Could Irom Sharmila be BJP's
Mehbooba in Manipur?

It boggles the mind to even think that Irom Sharmila could join forces with the BJP, doesn't it? But her decision on Tuesday to end her nearly 16-year-long fast has raised many questions and rumours.

One such is that the BJP may have reached out to her and could well be thinking on the lines of replicating the party's model in Jammu & Kashmir, where it allied with the PDP and Mehbooba Mufti, once anathema to the BJP's outlook on the state.

Irom Sharmila

On Tuesday, Sharmila surprised not just the rest of the world but even her own family and close associates by declaring that she was ending her fast and wanted to get married and would contest elections.

The Irom Sharmila story

On November 1, 2000, a Manipuri insurgent group bombed a column of the paramilitary Assam Rifles. The next day, enraged soldiers gunned down 10 innocent civilians, including 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, a National Child Bravery Award winner, at a bus stand in Malom, Imphal.

Irom Chanu Sharmila, then 28, began her fast on November 4 in protest against the 'Malom Massacre', and demanding that Manipur be rid of the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA).

Sharmila, now 44, has not eaten or had water since, and even cleans her teeth with dry cotton to prevent water from entering her body. But she is force-fed a mixture of carbohydrates and proteins through a nasal pipe three times a day by a state that will not accede to her demand but will neither let her die for the cause.

Instead, in what has become an annual routine, she is arrested and charged with trying to commit suicide and then released in a matter of days. Even when she is released, though, she is in confinement in a hospital ward, with not even permission to walk in the open.

In captivity less than a mile from where her mother Irom Ongbi Sakhi lives, mother and daughter have never met in all these years because Sharmila feared that her resolve to carry on her protest would weaken at the sight of her mother.

No one knows what Sharmila's medical condition is currently, but her brother Singhajit had said as far back as 2009 that she had stopped menstruating.

In 1980, when AFSPA was imposed on Manipur, the state had four insurgent groups. Today, there are said to be over 40 groups fighting the state.

Why break fast now?

Sharmila has said she is ending the fast to take up the AFSPA cause politically, as well as because she wanted to get married to her Goan-British boyfriend Desmond Coutinho.

Perhaps she had come to realise that AFSPA had not been withdrawn in the past 16 years nor is it likely to be removed for the foreseeable future. If so, her decision is rational and welcome.

But she has also come in for some criticism. Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) says her protest achieved little beyond raising awareness about AFSPA. She could have negotiated with the government long ago instead of keeping up the fast for this long. While she was wrong to continue her fast so long, she is now making another mistake by deciding to join politics. Both decisions are errors of judgement, Chakma says.

The fact is, however, while Sharmila and her cause may have become known to the world through her extraordinary protest, it could change nothing on the ground because she was confined to a high-security hospital ward. The decision to end her fast will mean she will be out in the open and will be heard better now.

Fast-forward to politics

Several anti-establishment crusaders who have undertaken hunger strikes have then gone on to take the political route to be better heard.

Sharmila has herself said that her fight so far has been a lonely fight. "I have now decided to wage a war against the AFSPA democratically by becoming a lawmaker", she said.

Will she now contest elections in Manipur next year as an independent? Will she start her own party? Or, will she align with one of the existing parties?
Although at the moment, it appears she will contest as an independent, political parties are set to make a beeline to her home. The BJP is reported to have already reached out to her.

Manipur, a state that the Congress has won thrice consecutively, is important for the BJP's push to take control of all of the north-east.

While getting Sharmila on its side, whether by inducting her into the party or by simply aligning with her, will be quite a coup for the party, it will be a tough act for the BJP to change its position on AFSPA, and especially to do so only in Manipur while leaving it intact in the rest of the north-east and especially in Jammu & Kashmir.

The Manipur elections will be interesting. The Congress has been in power for nearly 15 years, but is now facing its own problems, including anti-incumbency as well as that old party bugbear, rebels. Of the 42 MLAs Congress MLAs in the 60-member House, as many as 27 are said to be keen to shift loyalties to the BJP as elections approach.

Is this a game that Irom Sharmila can or would really want to play?

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