Irom Sharmila has eaten breakfast. “My taste buds are much better,” she said. “Every food is tastier than before.”

She and her colleague Nazima Bibi are basking in the late-morning sun in a courtyard in Irong Chesaba village on Tuesday. This is part of Nazima’s constituency, Wagbai, in the Imphal Valley. She is contesting the Assembly elections in March as a candidate of the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance – the party floated by Sharmila in October, two months after she ended her 16-year-old fast for the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from Manipur.

The two women are allowing themselves a brief halt before going back on the campaign trail – two meetings were finished before breakfast. Sharmila reaches for a couple of bananas laid out on a peg table, and polishes them off with relish. She is not picky about food, the 44-year-old said, though she has always been a vegetarian, even before her hunger strike.

Sharmila was 28 when she started her fast in November 2000 to protest the killing of 10 civilians in Malom town by Assam Rifles personnel and to demand that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which grants the military powers to shoot and kill with near impunity, be repealed. For nearly 16 years, no food or water passed through her mouth, though the government force-fed her through a tube going up her nose. It kept her alive but it did not make up for the taste of food, the relief of water after a long thirst.

“In those days, in my dreams, I could get my chance of satisfaction, my hunger for taste, for seeing my mother,” she said. “I ate a lot in my dreams.” One day she was so thirsty, she prayed that her resolve would not break. “On that same night, in my dream, I had two kettles in my hand, almost full of water. Very big kettles. One by one I poured them down my mouth, until a little bit was remaining in the kettle.”

Dreams, she realised, were a great support during that time. It is with the same dreamy optimism that Sharmila has taken her next step: joining mainstream politics and fighting an election.

Two women, two battles

On October 18, Sharmila launched the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance. In its mission statement, the party aspired to a “self-reliant economy for Manipur”, fighting corruption and building peace in a state ravaged by militancy, mainly through the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The party cast itself as a whistleblower, calling attention to the trail of corruption left by national parties – a kind of Aam Aadmi Party with regional moorings. To drive the point home, it adopted the whistle as its symbol.

It was to be a wholly crowdfunded party, inviting donations on its website. Till date, general secretary James Mayengbam said, they have collected Rs 20 lakhs. Most of it came from about 1,000 subscribers online. Not surprisingly, Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal has also made a generous donation.

In this Assembly election – the state goes to polls in two phases on March 4 and March 8 – they are contesting in just five of the 60 constituencies, with a budget of Rs 3 lakhs per candidate, said Mayengbam. Which means campaigning is low-key. In the morning, it is just Sharmila and Nazima being driven around in a rattly Alto. In the afternoon, they are joined by Mayengbam in his car, and an entourage of curious journalists.

In Thoubal constituency, where Sharmila is taking on Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, the ruling Congress is setting up scaffolding for large rallies and the Bharatiya Janata Party is touring villages in party vans blasting upbeat tunes. Sharmila’s party has held no rallies so far. They stop at villages on the way and hold small, impromptu gatherings in courtyards and verandas. Whistles are liberally distributed, much to the delight of the children.

During the day, most of the men are at work in the fields, so their audience is made up largely of women carrying children. But this is the constituency that Sharmila’s party is most interested in reaching out to.

Women account for the majority of the electorate in Manipur – with 9,68,312 female voters against 9,25,431men – though there are few female legislators or candidates. The People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance feels itself peculiarly positioned to forge ties of sympathy with this large, silent electorate. After all, both its star candidates are women with their own battles to fight. Sharmila, who was marked for martyrdom by her supporters as well as the general public. Nazima, the first Muslim woman to contest elections in Manipur, and the target of a severe backlash from her community.

Activist to politician

Sharmila always begins her campaign pitch by explaining why she chose to give up her fast and join politics. “It [the removal of the Armed Forces Act] is a political issue that needs political will,” she told this reporter while driving around in Wagbai district. “The prolonged hunger strike of 15 years, almost 16 years, I came to realise the real situation.”

The “Gandhian non-violent struggle”, she concluded, did its bit to raise awareness about alleged killings by the Army and enforced disappearances “in the name of counter-insurgency”. But now she needed a different strategy.

Not many agreed with her and many former supporters, including the Sharmila Kanba Lup (Protect Sharmila Organisation), melted away. “During my hunger strike, they supported me but were just guarding me, controlling me, escorting me. They wanted to ensure my martyrdom,” she said. The image of her in people’s minds, Sharmila feels, is “much higher than my reality, that is why my change of strategy, my change of route to get my goal, is contradictory to their mindset”.

These days, Sharmila lives with Nazima in her house in Uchiwa village. This packed earth and timbre structure now buzzes with activity as party members gather to plan the campaign.

Giving up her fast was a liberating experience for Sharmila. “[I am] now becoming a free person, to meet common people, to see the beauties of life, to inculcate the real notion of life’s duty in action with like-minded friends, to defy wrong directly, bravely, amid restrictions,” she said.

In Thoubal

Sharmila has set herself a formidable task – beating the three-time chief minister in his own constituency, where he has been the sitting member of the Legislative Assembly since 2007. It was only fitting that she take him on, she said. “Side by side, we had been on a journey – mine, the struggle, his, the ruling Congress for 15 years. He is the concerned authority of my protest.”

It will not be easy. Sharmila herself admits that the demand for removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act has receded with the retreat of militancy and the decrease in state violence. Voters in Thoubal constituency say they want the law removed but they also want development. And Singh has brought development to Thoubal, many say, with jobs and the construction of roads.

The economic blockade of highways by Naga groups – to protest the creation of seven new districts – that started in November has sent prices soaring, but it has not affected the rural areas so much. Potatoes and onions are expensive, the residents say, but essential commodities like rice are grown in fields here and people can catch fish from the nearby river. There are only a few voices of discontent, muttering that the chief minister does not keep the promises he makes and maybe it is time to give the BJP a try.

Sharmila offers prayers at the Irom apopka. (Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty)

Sharmila is aware of her limitations. For election purposes, she has shifted emphasis to the more pressing topic of corruption – she alleged this month that BJP leader Sur Vinod had offered her Rs 36 crores to contest the elections on his party’s ticket – but even that might not be enough to make a dent. People tell her they love her and give her importance, she said, but their loyalties are already pledged elsewhere. It is because she has not poured money into the election process, she concluded.

In some places, the resistance to the new political entrant is palpable, in Thoubal’s Irom cluster, for instance. The Meiteis, the majority ethnic group in the state, are made up of seven clans. The Mangan clan is one of them, and Irom is a Mangan surname. The village in Thoubal, called Leisangthem Khong-Manu (which roughly translates to Leisangthem-on-the-brook) is also the site of the apopka, the ancestral temple of the Irom sub-clan, to which Sharmila traces her own lineage.

On Monday, she was not allowed to enter the area. On Tuesday, they let her in and watch as she offers prayers at the apopka. Sharmila is in tears as she tries to campaign to a frankly sceptical audience.

Speaking of women

In contrast to Sharmila’s soft-voiced campaign pitch, which often gives way to emotion, Nazima is robust. She greets you with a firm handshake and a broad smile. She speaks of corruption in public schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the public distribution system, and of the complicity of legislators. Once a member of the Just Peace Foundation and a women’s rights activist, she also speaks of domestic violence and property rights for Muslim women.

When she decided to contest, Nazima said, she suddenly found herself up against a coalition of legislators, public distribution system agents, and leaders of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema. In Wagbai, her constituency, there are six candidates – including three Muslims and one Hindu, apart from Nazima herself. All the others are men. When she announced her intention to fight the elections, she said, they demanded, “Why are you coming in between?”

There are three powerful maulvis in her village, Uchiwa. According to Nazima, they told her that she and her family would not get plots in the graveyard – she had gone against Sharia (Muslim law) by contesting elections. They also raised questions about how, as a Muslim woman with few property rights, she had got money to fight elections. However, she still has the support of her husband and son.

When the campaign party enters Uchiwa, men stand about, looking suspicious. There are, however, a few voices of support, from those who feel the Congress legislator has not done enough to bring development. Most residents of Wagbai are farmers or fishermen, said social worker Azharuddin Md, but the government has not given them financial support to invest in their fields and fisheries.

Irom Sharmila and Nazima Bibi meet women voters. (Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty)

Future leaders?

For both women, this campaign is a symbolic struggle, against the old political elite, against patriarchal systems, against structures that keep laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in place. For Sharmila, in particular, it means taking on the government and party that kept her confined to a hospital room for 16 years and criminalised her protest by booking her for attempt to suicide.

But with a low-key campaign, no political record and heavyweights as rivals, how successful will the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance be? For now, Sharmila has a sympathetic ear, even among many of the chief minister’s supporters.

“She may become the leader of Manipur,” said Bijen Irom, a resident of the Thoubal locality where the apopka is located. “Ibobi Singh is already chief minister, he has already developed the locality, so he is already a hero. Irom Sharmila Chanu – maybe later.”