Why Indian Democracy has Failed Irom Sharmila


Why Indian Democracy has Failed Irom Sharmila

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

For 16 years, Irom Sharmila has been a humbling symbol of human endurance. An act of political resistance so profound, it was almost poetic.

A frail wraith of a woman – resolute, incarcerated, hospital tube pumping food into reluctant body – she epitomised the outer edges of individual will. She was the Iron Lady of Manipur, the woman who literally tried to change the course of history with her body.

But that’s not all she was: Irom Sharmila was also a potent opportunity for the Indian State.

If it had behaved right, Sharmila could’ve become one of the most triumphant symbols of Indian democracy. Proof of its moral heart. Its responsiveness. Its compassionate constitutionalism.  

Instead, on August 9, she will become a saddening reminder of its brute unimaginativeness. One more door slammed in our collective consciousness.  

This travesty is not immediately apparent.

On the face of it, August 9, is a cause for celebration. Sharmila has announced that she will end her 16-year fast – a feat unprecedented in history – and take her fight to a new arena: She will stand for elections.

On the face of it, this is further proof of Sharmila’s iron will. She refuses to give up. Since her fast could not dent the soundproof ear of the Indian State, she’s now going to storm it with democracy’s most powerful instrument: the vote.

There are many who will cheer this transition, who will see it as a logical next step. Elections, they would argue, are the most legitimate expression of democracy.

Certainly for Sharmila, it’s a liberating decision: It will literally set her free from custody and allow her to reclaim her personal life. There is talk that she might marry.

But that’s merely the face of it. Truth is, standing for elections is a sort of fig leaf. Truth is, Indian democracy has failed Sharmila. Truth is, it’s failed us all. By turning its back on her, by making no concession, by forcing her to abandon her extraordinary fast with little to show for it, the State has reinforced the futility of peaceful protests in the public mind.

This is a dangerous thing to do.

Consider Sharmila’s life. Sixteen years ago, in November 2000, 10 innocent civilians in Manipur were shot dead at a bus stand by the Assam Rifles, a battalion in the Indian Army. Among them were a 62-year-old woman and an 18-year-old National Bravery award winner.

Seeing their blood-spattered bodies in the papers the next day, Sharmila, then 28 – the ninth child of an illiterate grade IV worker in a veterinary hospital in Imphal – responded with an instinctive humanity, an almost spiritual intuition.  

Sharmila’s protest, therefore, should have become a lightning rod in India’s public life. The media should have given it life breath. The State should have acknowledged its moral force and entered a dialogue.

The bus-stand killing had come on the tail of many others. Manipur was torn by insurgency. Deployed there to enforce peace, the army had demanded the shield of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allowed its personnel to arrest, search, and shoot on mere suspicion.

This shield – intended to create efficacy – had bred impunity instead.

Since 1980, when AFSPA first came into force in Manipur, thousands of people had either disappeared or been killed in false encounters. No one was held accountable for this. Sharmila believed the only way to stop the violence was to offer a peaceful alternative: She began a fast to demand the withdrawal of AFSPA from Manipur. She believed it was her “bounden duty” as an Indian citizen to fight injustice.

The State responded by arresting her and force-feeding her in a hospital cell. And so Sharmila’s Herculean passage began. Ostensibly, for 16 years, no solid food or water has entered her body. She has literally been kept alive on a drip. Since attempt to suicide is a crime, the State keeps her in custody, releasing her every year for a few days before arresting her again.

One has to pause a moment to internalise what the experience of this must be for a human being: to be alive and yet feel no pleasure of taste or sensation in one’s mouth for 16 years; to not sate one’s hunger even once; and all the while to never walk free. A 16-year fast is not just a set of words; it is an endurance test that beggars the imagination.

(This account of her in the tenth year of her fast captures some of that experience.)

Sharmila’s protest, therefore, should have become a lightning rod in India’s public life. The media should have given it life breath. The State should have acknowledged its moral force and entered a dialogue.

Instead, the media has tired of her and the State has worn Sharmila down and leached her protest of its magnetism. It is true that when she began fasting, most Indians hadn’t heard about AFSPA, while today it is pretty much a household word. True too that several commissions have been appointed to examine the removal of AFSPA (though their recommendations predictably gather dust). And most recently, there’s been a Supreme Court order that somewhat punctures the immunity AFSPA bestows.

But the hard-eyed truth is, for all its epic endurance, Sharmila Irom’s protest has met the same fate as innumerable others: Bhopal gas victims and Narmada Dam oustees; sewage workers and tribals; Dalits and development refugees.

We are all the poorer for this.

A Maoist commander in Chhattisgarh was once asked why they believed only in violent action – even when their demands were sometimes just and constitutional. His reply is a sobering wake-up call. “Protests need a listening ear,” he said. “Protest is theatre, it needs audience, it needs response, else it is meaningless. When tribals protest peacefully at a DM’s office, does the media come to cover it? Does the government respond? Contrast that with the attention when you blow up something or kidnap or kill someone.”

Elections – grubby, compromised, faulty – are only one aspect of the experiment of Indian democracy. It may be the most crucial, even the most exhilarating, one. But there are many other valves needed to keep democracy robust: credible institutions, a free and conscientious media. And the possibility of peaceful protest.

Democracies are the greatest political system ever invented because the idea of dialogue is built into their very conception. Without that, it is merely majoritarianism.

Every person who has an issue cannot stand for elections. There has to be space in between for meaningful citizenship.

But each year, when peaceful protests go unheeded and even an epic one like Sharmila’s – both ethical and non-violent in its expression – is neutered, that space is further narrowed and sliced down. People on the ground find it harder and harder to imagine how they can get themselves heard. Their stake in society lessens. And democracy goes one step further towards being a hollow spectacle.