Happy Birthday Irom Sharmila! Perhaps the Loneliest Ever

‘Delhi drawing-room activism: Irom Sharmila has polled 90 votes. #Manipur’

As the poll results from Thoubal reached the newsrooms in Delhi, this is what a journalist’s Facebook status read.

Perhaps the most appropriate reading of the events that transpired in the most widely covered assembly constituency in Manipur — only 90 people voted for Irom Sharmila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, who was on a marathon fast for 16 years for repelling of AFSPA (Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts ) from the state. Even the NOTA option received 149 votes.

A Political Novice

The media, especially the ones who were paratrooped into Manipur from Delhi, or the ones who saw the elections as this mega battle between CM Ibobi Singh and Irom Sharmila, were clearly cut off from the ground reality – Irom Sharmila was inconsequential for Manipur now.

“Sharmila was never a mass leader and no one expected her to be a politician. The legacy of her past was irrelevant to these elections. No one expected her to get into politics. And when she did, she spoke of a new clean democracy, a new political order, and taking on AFSPA. But AFSPA occupied no mind-space in Manipur now. There are much bigger and immediate issues like the economic blockade. Something which BJP understood much better” says Anubha Bhonsle, the author of Mother, Where’s my Country – Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur.

Though she still commands lot of respect, no one took Sharmila or her party PRJA seriously. They were a band of people who had all the right ideals, but many in the team from outside Manipur clearly didn’t understand the issues and the nuts and bolts of politics within the state. There were times when the PRJA media team made it extremely difficult for the local media to reach out to Sharmila, and that didn’t help either.

Also Read: Will Stay Away and Introspect: Irom Sharmila on Quitting Politics

The ‘Not So Private’ Personal Life

In mid-February, in the midst of hectic campaigning, Irom Sharmila called a press conference to apologise for her fiancé Desmond Coutinho’s abusive behaviour with her supporters. The press release from Irom dated 16 February read:

It has come to my notice that my fiancé Desmond Coutinho, currently staying at 2 Abbey Toad in the county of Galaway, Ireland, who is also my General Power of Attorney, has been using abusive and unparliamentary words to describe the people who have been supporting me since the year 2000, and more recently my new associates of the PRJA party…AS SUCH I AM APOLOGISING ON BEHALF OF MY FIANCÉ Desmod Coutinho AND SEEKING FORGIVENESS FROM THE PERSONS NAMED ABOVE, AND THE GENERAL PEOPLE OF MANIPUR.

Around the same time, Irom also announced that she will marry Desmond after the elections.

So did her personal life affect her political plans?

Anubha Bhonsle disagrees, “There is a fatigue in Manipur around Irom’s personal life. Plenty of details are clouded and the people are not interested in it”. 

But her sudden announcement of marriage and the plans to leave, did leave her party colleagues in PRJA in a spot, and they were left searching for answers to explain to the voters — what it really meant or that marriage was not more important to Irom than politics.

Though the PRJA members will never come on record to say this, but the fact remains that Irom is extremely headstrong and difficult to work with.

So What is Next for Irom

Today, Irom is isolated and cornered. She has alienated most of her supporters like the Meira Peibeis and her long-time associates, after she unilaterally called off her hunger strike on 16 August 2016. The associates are still carrying the scars of that decision. Whether Irom left them or they left Irom, it’s hard to tell.

“Her life will be increasingly lived as a private citizen now. She’s is not going to continue in politics, and personal goals will matter more now” says Anubha Bhonsle.

The election results broke Sharmila’s heart — she was in tears, it hurt. The reality of the situation finally hit home, and for the first time in her life, in that figure of 90 votes, she could see for real the extent of her loneliness. She’s cornered and under immense pressure.

For now, she has decided to quit politics and spend time at a ashram in Kerala and introspect.

It will be a very lonely 45th Birthday for Irom Sharmila. On her birthday, one can only hope that Manipur remembers what the fearless fighter did for them and quickly forgets her political misadventure.