Irom Chanu Sharmila to end fast on Tuesday: Why opposition to her decision reeks of patriarchy

For the past 16 years, Irom Sharmila, the 'Iron Lady of Manipur' has been a symbol of self-sacrifice. She has been on a hunger strike to protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). However, ever since she announced on 26 July that she will break her fast on 9 August, Sharmila has come under severe scrutiny and criticism from many quarters. Sharmila has also expressed her desire to get married and announced that she would join electoral politics to continue the fight to get AFSPA repealed. While many have urged the civil rights activist to continue her fast, some radical groups have even threatened her with dire consequences if she ends her fast.

 Irom Chanu Sharmila to end fast on Tuesday: Why opposition to her decision reeks of patriarchy

Irom Sharmila in a file photo. Reuters

Right to life
Right to life or desire to live is the most basic of human rights. Irom Sharmila started her hunger strike after Assam Rifles personnel allegedly shot dead 10 civilians. Since then she has mostly been in custody (getting released and re-arrested every year on the charge of attempt to suicide) in a hospital being force-fed through a tube inserted into her nose. All these years, Sharmila's face with a tube hanging down her nose became Manipur's symbol of resistance against the brazen Army brutality even as the Indian state continues to ignore human rights violations. Now that she wants to lead a 'normal life' and get married (in all likelihood to Goan-born British national Desmond Coutinho), those very people for whom she stood up are ready to sacrifice her on the altar of tolerance. Even her brother has expressed disappointment over her decision.

"I am not happy to know that she has decided to end her fast. What upsets me more is that she did not consult me or her mother before taking this important decision. My mother always told her to fight till the end - till the demand to repeal AFSPA is met," Sharmila's elder brother Irom Singhajit was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

He, however, said "as a human being, she has every right to marry anyone".

If this is not patriarchy, then what is?

While her decision should have ideally been a cause of celebration, the activist today finds herself flooded with 'requests' to continue her fast.

In an open letter to her, Namoijam Oken and Khetri Laba, leaders of the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) a Meitei insurgent outfit, and the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), an ultra-leftist group, urged their “elder sister” not to end the fast. They even warned that some former insurgents, who were elected to the Manipur Assembly, had been assassinated.

Honour and patriarchy
Patriarchy, after all, is all about moral authority, social privilege and control of property.

Many feel "outsider" Coutinho may have "influenced" her decision to end the fast. Some even have expressed apprehensions that Coutinho is a state agent trying to divert her democratic struggle.

In fact, when the news of Sharmila's "relationship" with Coutinho first appeared in national media in 2011, civil society bodies in Manipur termed it "an insult to all Manipuri people".

The Telegraph newspaper, in its 5 September, 2011 edition, had quoted Sharmila as having said that "she was in love with Coutinho but her supporters were against the relationship".

Copies of the daily were burnt and the newspaper was banned in Manipur by civil society organisations under the aegis of Apunba Lup. They alleged that "there was a conspiracy by the national daily to sabotage the movement of Sharmila who is demanding the repeal of AFSPA".

Even if we assume that Coutinho is trying to "mislead" her, marriage and freedom to choose a life partner is a basic human right and it doesn't necessarily mean she will forget her cause.

Don't make her a martyr
Sharmila and her cause has always been in the news. Had it not been for Irom Sharmila's sacrifice, Manipur and the plight of its people would have never drawn national and international attention (and support). Yet today she stands alone. When she decided to start her hunger strike, Sharmila never forced anyone else to join her. It has been 'solely' her decision to sacrifice the prime of her life for her people. It has indeed been a battle in isolation. Then why is the decision to end her fast not left to her alone? Why are all those radical groups and their representatives not ready to take the baton from her and continue the fast on her behalf? Choosing life over death (the 16-year-long strike is after all at the cost of her health) doesn't necessarily mean giving up. Irom Sharmila doesn't just belong to Manipur, but represents the indomitable human spirit of resilience against injustice and human rights violation. Hopefully, her critics too would realise this and support her in keeping her fight alive.

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Updated Date: Aug 09, 2016 08:44:02 IST