Photo: Sonu Mehta/HT
Photo: Sonu Mehta/HT

Opinion | Sharmila moves on but Manipur’s struggles remain

Sharmila moved on. There’s no poster-girl to highlight the state’s struggles with AFSPA

Remember Irom Sharmila? You had probably forgotten until you saw photographs of Manipur’s former protest icon cradling her new born twin daughters alongside her ‘non-resident’ husband, Desmond Coutinho. The photograph taken in a Bengaluru hospital earlier this week is far from the image she was known by for more than a decade: nasal drip that force-fed her, unkempt hair, tortured expression, fierce eyes.

If ever there was a living martyr, Sharmila was one. Her act of not putting food to her mouth for 16 years from 2000 was as potent as any protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 or AFSPA, that still covers most of Manipur. The misuse of AFSPA, a legal prophylactic for the armed forces to conduct operations against rebels, is cited as the reason for acts of great human rights horrors, from rape and custodial death to extra-judicial killing.

Indeed, the Supreme Court has since 2017 repeatedly ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to expedite investigations and filing of charge sheets in nearly a hundred alleged instances of extra judicial killings between 1980 and 2011.

The allegations were against the Indian Army, its adjunct Assam Rifles, central paramilitary forces, and Manipur Police. It was the result of a public interest litigation by the Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur and Imphal-based watchdog Human Rights Alert. The petition predates the ending of Sharmila’s fast in August 2016. She had nothing to do with the petition. And that is precisely the incongruity about the hullabaloo that attended Sharmila, including a decision to contest Manipur’s assembly elections in March 2017. Because Sharmila never claimed to be greater than her cause.

Her ending the fast was met with incredulity. Why had she given up when most of Manipur remained under AFSPA? She had taken to fasting with the promise she would persist until AFSPA was discontinued in Manipur. (Sharmila was freed on a personal bond. Her undertaking to give up her fast triggered this roundabout acquittal from a suspect case for the prosecution that kept her jailed on a charge of attempting suicide. She began fasting after the November 2000 massacre of 10 civilians by troops of 8 Assam Rifles, to the south of Imphal’s airport, a reprisal for being attacked by Manipuri rebels.)

I received requests from activists to inquire into Coutinho’s antecedents in Ireland and the UK. Why did he write letters proclaiming his love for Sharmila? Why would she respond? Was Coutinho a deliberate trap to distract Sharmila from her purpose?

The second decision, to fight elections, was well meant but naïve. She stood against Congress Party’s incumbent chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, whose three-term tenure witnessed gross human rights violations and scant development. Sharmila polled less than a hundred votes. Her electoral decimation surprised few. Sharmila was only a symbol of the political cleansing that many Manipuris hoped would galvanize voters, shake up the system, affect incumbents and warn those like an insistent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As it happened, the BJP formed a coalition government with Nongthombam Biren Singh as chief minister.

A disheartened Sharmila soon left Manipur for Kodaikanal, to be with Coutinho. Meanwhile, questions continued about her remarkable decision to end her fast.

Few factored in the reality of a person who abused writers—including me—for simply writing about Sharmila, let alone well-meaning activists; of a man besotted with Sharmila. Or that she, whom few believed had a romantic bone in her body although her very act of defiance was born of extreme romanticism, could yearn for companionship in her years of solitude.

Now Sharmila has moved on. But causes endure in Manipur, as AFSPA does, along with administrative arrogance—the mantle of which has passed from the Congress to the BJP. There’s no poster-girl to highlight it all. But there are still posters, and protests.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.