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Irom Sharmila: Why shocked Manipuris don't want the iconic anti-Afspa activist as CM

As live images beamed across all major television news networks in India on Tuesday when the Iron Lady of Manipur Irom Chanu Sharmila broke her 16-year-long fast, the state perhaps was into soul-searching more rather than rejoicing. By suddenly announcing her decision to end her fast on 26 July, Sharmila, a relatively unknown Manipuri woman who transformed into a cult figure for her struggle against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa), possibly left a resolute movement rudderless at least for now.

 Irom Sharmila: Why shocked Manipuris dont want the iconic anti-Afspa activist as CM

Irom Sharmila. Reuters

More than her decision to finish her fast, what has become unfathomable for a large section of the Manipuri people is her desire to enter active politics, to become chief minister of the state and become instrumental in repealing the Afspa.

"People are puzzled, stunned and angry. She is otherwise quite stubborn but she has to know that she would always need the support of her people in whatever she does. She needs to take people along with her. She has to work hard, reconnect with the people, tour the villages. Sharmila has not seen any Manipuri village in all these years. She cannot just remain as an icon on a pedestal," Binalakshmi Nepram, secretary general of the Control Arms Foundation of India told Firstpost.

"Sharmila needs to seriously reconsider her decision to contest the upcoming Manipur Assembly election," she said.

In 2007, Nepram had founded the Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network to help thousands of women who are affected by gun violence in Manipur.

Sharmila had started her fast on 5 November, 2000 after the Malom Makha Leikai massacre by Assam Rifles personnel that took place on 2 November, 2000. Ten innocent civilians had lost their lives in the bloodbath. For all these years, it was a cat-and-mouse game between Sharmila and the government in power, who would get her behind bars repeatedly charging her with attempted suicide. Eventually she had to be force-fed to prevent any fatal eventuality.

Howsoever sudden and incongruous her decisions might be, no one is taking away the credit she deserves for her fight for all these years.

"We salute her epic struggle for such a long time and salute her extraordinary courage. We welcome her decision to end her fast. A need for change of strategy was slowly realised in the last five-six years. Even Mahatma Gandhi used fast as an means to an end and not as an end in itself. This is largely strategic and the fight against Afspa will go on. Her body and mind will take time to heal. Her staying healthy is a priority for us now," Nepram said.

While the civil society groups in Manipur were completely caught unawares by the unfolding situation, Sharmila's intention to battle in polls has complicated matters even more. The state elections are scheduled to be held less than a year from now as the current government would end its term on 18 March next year.

"Although her announcement around two weeks ago surprised us, it is finally a phase of satyagraha that has come to an end. A new chapter is beginning and we will find out a different way to fight (the Afspa). She needs to consult a lot more on her political plans. Right now, she is very emotional. A concrete ground check and more practical approach is required. It could not be decided in 10 minutes. There has to be an other way," said Babloo Loitongbam, director, Human Rights Alert.

What if Sharmila is steadfast in her desire to fight the polls? Would her supporters of all these years desert her?

"We would be there with her. But as I said, there has to be dialogue and discussion to strategise for the future," said Loitongbam.

There is another angle to the whole issue as well. This being, if Sharmila succeeds in achieving what she had intended to get through her marathon fast. The Iron Lady of Manipur was determined throughout all these years not to settle for anything except the repeal of Afspa from Manipur.

"When Sharmila started her fast way back in November 2000, there was only one camera that shot her. Today when she ended her fast there were hundreds. The event was telecast live. Through her fast she could expose the ills of Afspa that Manipur has been facing for so long. This is her biggest achievement," said Loitongbam.

In July, the Supreme Court did take away the impunity element from Afspa restricting the armed forces from having a free run without accountability hiding behind this act. The verdict of the apex court was delivered on the basis of pleas made by many families in Manipur as the state has a whopping 1,528 cases of alleged fake encounters by the Army and other security forces. The Supreme Court categorically said that the Army and paramilitary forces cannot use 'excessive and retaliatory force' in Manipur and such instances must be probed.

Although the Supreme Court order is a setback for the armed forces in the manner they perform their duties in the 'disturbed areas', the government is in no mood to withdraw the Act soon.

"Afspa was imposed in Manipur way back in 1958. It's a colonial and draconian law that infringes upon the rights of the ordinary citizen. Afspa shows that the democracy in India is not yet complete. To the extent that Afspa is repealed from the state, Sharmila has not succeeded. But she did become the conscience to this whole problem. She has only ended her fast but not her fight," Nepram said.

To say that the presence of the Army is completely unacceptable would also be incorrect.

"All northeastern states have international borders. There is China, Myanmar, Bangladesh.... we need the Army to guard our borders and protect us from external threats and not to look after internal law and order. Afspa has taken away the right to life that is given to all Indian citizens under Article 21. It also violates Article 22," she said.

Article 22 deals with protection against arrest and detention in certain cases.

The events in Manipur in the last two weeks happened so fast that Sharmila now almost runs the risk of being isolated.

"Her mother is in a state of shock. She did not come to the court on Tuesday which granted her bail on the condition that she would break her fast. The mothers of Manipur have made it clear that the fight against Afspa will go on with or without an icon," Nepram said.

Despite the media glare, the Mengoubi (the fair one) as Sharmila is also known, in the last couple of years did lose ground even owing to a few developments in her personal life.

"No one should comment on her desire to get married. There is no rule which says an activist cannot marry. It is a personal thing. But Sharmila is in all likelihood in a relationship for around two years which is creating a rift between her and her family members and the mothers of Manipur. No one knows who this guy is. He is like an enigma," said the secretary general of the Control Arms Foundation of India.

Viewed as an enigma herself, there is an inherent fear among many that this quandary of a romantic relationship linked to her would push the Manipuri people's biggest war against the draconian Afspa into a quagmire.

It is unclear if the land of Sangai and Loktak lake is now on the threshold of a major political transformation. The quest for an answer is as mysterious as Sharmila.

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Updated Date: Aug 10, 2016 19:04:29 IST