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A file photo of Irom Sharmila. Photo: PTI
A file photo of Irom Sharmila. Photo: PTI

Irom Sharmila and malaise de Manipur

Manipur is in a moment. Irom Sharmila broke her 16-year fast of protest against the AFSPA, but there's much more

Let’s talk about Malaise de Manipur, the underrated sibling of Malaise de Kashmir and unkempt child of Malaise de India—some say illegitimate child, though in these modern times, tender constitutional love and developmental care can still paper over old-fashioned irregularities.

There is every need. The birth in 1949 didn’t go so well. It rarely does, with squabbling parents fresh from a shotgun wedding, the certificate of marriage to the Indian union still contested after 67 years. Then there is Manipur’s lot of seeing its own children being beaten, raped, murdered and legally ill-treated as non-citizens, the good cop of India’s Constitution diminished by the bad cops led by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA).

It can drive people to rage. It has—several rebel groups’ worth. It can drive people to near-insanity. It has—a whole state’s worth, nearing three million people, suffering a decades-long run of error and terror from state and non-state actors alike. Permanent Traumatic Stress Disorder.

And now Manipur is in a moment. Is it because of Irom Sharmila, the steadfastly fasting lady, who on Tuesday broke her 16-year fast of protest against the AFSPA? Yes, but there’s much more.

Sharmila is free on a personal bond. Her undertaking to give up her fast brought about this roundabout acquittal from a morally decrepit case for the prosecution that kept her jailed all these years on a charge of trying to commit suicide. She cast herself as a protester after the November 2000 massacre of ten civilians by troopers of 8 Assam Rifles, in reprisal for being attacked by Manipur rebels. The governments of India and Manipur then recast Sharmila as what I have repeatedly termed a living martyr.

She is still a living martyr. Elders of a locality in Imphal, Manipur’s capital, denied Sharmila permission to live among them. She who fought for them, plans to continue to fight for their return to liberty and equality, a productive future, against abdication by the Indian and Manipuri governments to offer governance and development. She plans to do so electorally. In a turn of the greatest irony, on Wednesday, she returned to her ward—her jail these past years—at Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences. The local chapter of Indian Red Cross has now offered her a home.

Rebel groups born of the majority Meitei community, Sharmila’s own, have always kept her at arms’ length, unnerved by a competing moral stand. Sharmila out of jail is for them a pariah with a Gandhian death wish: to lead with peace. They will hypocritically damn Sharmila for selling out to the highest bidder—not India’s intelligence agencies but, as it happens, the dictates of her own life choices. Rebels will light this path for many elders of Manipur, among them some entrenched activists of Manipur—some of whom openly take ideological cues from rebels. All enraged, as they cannot control an icon.

And if agents of the governments of India and Manipur, and various political parties, rejoice in Sharmila’s decision to end her fast, to integrate with the Indian electoral system to contest assembly elections due by March 2017, they will perpetuate the error of their ways. Sharmila isn’t theirs to run either.

Sharmila freed will not reduce human rights overhang for government. And it will matter little if this bedraggled innocent, this sensitive eccentric, this lady of courage beyond belief is unable to make a transition into an Aung San Suu Kyi that many now expect her to.

Because, as martyr or living martyr, younger Manipuris will embrace Sharmila. As a candidate, or a T-shirt, or campaign button, Sharmila will be the face of the youth, their fortitude, hope in a future. I believe younger Manipuris, no less scarred than their elders but with greater urge to attain escape velocity from the morass of the present, will carry the idea of Sharmila, the politics of Sharmila, even as the elders so easily reject her, so easily mock her when she—again, so spectacularly—shows a mind of her own. Where the unwise elders see betrayal, the younger and wiser will see betterment.

I believe that younger Manipuris will carry the vote. I believe they will travel to Manipur from wherever else in Northeast India and Mainland India they work and study. Unlike their elders, they don’t believe in miracle cures for collective madness. They believe in the curative principle of mandates.

Damn. This will be big.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, runs on Fridays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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