The fact that a personal decision of Irom Sharmila is now seen as a threat to the campaign against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, in Manipur is a demonstration of the strategic and structural flimsiness of any protracted struggle to resort to hero worship. It has to be said that Sharmila’s direct followers are guilty of having done this to a great extent. Even if it is not hero worship, they had built their campaign with her as the major, if not the only prop. The approach should instead have been to see Sharmila as a star campaigner, but not the heart and soul of the campaign, but unfortunately, for whatever their reason, this route was not given much importance. And so a single report of Sharmila’s love affair with a hitherto unheard of man, and her reported statement that she is disillusioned with her followers, which appeared in The Telegraph September 5 issue, displayed prominently as the Page-1 lead story, caused so much trepidation and even the fear that the campaign against the AFSPA would lose much of its steam. We hope this does not happen and the movement is able to find new legs that could do with but did not absolutely need Sharmila as a prop if she at all becomes unavailable. Indeed, the myriad human rights organisations actively involved in the campaign must now take time off to rethink, retrospect and reorient their future strategies. Meanwhile leave Sharmila to be where she wants to be.
But increasingly confounding is also the reason why The Telegraph chose to give so much prominence to Sharmila’s declaration of her very personal affair. This is even more intriguing for in all of the 11 long years she has been staging her protest fast, even on the day she completed the 10 year landmark, she was not seen as deserving headline space by this newspaper. Many other newspapers and television channels even ignored the event. So why this sudden interest in her personal affairs, even though it is clear she was the one who revealed it to the journalist who did the report. The timing, whether by design or coincidence is also curious for only a few days earlier the Union home minister, P Chidambaram had announced in New Delhi that the government was considering a review of the AFSPA. Moreover a reflected halo form the Anna Hazare blitzkrieg in New Delhi was beginning to hover over Sharmila, signifying perhaps liberal India’s conscience was being awoken, and the issue of AFSPA was beginning to attract national attention. It was in the midst of this that the story of Sharmila’s love affair butted in rudely. The story was heart warming no doubt despite the hiccups caused by a passage suggesting Sharmila was having very serious differences with her supporters, still the question of its timing as well as the prominence given to it, would undoubtedly make many suspicious that it may have motives other than plain journalistic calibration of news value. Thankfully however, it does now seem the sensational revelation is unlikely to sidetrack the anti-AFSPA campaign.
The development also should bring back the old debate of whether leaders make situations or the situations make leaders. The Sharmila case should again highlight the need to find the right balance between two. Leaders with vision give any movement the right focus and charisma, but it is also equally true that it is the peculiarities of a given situation which throws up a leader. For instance it is unlikely Gandhi could have happened in the 18th Century or Abraham Lincoln in the 20th Century. However, it would be wrong to also dismiss the contribution of human agency in shaping event and indeed history. If everything were to be predetermined by circumstance and leaders too were forged only by the impersonal forces of history, as Isaiah Berlin noted in “Crooked Timber of Humanity” a difficult ethical situation would arise whereby it would become impossible to hold anybody accountable for history’s many atrocities. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and all the other mass murderers of history would then appear to be no more than quasi-tragic figures, compelled by historical circumstances to do what they did. In this context, Pol Pot who killed two million of his countrymen in the span of a decade of his rule, believed what he did was for the good of his country even on his deathbed as became evident in what was to be his last interview by Far Eastern Economic Review. It would thus be prudent for the human rights movement in the state to assess the situation arising out of Sharmila’s changed emotional constitution from this light.