A variety of meanings can be read into the Aam Aadmi Party rushing to raise funds for Irom Sharmila, the iconic opponent of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act who is contesting against Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh in the Assembly elections to be held in March. Each of these meanings has significance for Indian polity. Each is also a riposte against all those who never tire of asking the Aam Aadmi Party what its ideology is.
This is because the exuberance it has displayed in crowd-sourcing election funds for Sharmila belies the charge of it being Right-wing or, worse, having no ideological vision other than crying hoarse against corruption, a position even the most venal politician takes.
From its support to Sharmila, it can be said that the Aam Aadmi Party certainly doesn’t favour status quo, doesn’t believe that the Indian state’s conduct is always ethical, and doesn’t hesitate to question the spurious sacredness in which state institutions and their decisions are cloaked. All these are generally considered hallmarks of Right-wing politics.
No less significant is the understated, almost routine, manner in which the Aam Aadmi Party decided to augment the efforts of Sharmila and her party to raise money to contest in the Manipur Assembly election. This decision, if you can even call it that, wasn’t announced through a press conference convened by grave ideologues with an unspeakable air of intellectual superiority about them, mouthing jargon to underline the significance of their action. This could well be the reason why the party’s “Sharmila Mission” has been relatively under-analysed.
Kejriwal donates Rs 50,000
Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal set the ball rolling last week when he sent out a tweet declaring that he had contributed Rs 50,000 towards Sharmila’s campaign, and appealed to others to follow suit. There was perhaps a method to it, judging from how widely Kejriwal’s appeal was circulated in social media. This impression was further bolstered when Bhagwant Mann, Aam Aadmi Party leader and member of Parliament, took the cue from Kejriwal and announced that he was donating a month’s salary to Sharmila because, as he said, “she is fighting against a corrupt system and injustice in Manipur”.
So far, Sharmila’s Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance has received over Rs 20 lakh in donations.
The link Mann made between corruption and injustice or, alternatively, honesty and justice recur, explicitly or implicitly, in tweets by Aam Aadmi Party leaders and supporters that pledge donations to Sharmila’s party. The party’s Goa leader Elvis Gomes pleaded, “Honest politics needs your contribution.” Balbir Singh, its candidate from Patiala Urban constituency, announced he was contributing Rs 11,000 because, as he said, “we are with [yo]u in this fight for justice.” Other Aam Aadmi Party contributors cited their wish to have a people-centric government as the reason for financially assisting Sharmila.
This testifies to the Aam Aadmi Party’s expansion of the idea of corruption, which was first nuanced because of its focus on education and health in its ongoing two years of stormy governance of Delhi. It has now come to encompass respect for human rights, and impliedly clubs their inveterate violators in the category of corrupt. In this sense, corruption has become a catchword for our systemic sickness.
Battle against AFSPA
Indeed, to support Sharmila is to take a position against injustice. After all, she was on hunger strike for nearly 16 years to demand the repealing of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a draconian law that allows security forces to kill and rape with impunity. Her battle continues. Sharmila has, in several of her recent interviews, spoken unequivocally that her decision to partake of food and enter the electoral arena is just another method of pressuring the state to withdraw that Act from Manipur.
Her resolve can be gleaned from her choice of the date – October 18 – on which she launched the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance last year. It was on this day in 1948 that the Maharaja of Manipur inaugurated the popular Assembly, which Manipuris had elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage. This was a remarkable achievement given that the rest of India waited until 1951-’52 to have their first election in Independent India.
But Manipur’s history-making Assembly was packed off a year later, on October 15. Its Maharaja is said to have been imprisoned and coerced into merging with India. Manipur still commemorates October 15 as National Black Day. By contrast, October 18 is popularly observed as Manipur National Day.
Viewed from this historical perspective, Sharmila’s Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance is interrogating through democratic methods the simplistic argument of the Indian state that secessionism and terrorism have no context, no roots, and mushroom because of the recalcitrant, violent nature of a people.
Whether this slice of history is known to Aam Aadmi Party supporters is beside the point. It is of greater importance that they have come out publicly in support of a person who has become synonymous with the resistance to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The Army says the law is crucial to ensure that India’s security isn’t imperilled, for without it terrorists would gain an upper hand over its troops or return to haunt those pockets from where they have been more or less rooted out. It is because of the Army’s opinion that this draconian law hasn’t been annulled or withdrawn from certain states, in contradiction to the suggestion of the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission.
It is, therefore, a leap of faith on the part of Aam Aadmi Party supporters to have come out openly in support of Sharmila. This is more so as in India’s emerging political culture, anyone who differs from Army generals, even on facts, is deemed an anti-national and runs the risk of being clobbered. The Aam Aadmi Party’s financial assistance to Sharmila is a dissent, a brave one at that. It wasn’t hyperbole when the party spokesperson, Preeti Sharma Menon, after taking note of donations pouring for Sharmila, tweeted, “My brave colleagues fearlessly stand up f[o]r just causes.”
Remember, most of these donors are not Manipuris, whose loathing of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act would be easy to comprehend. It underscores the empathy of Aam Aadmi Party supporters, their attempt to apply the same political principles across the country. This fact holds out promises. Because of the insignificant salience Manipur has in India’s electoral politics, it is hard to imagine the Indian state buckling under popular pressure mounted from there.
Indeed, political masters will prick their ears to listen only when voices from areas not squirming under the dark shadows of the draconian law arise against it. This isn’t to say that Aam Aadmi Party leaders are the first to become conscionable dissenters. To this category, apart from human rights activists, several Leftists and liberal politicians belong too. But seldom before has there been such a push to widen this pool in such a fascinating fashion. In this sense, the Aam Aadmi Party-inspired contributors to Sharmila might just constitute the vanguard of this law’s critics comprising ordinary people.
No doubt, it is pertinent to argue what succour Sharmila can hope for from electoral politics in a region where the security bosses pull strings from behind the curtains and politicians, even the most powerful, owe their careers to whoever the ruler is in Delhi. It is also possible that Sharmila might get sullied in the cesspool of politics.
This was also the fear widely expressed when activists against corruption banded together to form the Aam Aadmi Party. India politics hasn’t been poorer because of its presence, not least because of the energy its unpaid volunteers bring to the electoral arena. Then again, both Aam Aadmi Party leaders and Sharmila emerged from activism. In this sense, they represent a new style of politics, a new yearning which is yet to get a nomenclature.
AAP up ahead
Against the backdrop of rampant racism migrants from the North East encounter in metros, whether in Delhi or Bengaluru, the Aam Aadmi Party’s financial support for Sharmila should have presumably conveyed a different picture of India to the North East, particularly Manipur. Our interest in that region is alarmingly narrow and selfish – it is either on account of security or to mainstream them or to exploit its hydropower potential. Democratic politics can indeed redefine relationships historically fraught.
It isn’t as if the Aam Aadmi Party’s decision to bat for Sharmila has overnight given it an ideological mould. In fact, the decision to do so is perhaps because of the mould the party has gradually acquired. There have been signs of it in the past – its role, for instance, in last year’s great nationalism brouhaha in Jawaharlal Nehru University, where its government in Delhi ordered a magisterial inquiry and filed cases against television channels for allegedly doctoring video footage to show that anti-national slogans were shouted at a controversial event.
Then again, Arvind Kejriwal sat in dharna at a Delhi police station until the mother of Najeeb – a student missing from Jawaharlal Nehru University since October – who had been detained for protesting, was released and returned home. His government did not close down meat shops during the Navratri festival as some neighbouring states did under pressure from Hindutva parties. And then, quite scandalously for many, Kejriwal questioned the nature of the surgical strikes that the Modi government launched against Pakistan last year.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s support for Sharmila should therefore seem a natural extension of its past political actions. What would you call it – a manifestation of Rightist or Leftist or Centrist worldviews? Take your pick. But one thing can certainly be said – that the Aam Aadmi Party has stolen a march over all those ideologues, including the Left-liberals, who wish to reform the Indian state and turn it more humane.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.