As Irom Sharmila enters the conjugal bond and steps into a new phase in her life, we recall her life’s trajectory and the many turbulent moments that made her a rare Gandhian Satyagrahi in times of growing intolerance and aggressive national politics. Here is a tribute to the woman who redefined political leadership and commitment and through her actions proclaimed how powerful the tool of ahimsa could be even when military tanks and armies rule our consciousness.
Ananya Pathak | Feature Editor | The New Leam
Irom Chanu Sharmila is civil and political rights activist from the Indian state of Manipur. She will be remembered in history for her 16 year long struggle against AFSPA ( Armed Forses Special Power Act, 1958) that applied to the seven states of the Northeast and thus legitimizes and gives authorities the power to search property without warrant, to arrest people and to even use ‘deadly force’ if they feel a suspicion that a person may do something against the state. This is quite similar to the act in the state of Jamu- Kahsmir.
To oppose this draconian law Sharmila adopted the principle of a true Satyagrahi and sat on a hunger strike which began in November 2000 and ended in 2016. After having refused food and water for sixteen long years, Irom Sharmila became the one to have the record for the longest hunger strike ever.
Having grown up in India’s northeast Sharmila knew what a perpetual situation of insurgency meant for the lives of ordinary men and women, with political violence and uprooted existences rampant all around.
From the beginning Sharmila took active part in peace movements in the Northeast but what happened in the year 2000 finally compelled her to sit on an unprecedented hunger strike. In the town called Malom which is in the Imphal Valley ten civilians were killed while waiting at a bus top. This incident which is known as the ‘Malom Massacre’ was supposedly done by Indian paramilitary forces operating in the state.
At this time Sharmila was a young girl of just 18 years and she made the decision to fight against this stark atrocity and she demanded the Indian Government to repeal the AFSPA. Since the time she resolved to sit on the fast and until the time that it ended, Sharmila was arrested and released by the police on grounds of ‘trying to commit suicide’.
On 26th July, 2016 after the 16 year long struggle that had little impact on the government policy in the northeast she decided to end her fast. It was here that she announced her plans to contest the state level elections in Manipur. She asserted that joining politics will be her new way of protesting against the AFSPA.
Irom’s stint in politics formally began when she launched her own party to fight in the Manipur elections called the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance to contest from two constituencies of Khurai and Khangabok.
The elections were fought with least monetary resources and in a way perhaps unknown and unfamiliar to elections campaign trends in the country were money flows like water and ‘buying’ and ‘selling’ of votes is common.
Irom Sharmila campaigned with humble resources and a fragile body but her commitment to her people and the cause that she was fighting for was unshakable. Tragically despite all her commitment and trials, she received only 90 votes as opposed to the winning candidate Ibobi Singh’s massive 18,649 votes.
It was hard to believe that this was the reward that she would get in her own state and from her own people after committing 16 years of her life to the cause of peace.
Disheartened but not defeated Sharmila resolved to quit politics in 2016 but asserted that she would continue to fight the AFSPA in her own way. She also expressed her desire to get married to Cotinho, a British national who stood with her firmly for many years and in many turbulent moments of her existence.
It was on August 18,2017 that she finally got married to him in a simple ceremony in Kodaikanal without family or fanfare.
I really feel happy as it is an important moment in my life. Again, I am thanking my fiancé who wholeheartedly and unconditionally stood by me. We are binding together today, Ms. Irom said.
While many individuals and organizations were opposed to her getting married, there were also many people who in their own ways sent their blessings to the newly married couple. It is indeed a new beginning for Sharmila and we congratulate her on this beautiful and significant event in her life. In times such as these where masculine militarization and the hegemonic power of the state are the dominant voices, a true Gandhian in the form of Sharmila is a jewel for the civilization.
It is ironic that despite being witness to her persistent struggle and unconditional devotion to the cause of peace in India’s northeast she lost the elections and faced such tremendous defeat. Perhaps we as citizens are so accustomed to lavish lifestyles of politicians and their vulgar display of both physical and monetary power in election campaigns that we do not trust a leader who stands on the pillar of her own merit and determination and not on the display of flowing wealth.
It is also a paradox that while we claim that there is a dearth of honest politicians in the country we are not prepared to give an ‘honest’ person a chance in politics. Irom Sharmila is a woman who is an example of courage, willpower and inner strength- a political leader that we collectively decided to deprive ourselves of! Hopefully before it is too late we will reinvent our democratic choices and build a nation that is awakened to inner light and one that knows how to distinguish ‘real’ from ‘unreal’ in all walks of life.
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