Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike 17 times for political reasons. Aghast with the subjugation of his brethren, he fought for the independence and dignity of the nation through non-violent methods and succeeded in doing so. He is lauded as the father of our nation.
Irom Chanu Sharmila went on a hunger strike once, but for 16 years. Yeah, you read it correctly. It’s not a typo. Her hunger strike lasted from November 2000 to August 2016 for repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in her home state of Manipur. The AFSPA gives the military forces immense authority, which ranges from searching without a warrant to the use of force based on suspicion. After ending her hunger strike, she tried her hand at electoral politics to solve the issue of AFSPA in Manipur. However, she contested the Manipur elections in 2017 and got just 90 votes.
I am a supporter of the AFSPA and strongly believe it is needed in troubled areas like the Kashmir valley and in ULFA and Maoist strongholds. I do not support Irom Sharmila or her human rights activist friends’ demand to repeal this act. However, I did root for her in this election.
I read about her first in the early 2000s and wondered how a person could survive without food for so long. The sights of the nasal-gastric tubes that fed her, cleared my doubts. Over the years, her name popped up occasionally in the media. It gave her sympathy and at times accolades. I followed her through the news networks and was in awe of her determination to see it to the end. She tried to involve Anna Hazare, wrote to the silent economist Prime Minister a couple of times and once attempted to create international awareness at the United Nations Human Rights Council, with the help of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. But, all in vain.
She did manage to turn many heads and drop even more jaws. Yet, she never managed to gather enough support for her cause from the public or the political elite. For a feat of such magnitude, the expected footfall is enormous, but the 16-year long struggle fizzed out.
No one really cares about what happens in the North East. I’m talking about the ones who are responsible for bringing the attention of the masses to such issues and the ones who are supposed to take action on those issues. Unlike the politically and religiously lucrative state of Kashmir, Manipur holds much less value in the mind of the layman and that means it sells less. The world runs on money. So, lesser the money, lesser the attention it gets. So, the media tends to cover Manipur way less.
How did Irom Sharmila suffer defeat with just 90 votes to a two-time incumbent chief minister who bagged over 18000 votes? After all, she was on a hunger strike for more than 15 years for the people of Manipur.
It’s simple politics. She is a human rights activist and Okram Ibobi Singh is a veteran politician. She had the sympathies of some villagers and the support of a few activists and media outlets, while he had the resources of the Congress party and its organisational machinery. She ended her hunger strike on a low note, without many even noticing it. She formed a party without any organisers or clear agenda and she declared her intent to fight for the CM Post too soon, and that too, on Ibobi’s home ground. She hardly had a campaign strategy, nor did she offer a plan of what she would do if elected. Arvind Kejriwal defeated the then CM of Delhi Sheila Dikshit in 2013, after a high voltage anti-corruption campaign (thanks to Anna Hazare), having an action plan and a lot of promises offered to the people.
His AAP managed to do decent ground work. He also had a presence in both social media and news media in general and he reaped the dividend. Irom Sharmila neither had his resources, nor capable supporters nor an alternative to offer to the voters. Politics is never won by sacrifices or hard work alone. Just like any other industry, marketing is the key. She failed in projecting herself as the Aung San Suu Kyi of Manipur and rather naively trusted in the goodness of the people to carry her through.
She wasted her chance to make it big by going low-key. The news showed a shawl-clad, teary eyed iron lady announcing her exit from politics, but I hope she reconsiders. I hope she learns the ways of politics and returns as a capable and different person.