activist life

What the end of Irom Sharmila’s non-violent fast tells us about India

The woman with a nasal tube has announced that she will end her 16-year fast on Tuesday.

When people in Manipur talk about Irom Sharmila, they often show a frustrated pride. Frustration at the fact that India has learnt to live with a woman who hasn’t chewed on anything for close to 16 years, and pride at the quiet strength and fortitude she has shown in her quest to force the government to repeal the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

There’s also frustration that the “Iron lady of Manipur” is no one’s particular problem. There is no national guilt when it comes to her, no breathless media keeping the momentum alive, no resolutions, dialogue or engagement.

Sharmila’s peaceful protest is a like an echo chamber, reverberating the same sound in an enclosed space, while the State outside remains totally deaf.

A mind of her own

The frustration then deepens in some sections when they realise that an independent, strong-willed woman lives at the other end of a nasal feeding tube.

Sharmila may be a frail, incarcerated being, but she will not conform to behaviour others consider to be appropriate. She has the audacity to fall in love and protest at the same time. She is brave, hopeful, and perhaps tired enough to come to a pragmatic decision that if a decade and a half of peaceful protest built on Gandhian principles of non-violence has not resulted in much, then perhaps something needed to turn.

There is no denying that Sharmila has taken a courageous decision, and a welcome one, in returning to life with all its pleasures.

It has not been easy. The initial shock at her July 26 announcement that she was ending her fast has given way to a muted welcome. There is a sense of disbelief. Security has been stepped up around her ward at the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital, and she hasn’t been allowed any visitors since she made the announcement. The list of those wanting to meet her has grown manifold in the past 10 days.

Her force-feeding has continued, and everyone is waiting for August 9, the day she is expected to break her fast.

There are fissures within her family about what needs to be done, and immense pressure on them to get Sharmila to reverse her decision.

Two insurgent groups, Kangleipak Yawol Kunna Lup and the Kangleipak Communist Party have already sent Sharmila a warning and reminded her of what happened to “former revolutionary leaders [who] were assassinated” because they forgot the cause they were fighting for.

Sharmila herself has been tense, say those around her.

“She was visibly excited, relieved that day [the day she announced she would end her fast],” said a hospital staff member who did not want to be identified. “She had mentioned that she was going to do this to some of us a few days ago. She had been preparing the statement she read to the media that day, for weeks…Since then she has been very quiet, very stressed.”

On occasions, Sharmila has mentioned to those around her that after Tuesday, she will go and live with nuns.

The futility of non-violence?

Sharmila’s decision to give up her fast and join the electoral process needs to be supported. Yet it forces us to face a harsh reality too. Why did a non-violent movement like hers not succeed? Why was sustaining collective action so difficult? And why did the Indian State not bother to engage with her in a coherent fashion?

Nelson Mandela, whose books are scattered in Sharmila’s hospital room in Imphal, once said: “For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.”

I am unable to confirm whether Sharmila has read or heard of this quote, but it’s clear that over the last four years, the ineffectiveness of her non-violent protest was becoming clear to her.

Barring a few, protests these days are violent more often than not. If violent actors are the only ones that get 24x7 attention and dominate the news cycle, they become the touchstones of a political life. In the face of this, a non-violent movement does not even look like a viable option. It becomes invisible, as if it never happened, more so if it takes place in the periphery of the country where the media’s interest is anyway piecemeal.

In Sharmila’s case the 16-year-long fast may have well begun yesterday. The repeal of the Act – which gives unbridled powers to the armed forces, practically giving them a “right to kill” – was something that she did not even get close to. Recommendations of three high-powered panels, the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission, second Administrative Reforms Commission and the Justice JS Verma Committee that discussed the Act in the context of sexual violence against women in conflict areas changed nothing.

If we go back further, the setting up of the Jeevan Reddy Commission itself came in the aftermath of a peaceful but brutally stark protest by 11 Manipuri women who bared themselves in front of the Kangla Fort after the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama.

An unyielding state

Manipur is like a jigsaw puzzle piece wedged between Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam on one side and Myanmar on the other. There are sporadic explosions of violence, and concurrent running bandhs called by opposing sides. Small bombs and killings can be used to settle scores. And there are deep lurking tensions, ethnic and more, which come out noisily in the open before returning to a simmer.

The last decade-and-a-half provided the State a vast length of opportunity to talk, engage, show its compassion, and use Sharmila’s moral force to change things on the ground, it did nothing of the sort.

The Irom resistance

When Gene Sharp, the godfather of the field devoted to studying civil resistance, devised his list of “198 methods of nonviolent action”, he divided the tactics into three categories.

The first had methods of “protest and persuasion”, including public assemblies, processions, displays of banners. The second was confrontational measures that included economic boycotts and workplace strikes. The last was a refusal to participate in political or economic structures, but also intent to actively interrupt normal daily activity. Such interventions, Sharp wrote, posed a direct, immediate challenge, “the disruptive effects harder to withstand for a considerable period of time”.

It’s clear Sharmila did not follow Sharp. Neither did her campaign, which remained centred on her sacrifice and her retching force-feeding procedure. Access to her remained patchy and cumbersome, and she managed single-digit press conferences in 16 years.

As the years passed, the frenzy to mark her release after a one-year term [the maximum sentence for an attempt to commit suicide] was much diminished. In most years, in the short 48-hour period during which she was free, about 50-75 people would come to see her or stay with her.

Activity at the temporary shed, about 100 meters from the hospital, where she stayed every year upon her release, was modest, fuelled mostly by the presence of security. It would fall to a trickle as night fell, and was empty in the days after her arrest when she returned to her hospital bed to begin a fresh year in custody under the same charge of attempting to commit suicide.

Emma Goldman, an anarchist known for her political activism once said: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal."

Sharmila’s decision to join politics cannot be faulted in any way. Her faith in democracy has been unwavering. This, in a state where multiple insurgent groups challenge the sovereignty of the Indian State every day and are kept engaged with guns, stipends and peace talks. The contrast is shameful. India preferred a nasal rubber tube to become the enduring symbol of its engagement with a 44-year-old, non-violent protestor.

Anubha Bhonsle is the author of a book about Manipur titled Mother, Where’s My Country?

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