Who should play Irom Sharmila in a Bollywood blockbuster?

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

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.

There is a reason why it’s important to focus on the cause, irrespective of one’s opinion, and not the high-decibel aura that a powerful media and government network can instantly create. What did Sharmila demand through her fast? She demanded that AFPSA be withdrawn from Manipur. She is aware, as is any other person living in area where the AFSPA is imposed, that the act can allow security forces a clean chit for any atrocities they commit, and that few perpetrators have been held accountable. So while AFSPA is an issue, it is shorthand for the daily indignity of Manipur. What triggered this fast? The alleged atrocities committed by the Indian Armed forces in general in Manipur. One can assume that the gang rape and killing of Debi by forces in 2004 only strengthened her resolve to continue the fast. Debi was picked up from her home in Bamon Kampu Mayai Leikai by Indian security forces, the 17 Assam Rifles, from her home on 10 July 2004. Her bullet-ridden body was found the next day in Laipharok Maring of Imphal East district of Manipur. An autopsy revealed semen on her skirt suggesting rape. 12 Manipuri women stripped themselves in protest outside an armed forces outpost with the banner “Indian Army, Rape Us.” No one has been prosecuted for this to this day.

As news of Sharmila’s fast spread around the world, Manipur got relegated to the background and India came to the foreground. Both the Wall Street Journal and TheGuardian correspondents described Sharmila primarily as an Indian human rights activist, an act of gate-keeping that has consequences. That is true for her citizenship. Whether that is her primary identity to her and her Manipur based support is an altogether different matter. But this game of fore-grounding and back-grounding, underlining and deletion, represents the politics of power in media, representations and narratives. Such narratives are powerful, especially when they serve power.

The government of India wants such narratives. It wants Sharmila to not be just Manipuri for that puts the focus on Manipur. “India” dilutes it and that is helpful; “India” undercuts it and that is even more helpful. This is why the government, its media and various wings of its official and unofficial establishment saw the boxer Mary Kom as a public-relations godsend. Then came the Bollywood packaging of Kom.

In the 2014 movie Mary Kom, the heavily pregnant heroine is heading towards the hospital with her husband. She is nearing labour. There is curfew on the streets. The husband tells her to wait and advances a bit. He is in the middle of a group of khaki-clad Indian security force men out to weed out trouble-makers. He tells them about his wife. A jawan finds her. Their story matches. They arrive safely at the hospital. Many such images of an agitated Manipur break into Mary Kom. I use the word “images” very deliberately here, for some realities are somewhat different. In July 2009, Kom was selected for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, the Indian Union’s highest sporting award.  It was in the same July that government forces surrounded an unarmed Chongkham Sanjit in a busy bazaar at Imphal, the capital of Manipur. Sanjit did not resist. He was whisked away to a dark area beside a roadside medicine shop. A few minutes later, the soldiers came out with Sanjit’s bullet-ridden dead body and threw it onto a truck. There was another corpse in the back—Rabina Devi, a pregnant bystander killed by the police a short while earlier. This sequence was captured on camera, but there is no market for these pictures of Manipur.

While her hunger strike was on, the story of Irom Sharmila Chanu was not conducive to Bollywood success. The picture of Sharmila with feeding tubes forcibly stuck to her nose is sure to take the pop out of popcorn. And if nothing else, the censor board will happily oblige in its mission of catering fairy-tales to citizens and protecting impressionable minds from such naked images. Sports are a better bet. The “army kid,” the now-Hollywood heroine Priyanka Chopra who played Kom in the movie, described her as “Junglee Baccha,” the most charitable translation of which can be wild child. The “jungle” pejorative and “baccha” paternalism are both useful terms as they have in them the idea of what is to be aspired to. The aspiration is to tame the child. India hopes and thinks that Sharmila and Manipur have been “tamed.” The taming will be complete when Irom Sharmila is Mary Kom-ised. As a friend, Sameirang Laikhuram from Manipur perceptively posted on social media, “And now to the next important question: Who should play Irom Sharmila in a Bollywood blockbuster?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story had stated 30 women had disrobed, not 12. The error is regretted.