Irom Sharmila's decision to break her fast is also an act of courage

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanAug 21, 2016 | 10:44

Irom Sharmila's decision to break her fast is also an act of courage

There is a relentless hypocrisy to politics that allows the corrupt to live again and even be re-elected but insists on a lifeless perfection from the heroic.

The reactions to Irom Sharmila testify to this. It is not that Irom has betrayed her people. She has changed strategy and at the right time.

The Supreme Court has already warned that the AFSPA guarantees neither impunity nor immunity to the brutal soldier.


Human rights groups are filing around 1,500 affidavits in the courts.

What Irom is saying is hers is not the only story. She wants to step out of prison to join other stories.


The struggle is three-fold. First it is a struggle to challenge the tyranny of a state which thinks 50 years of emergency is a normal condition in a democracy.

She is battling to be a woman, and remain a woman despite the AFSPA. She is trying to renew a faith in democracy, in the normalcy of reason and dialogue, to celebrate the taste of life.

Irom is conducting a second experiment on herself telling Manipur that women's work has to forge a weapon of peace.

Irom moves from the vulnerability of incarceration to the openness of normal society to marry, to fight elections, to celebrate life.

To deny her that would be an act of spite. All she is claiming is turn to the possibility of normalcy into an experiment.

Both her struggles have deep continuities. The first was a battle against brutality, the second is a fight for normalcy.


This second decision is also an act of courage, probably even more thoughtful than her decision to go on a fast.

The first was taken impulsively, nervously and spontaneously. The second was brewed in the quiet solitude of her hospital jail.

Sometimes as audiences, citizens create stencils of expectation which become iron cages of the future. (PTI) 

It needs courage to transform oneself from an icon, revered, put on a pedestal, immune to critique to a housewife vulnerable and open to travails, debates, critiques of democracy.

The second experiment might in fact be the more fascinating one.

It needs courage to step into a new battle, where you have to redefine yourself, avoid old stereotypes, tell people democracy does not need one epic figure but the agency of a million mutinies or consents.

The critiques of her are short-sighted. To say she has betrayed the movement in a fit of weakness is not true.

What she has refused to do is to fetishise a method, she has sought to rework it as a part of continuing struggle.

The Manipur struggle has many legends from the mothers who demonstrated before the Assam Rifles to Irom.

To treat her as an untouchable because she refuses to play a predictable icon devalues the possibility of politics.


Instead of a politics of impasse where Irom was merely arrested again, one moves to a politics of negotiation and representation. The time seems ripe for such a political change.

Sometimes as audiences, citizens create stencils of expectation which become iron cages of the future. We expect our heroes and icons to live within it.

Another charge made is that in lionising Irom, she was seen as something larger than the cause or movement against the AFSPA.

This change can be answered by answering that Irom has not left the movement, she has merely shifted tactics.

Maybe as a housewife, a free citizen and an elected representative, she might play a more creative role in the hurly burly of Manipur politics rather than be lionised, twice a year in a ritual which is slowly emptying itself of meaning and content.


This way Irom is reaffirming her faith in democracy and ready to play the game of electoral politics. It requires political acumen to do this.

One has to admit among all the raging controversy, the prospect of a political solution in Manipur has become alive and normalcy might become an entitlement to Manipuris.

It is a prospect we must allow for and cherish.

Irom's politics is legendary. But her persona, her decisions interest me as much.

I was visualising her state of mind today, the condition of her body, her sense of being. As a threat to the authoritarian state, she was an icon.

As part of a democracy, she is vulnerable in an everyday sense. She is doubly vulnerable as she has to make up for those lost years.

The doctors claim that she has to get used to eating food, that the bacteria in her need time to work. It is almost as if her body has to reclaim the sense of ordinary rhythms, rework a timetable.

When she began her fast, she was a young impetuous woman. A decade later she must be wondering as a mature woman what the years meant.


To decide something as an impetuous young woman is one act. To decide to rethink in your maturity, when your body has taken a beating, when people around you are angry and confused is altogether different. Irom's second life calls for a different kind of courage.

As someone struggling with middle age and a middle-aged democracy, her language, her body rhythms will have to be different.

To be insulted and threatened for accepting the ordinariness of an everyday democracy, of petty quarrels and factional differences could not be easy.

Yet, it is this quality of womanhood that defines Irom and Manipur. The mothers of Manipur set the pace.

The young widows challenging the AFSPA accumulating a mountain of affidavits, tormented stories of rape and torture sustain that battle Irom standing for elections will be a third part of this ever active political legend.

To become an icon, and then step out to live like an ordinary citizen, to opt for love over the asceticism of hospital jail could not be easy.

Irom's second decision is as important as electoral and political experiment. The very biography of her transition sets a norm, a basis for the return to normalcy in Manipur.

In a philosophical and in a deeply ethical sense, Irom's decision to break her fast is one of the greatest gifts she can give the India of her imagination.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: August 21, 2016 | 21:32
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