Irom Sharmila’s high moral pedestal: Electoral politics and giving Manipur voters benefit of doubt

sharmilaBy Nandini Oza*

Ever since Irom Sharmila as member of Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance’s (PRJA) lost the 2017 assembly election with less than 100 votes, there has been continuous berating of the voters of Manipur, more so by social and political activists. Some of the comments are rather harsh such as:

  1. “Manipuris are a shame. How could they dump Sharmila. After her 16 years fast in solitary confinement all against Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)!!!”
  2. “If Manipur couldn’t feel Irom Sharmila’s fight then what else to speak?!”

According to “Financial Express” of 12 March 2017 even Irom Sharmila has said the following after the election result was out:  “But I am fed up with politics after this result: I continued without even water for 16 year yet… People need to be awakened. They let me down…The people let me down.”

While Irom Sharmila is greatly respected and admired outside as well as in Manipur also, it would be wrong to expect that respect for Irom Sharmila alone should convert immediately into votes. Instead of being disheartened at the outcome, it would be important to analyze the reasons for the same. As a student of social work, social science and a political activist, some of the reasons that come to my mind for the defeat of Irom Sharmila are listed below. It is not necessary that all the reasons may be correct.

Till very recently, Irom Sharmila herself had kept away from electoral politics and had believed in the individual self as a weapon to fight oppression. Hers was a rather individualistic means of a battle against repression by the State. Pitching oneself as a weapon against the State and electoral politics are two different kinds of politics, sometimes even contradictory. While one is against the State and all it represents, the other is to be part of the State. The natures of both are different. Therefore the work that goes into it is also different.

People probably could not accept Irom Sharmila’s quick and sudden change from herself as a weapon fighting the State to electoral politics that involves the masses to choose her as their representative for the formation of the State. It takes time for people to accept the transition (if at all), leave alone support it.

It must be remembered that Irom Sharmila was on fast and almost confined to a hospital for over fifteen years’ with limited contact with her people until very recently. May be, people wanted her first to recuperate, reflect, reconnect with the masses, and so on before she moved on to forming a political party and head a state like Manipur. That too, so soon after her extraordinarily and an equally exhausting fast. May be, even her closest supporters through this grueling ordeal of a struggle wanted time for recuperation and reflection.

Supporters of Irom Sharmila probably put her on a high moral pedestal and viewed her as someone who raised herself above the most basic human needs like food and therefore above everything else – love, electoral politics and so on. May be, her supporters felt that for a person of her stature, an icon, seeking votes is getting off the high pedestal or a climb down. While fast is generally considered selfless, in electoral politics, there is a clear give and take.

Probably people supported Irom Sharmila’s fast, but here she was seeking votes for her newly formed party. May be, the people of Manipur were not so much in support of the hurriedly formed party, its hurriedly assembled members and its candidates.

People till very recently recognized Irom Sharmila for her fight against AFSPA. Her struggle was issue based. A political party is much more than a single issue. Besides, Manipur is grappling with many other serious issues apart from the presence of the Indian army and AFSPA. There is the issue of economic blockade, the valley and hills issue, developmental concerns, underground groups and so on. In this backdrop, it takes time for a new party to reach out to the masses with its comprehensive ideology. Probably PRJA could not articulate itself clearly on these issues or did not have the time to reach out to the people effectively for being new. This is particularly true for a State like Manipur with poor connectivity and infrastructure.

Irom Sharmila is known for her individual decisions. She sat on a fast although for a public cause as well as withdrew it as per her personal decision and rightfully so. But if one wishes to contest elections and want people’s support, large scale consultations, collective decisions, participation of the people, especially one’s primary supporters become essential. Besides, it has been reported in papers that her core supporters who stood by her through her fast were not in favor of her forming a party and contesting elections. It is true that a world renowned figure like Irom Sharmila would draw new supporters into her party. But not taking on board long time political colleagues who are often seen as dispensable may have also been a cause for the loss.

Women protest in Manipur

During elections, people also see the ability of a party to win. Considering that PRJA had been able to field only three candidates out of sixty assembly seats in Manipur, it was clear that it was not going to be able to form the Government. Therefore people may have consolidated their vote in favor of a party closer to their ideology that was likely to form the Government in Manipur. The fact that PRJA could field only three candidates itself is a subject for reflection.

While Irom Sharmila’s fast is extraordinary, commendable and unique, people of Manipur too have been fighting AFSPA in various ways. State violence and repression have brutally affected the Manipuri society at large. Many of the Manipur homes have lost their family member in the struggle, many youth have taken up arms, there have been over 1500 extra judicial killings and even rapes. The cost suffered by the people of Manipur is wide spread and so is the struggle of the people. The scale of suffering and that of the struggle are beyond an individual self.

The rise of Irom Sharmila has been a part of this broader struggle collectively waged by the people of Manipur for several decades now with unimaginable costs. This is why probably unlike us from outside the State, people of Manipur see Irom Sharmila as a part of this wider people’s struggle and not someone different from many of those who have fought and lost lives for the cause in anonymity. In this backdrop, expecting something specific in exchange/return (votes here) for what is perceived as a selfless struggle one has waged on behalf of the masses often does not go down well with the people.

There are several in Manipur who have a different ideology from that of Irom Sharmila. For example there are many who do not believe in a non violent struggle against an extraordinarily oppressive State and have taken up arms. The last I visited Manipur over a decade ago; there were at least 18 underground groups as reported in newspapers. There are others in Manipur who believe in non-violent mass struggle and uprising and do not believe that an individual fast or electoral politics can be a substitute to people’s empowerment and movement. Many among them would probably agree with what senior journalist Kalpana Sharma wrote in “The Hindu” (click HERE) while writing about Irom Sharmila: “In India, we elevate individuals and forget the cause. We need heroes and heroines,       more so at a time of visual media. But in fixing on individuals, the issue, the cause,    the reason for protest sometimes gets forgotten or under-played…”

Many in the state of Manipur would feel that an individual fast may result into personification of a collective struggle. Personification of a movement has its own disadvantages as it has advantages.  For example it is in the interest of the   perpetrators of oppression to narrow down mass resistance to a struggle of an individual. This way, the struggle can be undermined; delegitimized and even crushed more easily. Another danger of personification of a mass movement is that if and when the prominent figure changes  course or priority or  moves on to other  struggles/issues, the struggle over the core issue  sometimes  receives a setback.

Such could be the sentiments of the people of Manipur since it is only a short time ago that an unprecedented and a high profile fast has been withdrawn over a cause      that has been affecting the lives of most people in Manipur.

Many among the people who have rejected the main stream political parties are trying various alternatives even in Manipur. Aam Admi Party had contested in Manipur during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and has a state unit. Many of the non-Congress and non-BJP parties including AAP are trying to come together in Manipur as left democratic front. There are already too many alternatives and fragmented parties before the people who have rejected the Congress and the BJP politics.

There must surely be more or other reasons than those outlined above for Irom Sharmila and her party candidates’ poor performance in Manipur. This is not the first time that individuals, activists, members of issue based people’s movements who are otherwise greatly respected have suffered defeat in an election. When such a thing happens, it is often the case that whole people/voters are berated for the loss of the good candidate. It is also seen that the standard reason given for the defeat in an election is the use of money and muscle power. The same forces the candidates were otherwise confident to fight with their good will. It is time that those of us in people’s movements, public work and political struggles, reflect where we are failing as a collective, think of the way ahead rather than merely blame the voters for being collectively insensitive.   Let us give the people of Manipur the benefit of doubt.

*Independent researcher and writer. Source:

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