ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Sharmila's Message

By breaking her fast, Irom Sharmila compels us to think about the efficacy of such tactics.

In India, we do not want our mahatmas and goddesses to be human. They have to be superhuman so that we can worship them from a distance. For 16 years, Irom Chanu Sharmila was elevated to that status by her supporters in Manipur who, like her, were opposed to the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in their state and the impunity it granted the security forces. On 9 August, Sharmila tasted honey and broke her protest fast, thereby reminding her supporters that she is not a goddess but a human being. By doing so, she also raised relevant questions about the efficacy of protests like hers and by choosing the political route, she asserted the right to rethink and change strategies to achieve the larger end. These are logical conclusions that an individual, who has put her body through 16 years of virtual torture with force-feeding and isolation, an annual ritual of release and rearrest, could arrive at if this personal suffering was not making any difference. That Sharmila did not come at such a conclusion earlier is indicative of the enormous pressure on her to continue. Going public with her decision was perhaps the only way she could break out from another kind of prison, apart from the actual one, in which she found herself incarcerated.

The negative response of some of Sharmila’s supporters to her decision to end her fast is not entirely unexpected. There have been many campaigns in India based on the belief that an individual, by punishing herself, can shame a government to act. In some cases the strategy has worked; in others it has failed. In Sharmila’s case, the government’s plan was to keep her technically alive but in prison in the hope that this would break her spirit. It did not. Instead, it turned her into an icon. But did it lead to a mass movement against AFSPA in Manipur? Unfortunately, even though this was the kind of overarching issue that could have united Manipuris living on the plains and in the hills, it did not happen.

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