Don’t deify Irom Sharmila, dear Manipur, debate issues she raises

What people need to realise is there is no point making a mahatma out of Sharmila. What they need to do is understand, debate, reason with her views on AFSPA

shantanu

Shantanu Datta | August 21, 2014




Irom Sharmila is used to being called a strong woman. But one of the strongest statements she made yesterday (August 20) after breathing in the fresh monsoon air of Imphal – as a free woman and without a tube attached to her nose that is used to force-feed the Manipuri activist – was not about strength per se. In fact, uttered by any other – ‘regular’ – person, it would be deemed one made at a weak, somewhat emotional moment.

“What I need now is mass support from the people. My appeal to them is that they not sing my praises, but give me support in this hour of need,” she was quoted in an Indian Express report shortly after her release from her isolation ward at Imphal’s JNIMS Hospital. That hospital has been, more or less, her home since her arrest almost 14 years ago for her struggle against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, or AFSPA.

While most of us would have made strong, angry noises at such times – and justifiably so – Sharmila’s was a remark of utmost humility. I want to speak with you, and not to you, she seemed to be telling the people.

As a corresponding article in the same paper quotes from an earlier interview, Sharmila wants to be seen as “simply a human being, and not a god”. But that, unfortunately, is not an option for anyone who wants to achieve anything substantial in India. People, as Sharmila has seen and is apprehensive of, as her modest, post-release plea indicated, like to put the handful of such persons on a pedestal. And then worship them.

The problem is, no struggler/activist/achiever is a demi-god. They are all human – “simply a human being, and not a god”, as Sharmila put it so simply and yet eloquently – and they will have human wants, desires, requirements, ‘failings’.

Therefore, the raised eyebrows every time the name Desmond Coutinho comes up. For, Coutinho, a Goan-origin British citizen had ‘dared’ to do the impossible: fall in love with a demi-god. As the Express article notes, “Marrying Coutinho is a desire Sharmila has often expressed, but that is unlikely to go down well with the people of the state.”

It’s a double-edged sword, then. First, you are put on a pedestal, and then, over time, as the ‘mere human’ image begins to frustrate the ‘followers’, you are taken off that pedestal. Not to be returned back to the status of a simple human being, however – you would be yanked off that pedestal, insulted, humiliated and thrown away. A feeling most activists would know all too well.

Around the time Desmond Coutinho and Sharmila were getting to know each other in Spring 2011, a septuagenarian named Anna Hazare was slowly getting acquainted with a nation’s love – and the feeling was mutual. Not many had heard of Hazare outside Maharashtra till then despite his many fasts, satyagrahas and ideas and implementation of model village and swaraj.

But between spring and winter of the year 2011, Hazare had become part of the national heartbeat, put on a pedestal and flaunted by people with much fanfare. He became a nonentity within a year.

What Manipur, and also the rest of the country but especially areas where people are in conflict with AFSPA, needs to realise is there is no point making a mahatma out of Sharmila. What they need to do is understand what she is voicing. Talk about it, discuss it, debate it, read about it, write about it, praise it, pan it – do everything to take the arguments and counter-arguments to their logical end.

What they need not do is make another Hazare of Sharmila.

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