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Does Irom’s struggle make the British look more humane?

analysis Updated: Aug 14, 2016 15:42 IST
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Manipur’s localised pain didn’t find traction among national audience. And Irom Sharmila is not to blame for that.(Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

Were the British rulers of India more conscientious than the Indian governments?

When 28-year-old Irom Sharmila quit food to force the Centre to lift the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, she could have been motivated by the success of a diminutive man in making the British run after him like parents coaxing mutinous kids with promises.

While Mohandas Gandhi successfully beat back unjust British rulers with hunger strikes and won his country freedom, the image of a fasting woman hanging on to life from a nasal feeding tube never managed to melt the Indian rulers’ mind and force a rethink on soldiers’ licence to kill in her tiny Northeastern state.

In 2000, the Manipuri gave up food, including a favourite one made of fermented soya bean and vegetables. Since then, she was turned into a god—one who doesn’t ask for food or have desires of the flesh. Irom called off her fast 16 years later—she was tired of the unfruitful struggle—by eating honey through her mouth instead of nose. Strangely, it coincides with the 75th anniversary of Gandhi’s Quit India movement, a non-violent resistance.

Irom’s struggle had almost all the ingredients of success. She was always in the limelight—the arrest, jail and release of a woman trying to commit suicide by fasting were an annual ritual that invariably became headlines. She had mass support. And Irom sustained her fasting for 5,759 days—it dwarfs Gandhi’s 17 fasts, the longest being 21 days, during the freedom movement. But what Irom lacked was an “oppressor” who was kind and a nation that cared enough.

Satyagraha, or the non-violent protest which often involves giving up food, works by pricking the conscience of the government and making the ruler feel guilty for letting the protestor go hungry. It worked well for Gandhi, and he used the hunger chop successfully against the British first at Bihar’s Champaran to win back farmer’s right to choose the crop of their choice.

From there on, Gandhi’s weapon of choice was fasting. And the British gave in almost always, keen to not turn him into a martyr. But after years of fasting when Irom decided not to turn herself into a martyr, her own people turned against her. Manipuris were angry largely for denying them a symbol of resistance, which is hard to come by.

Fasting hasn’t lost its potency, but Manipur was let down by its fringe status that couldn’t set the collective conscience of a nation on fire. Its localised pain didn’t find traction among national audience. And Irom is not to blame for that, as success is hardly decided by the person undertaking fast—proven during the struggle for the institution of national anti-corruption watchdog Lok Pal.

A nonentity called Anna Hazare caught the imagination of the nation by spotlighting the cure for corruption, a national curse. His nine-day-long fast was food for newspapers and the Maharashtrian was hailed the next Gandhi. After the historic bill was passed, the man faded into oblivion in his village of Ralegan Siddhi.

Irom, too, has threatened to go away if her people don’t want to see her as a human being.

Views expressed are personal.

The writer tweets as @journalist10