Irom Sharmila,abandoned by her own – Patricia Mukhim


When Irom Sharmila decided to go a fast to protest against the oppressive Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) in November 5, 2000, she did so voluntarily. Her fast became a universal symbol of a non-violent protest by an individual that has lasted sixteen long years. It would be difficult to imagine the agony of Irom Sharmila unless one has walked in her slippers.

But judging from her occasional foray into poetry Sharmila led a very lonely existence. It is true that she has supporters in every part of the world and has become an iconic human rights defender. But who is to know how she passed her nights and days. The people of Manipur are proud of her sacrifice. Militant outfits of various hues feel that their fight against the state is legitimized because there is one amongst them who is carrying the cross of a martyr protesting the brutish violation of human rights by security forces operating in Manipur and other Disturbed Areas of this country. But what does Irom Sharmila feel? Does anyone care to listen?

After sixteen long years Irom suddenly announced that she would end her fast, contest elections and marry the person who has been her admirer for decades. Whenever Desmond Coutinho came to Imphal with the desire to see Sharmila his attempts were thwarted by various social groups who have exercised some sort of ownership over her choices; her actions and even her thoughts.

If they could they would never allow her to come out of her fast until the AFSPA was repealed. But these groups forget that the recent Supreme Court ruling in July this year which came on a plea by hundreds of families from Manipur for a probe by a Special Investigation Team into 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounters involving the Army and the police, is an endorsement of Irom Sharmila's plea that security personnel can no longer hide behind the AFSPA for their criminal actions.

The apex court averred that "there is no concept of absolute immunity from trial by a criminal court" if an Army man has committed an offence. The Court must have taken cognizance of Irom Sharmila's 16-year fast and the growing support that she has received globally for her cause. It is therefore wrong to think of Sharmila's recent decision as the  betrayal of a cause she espoused in November 2000.

What a blow it must have been to Irom Sharmila when her own family members refused to accept her after she was released from custody on August 9. But this is patriarchy at its worst. Patriarchy is deeply embedded not only in the actions and postures of the Meitei male but it is also ingrained in the psyche of its female members.

The women who protested against Irom Sharmila's decisions are acting out their patriarchal biases. Sharmila has over the years become a symbol of a 'frail woman' protesting against an aggressive and powerful state. Aggression, brute force and raw power manifested by the Indian state through its armed forces are the attributes of patriarchy. Ironically, patriarchy buries itself deep in the psyche of women and before they know it they argue like men and expect certain social norms from their off-springs which should conform to the demands of patriarchy.

These are so insidious and difficult to deconstruct except by those who are exposed to the sub-text of Gender. Many of us go through life acting out our biases and prejudices which are framed by patriarchy.

It is patriarchy that exerts its authority over Irom Sharmila and wants to hold her captive to its stated norms that a Meitei woman cannot marry a Mayang (outsider)and that it is sacrilegious for her to even consider such a decision.

The Meitei society is not too worried about her political ambitions and might even support her. That is purely in the political domain. But in her personal life she is not allowed to take a decision that is seen as a blot on her community! These are the dilemmas that Sharmila is now sucked into.

The other aspect is that of her frail health. No one seems to consider that a human who is force fed for sixteen years could even lose the use of some faculties, including her cognitive abilities. What Sharmila needs right now is considerate counseling to come out of her psychological trauma. Instead what she is getting is raw deal.

Where is the humanity that human rights defender of Manipur speak of so glibly in their public lectures? This is the time to show solidarity with Sharmila and help her claim her right to choose the life she wants to live henceforth. Will they step forward or will they too cower in fear at the threats by underground outfits? We wait and watch the developments.

Consulting editor TNT-The northeast today

(By Patricia Mukhim,Consulting editor of TNT-The Northeast Today and Editor of The Shillong Times)

(DISCLAIMER: The views reflected in this article are that of the author and need not necessarily be that of TNT-The Northeast Today)