Irom Sharmila and the Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner


By Pradip Phanjoubam
(article written for the web magazine on Sharmila completing 11 years of her marathon fast)
Irom Sharmila is in love with somebody who has been communicating and sharing soul anguish with her in her confinement through letters. A report in The Telegraph, Kolkota declared this loudly. Nothing very strange about this, after all Sharmila is only 39 years of age, and living alone in a prison cell after having vowed to sacrifice eating to demand the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, for the last almost 11 years. Her fast completed 11 years on November 2 which is the day her family says her fast began, or November 5 when the newspapers first took notice of her fast and put it on record in the next day’s edition.

The terrible privation she has inflicted upon herself and how she has been coping with it is next only to superhuman and it is a wonder that her spirit had not broken down long ago. Ordinary men and women would have probably lost their sanity by now. She is still very much alive today, carrying on the fight she took upon herself to shoulder. It must come with a great deal of bewilderment for many to discover that a superhuman has the heart of a human within. This should not be a matter of discouragement but of elation. After all, what we want to see demonstrated is an ordinary human pushing the boundaries of achievement and not a god doing what are humanly impossible.

We would in this sense give three cheers to Sharmila for the revelation and not downgrade her stature in any way, although we do feel as a public figure she should have been a little wary and discreet about going public with her very private life. It is also unfortunate that she had not indicated this to the local media, making it seem as if the local media has been party to keeping her feelings under wraps. Or is it a case of efforts by interested parties to do just this? This should become known sooner than later.

But no great damage done, the truth is out, so be it, and hopefully for the better towards the actualisation of the noble cause she is fighting for. Her direct supporters, and all the rest of us, must come to terms with the new and more human image of the lonely tough-willed fighter, and carry the movement forward with renewed vigour. After all the movement is what is important, and with or without an iconic figure like Sharmila as standard bearer, it should carry on without any sense of loss or that the wind in the sail has diminished. She has done enough to highlight the issue, more than anyone behind the cause can imagine every doing. We should not be on the lookout for a martyr in her. Instead we should be encouraging her to end her self-inflicted privation and carry on the struggle without having to go through all the torture of unending hunger. The issue is the draconian AFSPA and not Irom Sharmila, however great she is.

We cannot however help wondering if Sharmila is not under psychological stress more than ever in the past few months. It is learnt that meeting her even by her own family members is no longer as easy as it used to be, permission now having to be acquired from the chief secretary of the state himself. All of us who have visited the iron lady in the past know her confinement was not so strictly guarded. For whatever the reason, her privation was being deepened and surely her loneliness too in equal measures, after all she is a human too. Imagine 11 years in a prison cell all alone, not even in contact with other prisoners as she is in a special jail ward in the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital Porompat so as to enable medical care and nose feeding.

Not only this, going without food is not just about tolerating hunger. In fact, in her case, hunger may not be much of an issue for she is fed through the nose and kept alive. But her self-denial is more about foregoing taste and smell of food, some of the most gratifying of all human senses. Any lesser person would have lost sanity under the circumstance. Is this additional stress having a toll on her? We hope not.

In any case, the campaign against the oppressive AFSPA has been allowed to hinge on Sharmila alone for too long. This was not good for her as she is finding out now, or for the movement, for it deprived individuality of individual campaigners, most of them having simply to rally behind Sharmila, abdicating in the process the need to take individual stances in the manner Eric Fromm described the emergence of dictatorships in “Escape from Freedom”.

The episode is sad in another way though. The paradoxical thing is, to be a public leader entails a great deal of sacrifice of private life. Sharmila as a selfless crusader against the embodiment of an oppressive law automatically came to be lifted on an exalted public pedestal. Sharmila as a shy private woman can lead a happy individual life but will disappear from the public domain. This is the difference between an inspirational leader and a common citizen. The freedom to aspire for either should remain with the individual. Let Sharmila decide her own future without any guilt. She has contributed enough already. Manipur and its resistance against the AFSPA must however continue undeterred even if she decides to retire to a peaceful normal life.

Leaders and Followers
But there are more to what this recent development has proven. The fact that a personal decision of Irom Sharmila is now seen somewhat 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, 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.

This notwithstanding, it would be wrong to also dismiss 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 whatever 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.


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