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Why Manipur's electorate has lost interest in Irom Sharmila

Irom Sharmila's political party PRJA is not being taken too seriously by most voters in Manipur. Photograph: (WION)

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India Mar 06, 2017, 01.28 PM (IST)


By Enakshi Sharma

"You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." - The Dark Knight

Well, that is too strong a statement for someone like Irom Sharmila. She can surely never be a villain considering what she has done already. However, looking at the response to her ongoing election campaign or the lack of it, one can’t help but remember this quote from "The Dark Knight". But what can be the reason for this apparent apathy of the people? What does it tell us about gender equations in our societies?

Let us first go back in time to the point where it all started, just so that we can have an idea about Sharmila’s evolution. It all started in the year 2000 when some of the current social media sensations were mere toddlers. Ten civilians lost their lives during indiscriminate firing by Assam Rifles on 2nd December that year and in protest, Sharmila started her epic fast that lasted till 9th August 2016. She did not touch food during these 500 weeks and was repeatedly arrested and released during this period. Authorities used nasogastric intubation occasionally just to keep her alive. Practically, she almost killed herself to make a point on behalf of her people. Her struggle brought international recognition to the extra-judicial killings in Manipur by the state machinery. What more could a state have asked for from its brave daughter?

Cut to March 2017, she is now busy campaigning for the election. She has no funds for campaigning but she has picked hardest of the battles, that against the CM Ibobi Singh, representing the newly formed party called Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). However, there is a marked difference between the public receptions of Sharmila, the politician compared to Sharmila, the anti-AFSPA activist.

As per most of the reports coming out of poll-bound Manipur, the primary battle is between the ruling Congress and the resurgent BJP. PRJA is not being taken too seriously by most of the voters. Ibobi Singh is nearly invincible on his home turf and Sharmila’s battle seems to have nothing more than symbolic significance as of now. Even those who might have idolized her when she was starving herself to near-death, are not likely to join her in this new journey. So, she is just cycling alone all over the constituency, trying to talk to the people and working towards convincing them to vote for her. Even the most optimistic of the estimates are not even remotely in her favour.

So, what exactly has changed? To begin with, she is no longer starving or suffering for the people. She has entered the power game that has many benefits in case she wins. This naturally changes people’s perception towards a person even if the person does not change herself. But is that a reason enough to explain people’s lack of interest in her new party?

Before answering this question, another important development must be taken into account. She has recently announced her marriage to a person who is not from Manipur. In fact, he is not even Indian but a Goa-born British citizen. In the conservative confines of Manipur, this news has come as a big shock, so much so that people are seeing his hand behind her new avatar. It is noteworthy that originally she vowed not to end the fast till AFSPA was repealed. AFSPA is still there and she now plans to fight the cause politically. However, many have not been able to accept this sudden change of heart because even in 2014 she was invited to contest elections by various parties but she declined.

While certain questions are understandable, it is hard to imagine a male candidate facing similar apprehensions. Manipur women have excelled in many fields from sports to culture but rarely are they seen in politics. Is it is a sign of a deeply patriarchal society? Does it find too hard to accept the fact that Sharmila now plans to live her own life and also intends to be a part of the establishment? What if she had just starved herself to death? Would it have been more preferable to them as women are meant to suffer anyway?

None of these questions are likely to return satisfactory answers as of now!


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