Reports about a hue and cry over an ‘interview’ given by Manipuri social activist Irom Sharmila to the media about her ‘affair’ with Goa-born British citizen, writer and human rights activist, Desmond Coutinho, have left me confounded. Evidently, her supporters are ‘dismayed’ and smell a sinister ‘state conspiracy’ in the report. While a number of well-meaning people are responding with the clichéd ‘we should not comment on her personal life’, to me this also sounds like a submission to middle-class morality classes, which we seem to enlist ourselves in from time to time and which help us to garb salacious gossip as moral righteousness.
What I want to ask is so what if Sharmila has a boyfriend? So what if she even had a raging affair with him, however unlikely that may be given her condition and near-confined status? Does that in any way take away from the fact that this lone woman has been on a fast for ten years, suffering the ignominy of being force-fed in a hospital on government orders, all in order to right the numerous wrongs of the government of Manipur and to repeal the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)?
Why should anyone feel the need to defend her by talking about how difficult it is for anyone else to have met her during her near-hospital arrest when even her family members find it difficult to have access to her? Or by quickly informing us that the two have got ‘engaged’ and, hence, she has regained her moral status in the eyes of ‘civil’ society? What’s the need at all to defend her by publicly defending her as being ‘morally upright’? Who took away her ‘right to fall in love’ anyway?
Naturally, her being a woman vitiates the discussion even more. After all, ‘iconic’ women in our part of the world have to live up to the stature of a devi — no, this is not the vibrant goddess of the Hindu pantheon akin to Durga or Kali. This is purely a creation of the South Asian patriarchal middle-class, which lasts after about powerful women at night, and renders them asexual and safe in the sober light of the morning.
How can the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ — who represents strength, sobriety, peace, endurance and resistance to evil — spare a thought for the romance and vulnerability that such an engagement suggests? How can the iron in her soul turn to mush? The media, too, seem to be having a great time with the issue, positioning it as the classic ‘breach caused by emotional weakness between susceptible icon and peevish supporters’.
One of the papers reporting the matter even slipped in a line about Sharmila having been gifted an Apple Macbook computer by her lover. But not even a single paper has yet said, ‘So what?’ Unlike the US, India excels at keeping all male politicians’ and celebrities’ personal matters, affairs, romps and perversities entirely concealed. So why on earth can’t we allow Sharmila her amour before labelling her Manipur’s ‘amoral’ woman?
( Arpita Das is a Delhi-based writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal