Who should play Irom Sharmila in a Bollywood blockbuster?

28 August 2016
Irom Sharmila at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences on 11 August 2016 in Imphal.
Saumya/ Khandelwal Hindustan Times/ Getty Images
Irom Sharmila at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences on 11 August 2016 in Imphal.
Saumya/ Khandelwal Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

The end of the epic 16-year fast by the activist Irom Sharmila Chanu on 9 August should make the Indian government heave a sigh of relief. Her repeated arrests over the years should have embarrassed any government with an iota of shame. But clearly not the Indian government. Sharmila’s fast used to continuously put focus on the brutal practices of the Indian state, particularly the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). Now, though the practices will continue, the focus will end.

If people have missed a certain irony, let me state it. Mainstream media attention was showered on this event about Sharmila like never before—not when she began, not when she was fasting, not even when she was forcibly fed by tubes, nor when she was arrested innumerable times—this signaled that she could potentially be someone with whom one could conduct business as usual. In short, she could be accommodated within the "mainstream" and hence this new gushing focus, one that will be short lived.

For proof of the media’s apathy, look no further than the coverage of her fast. Sharmila’s fast pointed at a deeper disease. If focusing on that did not get as much press attention as the end of the fast, the media’s priorities and what constitutes an acceptable narrative is clear. It is not that the disease has gone away but now, with the end of the fast, India thinks that the stench is manageable and uncomfortable discussion about the symptoms that Sharmila’s fast symbolised can be obliterated. Now she can be refurbished and reinvented in Delhi’s eyes on a comeback path to the mainstream, an outsider wanting to be an insider, a “Northeastern” Kejriwal of sorts. This failure of imagination is deliberate. This media circus designed to obfuscate rather than to delve deeper. India has failed Sharmila because it never wanted her to succeed.

Those who see Sharmila's struggle as only against the inhuman and degrading AFSPA and not the reasons for its imposition in Manipur simply want to brand her as an anti-AFSPA "human rights" activist as opposed to a campaigner for Manipur rights and Manipuri people. This not-so-subtle distinction places Sharmila in a pantheon that stretches from the Lokpal fast to the Save the Tiger or One Rank One Pay-type campaigns held at Jantar Mantar. This is a necessary first step towards defanging and domesticating the politically unruly.

Human rights implicate no one. But standing for Manipur implicates Delhi as a quasi-imperial formation. Manipur implicates the idea of India. So, for those who “stand with Irom Sharmila” but not with Manipur, their stance and their vacuous, self-congratulating idea of Indianisms, actually stand in the way of Irom Sharmila and Manipur. Manipur sees through such “solidarity.” Thangjam Manorama Debi saw through that. Everyone except those with tri-colour blinders see through that. This is why Sharmila’s fast is one of resistance, and not a MK Gandhi-style blackmail of Bhimrao Ambedkar before the Poona Pact.

Garga Chatterjee is an assistant professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.

Keywords: Manipur AFSPA the Northeast Irom Sharmila