Irom Sharmila to end her fast: What it means to Manipur and struggle against AFSPA

By: Maitreyee Boruah
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Imphal, Aug 9: In the Indian context, fasting holds a different meaning to different people and communities at large. If abstaining from food and drink is a popular belief in almost all the religions, leaders of protest movements in independent India, after being popularised by Mahatma Gandhi during our freedom struggle against the British rule, have hugely relied on hunger strikes to convey their messages to the authorities.

Be it anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare or activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, several non-violent struggles in modern India have seen their leaders going on hunger strikes. However, none comes close to Manipur's Irom Sharmila's 16-year-long fast to demand the repeal of the draconian (as human rights activists say) Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958.

Irom: AFSPA & mother of all fasts

As the Iron Lady of Manipur (as Sharmila is popularly known) is all set to end her hunger strike on Tuesday in a courthouse in Imphal, a large number of media contingent and members of human rights organisations have already reached the capital city of the northeastern state.

Earlier on July 26, when the 44-year-old made the announcement in the court of the chief judicial magistrate, Imphal (West), to end her fast, her decision took everyone by surprise. She also said that she wanted to get married and contest the upcoming Manipur assembly elections next year as an independent candidate.

Right from her brother to her supporters, many took her decision with a pinch of salt and were reluctant to rally behind her. In fact, several groups have threatened her not to break her fast and marry an "outsider" (Goa-born British national Desmond Coutinho).

According to media reports, Alliance for Socialist Unity, formed by the Kangleipak Yawol Kunna Lup and the Kangleipak Communist Party, has asked her to continue her fast, reminding the 44-year-old of "some former revolutionary leaders who were assassinated" for joining politics and forgetting the cause they spent years fighting for.

Even the members of Meira Paibis (the grassroots women's rights group), who stood behind Sharmila since the beginning of her struggle, are critical of her desire to end her fast and start leading a normal life.

Amidst all the opposition, few voices of solidarity could be also heard just hours before Sharmila is all set to break her long and excruciating fast.

Imphal-based human rights activist, Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert, says that everyone has the freedom to express his or her opinion including the fasting woman as well as the groups and people who are opposing her latest decision. "Irom Sharmila is not a person who will cow down to diktats," Loitongbam, told reporters.

Sharmila, who over the years since her fast first began in 2000, continued with her almost "lonely" battle against AFSPA, confined to her bed in a prison-turned-hospital in Imphal. It is her lone and long struggle that gave her the status of a goddess.

While many of her followers believe that she is a divine incarnation, observers say that giving cult status to an individual could prove detrimental to the struggle itself. Close observers of Manipur's conflict-ridden history say the cause is more important than the individual. They say the focus should be on to repeal AFSPA, not on Sharmila's life.

However, in some fights, like the one started by Sharmila, it's the commitment of the leader for a cause that drives the movement forward. Thus, as Sharmila is starting a new chapter in her struggle against AFSPA, both the cause and leader should go in tandem to bring the desired result.

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