Iron Lady of India: Sharmila trades hunger for politics

After facing harsh criticism for ending her hunger strike, Irom Sharmila seeks support as she plans to run for office.

    Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, faced criticism after she announced she will change her course and join the political scene [Devchandra Sharma/Al Jazeera]
    Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, faced criticism after she announced she will change her course and join the political scene [Devchandra Sharma/Al Jazeera]

    Kolkata, India - As she ended her epic 16-year hunger strike last month in protest against alleged brutality and sweeping powers by India's military in the country's northeastern state of Manipur, Irom Sharmila announced her intention to run for office to carry on her struggle against the abuses.

    Sitting on her bed at a Vaishnava monastery in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, the 44-year-old rights activist, who had begun her hunger strike demanding the repeal of the controversial security law of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA (PDF), told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview that many of her supporters are now unhappy with her decision.

    "I pledged that I would not end my hunger strike until AFSPA was withdrawn ... But I fasted for so long, and it failed to impact the government ... I decided to change the course of my fight and join politics," she said.

    However, the human rights activist's decision has come at a price, costing her much of the support of those who had stood by her side during her 16-year-long hunger strike.

    Being confined to a hospital bed for so long, the woman who has become known as the Iron Lady of Manipur has indeed emerged to a thorny political scene, finding herself isolated and rebuked by the very supporters and fellow activists who once stood by her side.

    "Many even wanted me to not end the hunger strike," Sharmila said. However, she describes that what made her end her strike was the realisation for the need of a new strategy.

    "While I was fasting, at one point, I began to realise that many of my co-activists were withdrawing their support, and I was left all alone in my fight," she says.

    Sharmila has evolved in her beliefs and now sees that political participation is what will bring change from inside the system.

    "Through politics, I can attain power," Sharmila told the local media last August, just after the tube used by the authorities to force-feed her through her nose was removed. "If I can win the elections, become the chief minister of Manipur, then I can get the AFSPA repealed using my political clout."

    According to human rights organisations, the AFSPA of 1958 has been in force purportedly to curb insurgency in areas like Kashmir and northeast India, including Manipur. The act gives troops sweeping powers to make arrests without warrants and even shoot suspected insurgents without fear of prosecution.

    Irom Sharmila in her Vaishnava monastery room in Imphal, Manipur, earlier this month [Devchandra Sharma/Al Jazeera]

    Several organisations, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, have been calling for this controversial law to be repealed, alleging it perpetuates human rights abuses.

    Sharmila insists it is her right to decide what to do with her life. If she fails in her political strategy, she says, she will move away from Manipur and live a quiet life away from politics.

    "Manipur and its people continue to be my first love. If the people vote me to power the way I need, I shall indeed continue to work in Manipur," she told Al Jazeera.

    OPINION: Who is India's 'Iron Lady'?

    Opposition and criticism

    This week, as local media outlets reported that Sharmila reiterated her intentions to run for office, many civil rights activists who had previously supported Sharmila during the hunger strike said that they would no longer count her as one of them.

    Soibam Momon Leima, 70, the founder of the group Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign (SSC), which was launched to support the activist on her hunger strike, is known as a leading anti-AFSPA activist in Manipur.

    She says she and her co-activists feel let down by Sharmila's decision to join politics.

    "Over the past two years, we felt [Sharmila was] somewhat withdrawn from our movement," Leima told Al Jazeera. "Ours has been a mass movement, and we always took all decisions following consultations among ourselves. But Sharmila broke the tradition and independently decided to call off her strike and contest elections."

    "Let Sharmila launch her fight against AFSPA on a political platform as she wants. We shall continue our fight through an apolitical movement, as we have always done," Leima said.

    "She is free to take her own decision. However, by deciding to join politics, she has broken our hearts," says Tokpam Samarendra, whose son, Shantikumar, was among 10 civilians killed by the Assam Rifles paramilitary force in India during the Malom Massacre in November 2000.

    "As a rights activist alongside Sharmila, she was as big as the mountains of Himalayas was to us," the 72-year-old told local media after Sharmila announced her will to join politics. "Politician Sharmila will be just a small hillock," Samarendra said.

    Others expressed their disappointment by more extreme means. Local media reported that at least two local fighting groups threatened to kill Sharmila if she joined politics and married a "non-local" man.

    However, Sharmila has responded that she was not afraid of being killed.

    "Let them kill me, the way some people accused Mahatma Gandhi of being anti-Hindu and killed him. I shall not seek any security from the government," she says.

    Leima told Al Jazeera that she believed Sharmila had been "brainwashed" by Manipur's state government to end her fast and head into politics in a move to destabilise her anti-AFSPA campaign.

    "She has left many among us heartbroken by deciding to join politics," she said.

    Irom Chanu Sharmila, the so-called 'Iron Lady' seen in the special ward of the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital after breaking a 16-year-long fast in Imphal, Manipur [EPA/STR]

    Support and inspiration

    Not everyone has reacted negatively, however. Many of her supporters have welcomed Sharmila ending her hunger strike and maintain their respect and support for her.

    "Sharmila's iconic 16-year-long hunger strike against AFSPA will remain an inspiration to people of Manipur for years to come," Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, a civil rights group, told Al Jazeera.

    READ MORE: The longest fast

    "Her latest decision to end the strike and contest elections is a change in strategy only, and the movement to repeal of the AFSPA will only get stronger now."


    There are a good number of people supporting Sharmila's new political strategy, and they will be happy to see her as a powerful political leader, Nepram says.

    "In Manipur, we still have 60 armed insurgent groups and 100,000 troops of Indian armed forces, and the martial law of AFSPA is still in place.

    "We are ruled by men who control the state with guns, drugs and high corruption. Under this extremely violent situation, it will require proper strategising for Sharmila to plunge into the political arena in the state," she says.

    Repeated Al Jazeera attempts to solicit a response from Indian government representatives to these allegations of human rights violations were unsuccessful.

    Political strategy

    Earlier this month, several of Sharmila's fellow activists and friends met her in the hospital to help her plan a strategy to connect with the people before going out on her political mission.

    "Fasting Sharmila in the forefront of the anti-AFSPA fight helped mobilise the support of the masses successfully," human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam, who has long worked with Sharmila as her associate, told Al Jazeera. "However, now that she wants to continue her fight against AFSPA as a politician, she badly needs the mass support."

    Loitongbam adds that Sharmila's strategy should be to "go out and interact with the grassroots people to find out what they expect from her before she launches her career in politics". 

    Sharmila told Al Jazeera she had regained her physical strength will start meeting people from different corners of the state this month.

    Manipur's ruling Congress party, India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Aam Admi Party (AAP) in Delhi - approached Sharmila, welcoming her to their respective parties.

    However, Sharmila says that she would run in next year's Manipur state elections in as an independent candidate.

    She recognises the weight of her decision, and her goal is to go out and connect with locals around the state.

    "I have to reach out to the people of Manipur. I have to spend a long time meeting the members from different communities across the state," she says.

    "In fact I have already begun traveling to different parts of the state to meet the people."

    Recognising the importance of gaining the people's support in her new journey, Sharmila says she will need "their full-fledged support".

    "I cannot succeed in my goal unless they back me."

    Follow Shaikh Azizur Rahman on Twitter @azizinnews

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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