It is a unique act of courage to take up a cause with tenacity, but it is even a greater act of courage to know when to give up. Irom Sharmila’s 16 year historic fast to protest the AFSPA in Manipur has not got the response or respect it deserved. The extraordinary act of taking a 16-year-long hiatus from life - where she lay isolated with nasal tubes in a medicalised prison- has not really been thought of adequately. The state remained fairly untroubled by the protest - but that is not remarkable.
What is remarkable is the sullen response of the Meira Paibis - the followers- all the women who supported Sharmila in the cause. For them she was goddess-like and the face of her lying done with nasal tubes, her vulnerable face, her long tousled hair became the face of the campaign. The poetry she wrote was what they used as their anthem of freedom from state brutality. It seems they were undeterred by the state’s indifference.
So when Sharmila - and I can only imagine how despairing the loneliness of her existence must have been- decided to end her fast, not in a defeatist way but with perspicacity and composure. She can see that the one life she has is slipping away from her and the act of protest becoming a meaningless sacrifice. To be able to say that “I am a revolutionary, not a martyr,” is an incredible statement. So to me the moot question is, why should these protestors react with such incredible lack of grace.
Is this ingratitude? I would say groups need leaders as much as they need followers. They need leaders for all kinds of reasons: To give direction, to anchor them, to think for them, to provide a centre, to be idealised and I am sure many more. Irom was idealised of course, but like all idealisation, it demanded she give up her being human. Now that she says she wants to live, to fight elections, to become chief minister, she is no longer ‘venerable’. Now she is like everybody else.
It seems that this group felt entitled to having Sharmila as its leader. It seems they unconsciously felt that reverence and awe was their recompense. In fact what it makes me wonder about is whether in this particular dynamic Sharmila was the host and the followers like parasites. They allowed themselves to feed off her and when she shook herself free of the tubes, it is as if they felt let down. By now they were entitled to feed off her, they owed her nothing - her existence seemed to be for this very purpose. So now they are resentful that there is no supine body that passively allows them to drain and deplete it, but announces a wish to return to a life of activity, renewal, fight. This unhappy fallout of the group with its leader can be the beginning of us trying to understand what collective fantasies remain unnoticed but powerfully at work to keep group processes both ongoing and rudely terminated.
Nilofer Kaul is a Delhi-based psychoanalyst
The views expressed are personal