. The civil society shall rethink its stratagem to breach India’s bottomless reservoir of apathy. There might be a question that Manipur’s youth shall ask of India as a consequence of Irom’s failed struggle? As Seram Rojesh, a young activist and academic from Manipur said, “The lesson for us is that peaceful protest will not bring anything. This is a dangerous lesson for us to learn.” Are then the comparisons between Irom and Gandhi fallacious? He came from the mainstream of the Indian society and bared the immorality of a foreign force colonising the country. Irom came from the margins to challenge the society’s vacuous claims that Gandhi’s country treats its people as equal citizens. She tested the state and its citizens against the principles Gandhi wanted the nation to live by. All through, the mainstream political class and even the quasi-political class (remember Anna Hazare) preferred to show occasional sympathy for Irom as a person from a safe distance, not wishing their credentials on ‘nationalism’ questioned. It is not the politicians who failed Irom and the people of Manipur. It’s our politics that came up short of an answer to how our state can brutalise citizens at its margins with impunity. Some in Manipur might have to live with the embarrassment of their initial reaction to Irom’s decisions. But, we in the rest of the country shall certainly have to live with our disgrace. Next time, shall we talk about Sharmila only when Manipur’s dysfunctional electoral politics again helps us justify our apathy?

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First Published: Fri, August 12 2016. 19:37 IST
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