A Fast That Ended in Hunger- Thoughts on Irom Sharmila and Hunger Strikes: Anirban Bhattacharya

Guest Post by Anirban Bhattacharya

Iram Sharmila Mural at ‘Freedom Square’ JNU. Art by Shijo Suleman and the Fearless Collective. Photograph by Rebecca John. Image, courtesy, ‘The Great Walls of India’ blog on Graffiti and Wall Art

We may have differences in our political approach as to the way and means of the struggle, but what must be stated at the outset is the fact that Irom Sharmila has certainly been an icon of resistance and inspiration in the struggle against AFSPA.

Her 16 year long hunger strike has been a grim reminder of the crimes against the Manipuri people – rape, torture, fake encounters and massacres – committed by the armed forces with impunity under such draconian Acts like AFSPA. But her abrupt decision to end her fast accompanied with her willingness to contest elections in the upcoming assembly elections have met with a mixture of shock, scepticism, disappointment, puzzlement and even anger amongst her people in Manipur and even her close associates. There also seems to be a resentment against her being in a relationship and her plan to marry. Such scrutiny/dragging of her personal life are, however, quite deplorable. But overall, the disappointment with the decision of Irom to quit fasting and contest elections is so strong that, after breaking her fast in the hospital, when she tried to go to a local activist’s shelter, the locals disapproved. She had to seek temporary shelter in an ISKCON temple along with her police guards and then was shifted to a police station and finally she was forced to retreat to the same hospital that housed her for last 16 years. Now, this is telling. But what does it tell? The answer to this question would take us away from criticisms about any particular individual, but to the evaluation of the very method of struggle that she had been a part of, its scope, effectivity and limitations.

Irom sat on hunger strike on 5th November 2000 after the Malom Makga Leikai massacre wherein ten civilians were gunned down by the Assam Rifles. Her single point demand being the repeal of AFSPA. Now, hunger strike has certainly been a legitimate and often effective mode of protest. There have also been various vantage points from which it has been conceptualized and put into effect. It is difficult, ahistorical and unnecessary to put all hunger strikes on the same plane. Our assessment of it would differ based on our own subject location. Gandhi’s hunger strike during Poona Pact was to disarm Ambedkar in the name of “saving” the unity of the Hindu family. From the vantage point of those invested in the perpetuation of the brahmanical caste order, of course, it would be interpreted as a “success”. But from a progressive/democratic vantage point we would differentiate such hunger strikes from the one that Bhagat Singh, Jatin Das and their comrades launched from within jail as political prisoners. In the same way, we all know, the by now obvious vested interests of the right wing/RSS and the corporates, that created the fanfare around Anna Hazare’s hunger strike which again was used by Arvind Kejriwal deftly to his own electoral advantage for a launch pad into politics. Such a sponsored spectacle of hunger strike of course are not comparable with the hunger strikes of Soni Sori to ensure justice in instances of Adivasi atrocities in the hand of security personnel. Nor are they comparable with the hunger strike of hundreds of under-trial political prisoners in the jails of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bengal which hardly ever makes it to the headlines.

For many of us, hunger strike is part of a political praxis. Its not a moral question, but very much a part of our multiple modes of resistance used to mobilize opinion in favour of a just demand. And its vitality and effectivity lies only in the power of galvanizing a public opinion behind it for a cause that is in favour of the oppressed, or against a particular instance of injustice or against authoritarianism. Its just one amongst a wide spectrum of modes of resistance involving the people. The problem arises when a hunger strike becomes or gets projected as the only legitimate, or the only rightful, the only democratic or the only possible mode of legitimate protest while considering other forms of struggle – including militant mobilizations as undemocratic. With such inflexible approach, many a time hunger strikes tend to become an end in itself and outlives its utility and effectivity and in fact is also used to curb other assertive modes of struggles from being part of our repertoire of resistance.

With all best intentions as there may be, the problem with the kind of hunger strikes around the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the one embarked upon by Irom Sharmila is that they create their own political dead-ends. And the last few years of the hunger strike were in fact crying out against its futility as it steadily kept loosing its mass galvanizing purpose. What remained was just an icon bereft of its resonance. While there were much more of the cameras that covered her lifting of the fast than did her beginning in 2000 or even her last 16 years; but there were hardly any of her own people around her when she ended her past and decided to stand for elections. There were also grumblings amongst many who stood by her. AFSPA has stayed, the atrocities under it has also stayed. On the other hand, Sardar Sarovar Dam has not just stood, but in fact has only grown taller, while the demands of the struggle has become shorter with every passing year finally being only on the question of compensations. Now, we ought not to judge any movement by merely its tangible success or failure. But certainly we ought to review its effectivity. Certainly we ought to determine the point when it outlives itself. Any political action is given meaning by the people in or around it. Irom sadly, is hardly left with any today. And in a corporate driven corporate sponsored democracy, with no media-created spectacle on one hand, and neither the will of the masses on the other, this certainly is not the ideal launch-pad for forays into elections. That privilege only Anna-like agitations hold.

We also ought to recognize, that instead of an approach of putting any particular mode of struggle on a pedestal as the only legitimate means of protest; instead of pitting one mode against the other – we ought to tap into and stand with the various creative and even militant demonstrations of the aspirations of the people. The mode of struggle should not determine/restrain the movement; rather the movement should determine its modes of expression. In Kashmir, people are fighting for their right to self-determination against blinding odds with just stones in their hands. Are we to call them undemocratic while they face the pellets or bullets? In Chattisgarh adivasis are fighting against displacement and loot of their resources also with bows and arrows in the face of drones and paramilitary, rapes and arrests. Are we to call them undemocratic? In Una Dalits (along with Muslims) are marching with the weapon of boycotting their supposed “duty” to clear the caracasses of the dead cattle of the dominant castes and are demanding land. Students, from HCU to JNU, from Patna to Jadavpur, from hookolorob to Kiss of Love, from Hunger strikes to gheraos, from songs to occupations – there are a range of means of resistance that has been used against the multifarious injustices.

As far as the fight against AFSPA is concerned, it starts with the question why AFSPA? Why Special Powers? Because there is an army. Why is there an army? Because there is a resistance, a resentment. And wherever there is resentment and army, there is repression. And repression needs Special Powers for impunity. The answer therefore does not lie only in hunger strike as the only democratic dissent. Neither does it lie in the muck of elections as the only democratic expression, and the saga of promises and betrayals that it triggers. The answer lies in asking the right questions and mobilizing the people on their genuine demands around those questions. This is something that not just Irom, but all of us, every democratic progressive section in this country needs to introspect and reflect upon. With due respect to the iron will of the Iron lady of Manipur, while saluting her determination, we all ought to realize that her fast has ended, while the hunger of the people for justice and freedom has not. We need to give creative democratic expression to this hunger of the people so as to strike hard at the tightening stranglehold of fascism in the days to come.

This text is a translation of an article in Bangla that originally appeared in Ei Samay

Anirban Bhattacharya has been associated with the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Student Association (BASO)

One thought on “A Fast That Ended in Hunger- Thoughts on Irom Sharmila and Hunger Strikes: Anirban Bhattacharya

  1. Dhanya Gopal

    The article is well-argued in terms of how different modes of resistance maybe justified in different kinds of struggle. The fact that the movement should not be about the mode of resistance (for example the media emphasis on Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike as opposed to the reason for the hunger strike itself) but to find a reolution to the struggle is something I agree with. However, it would be a little short-sighted to justify all modes of resistance. The ramifications of violent protests are typically borne by the “people in the struggle”. A totalitarian government would outright cull the protest and the people, as evidenced by historical revolutions. Resistance is resisted by the “other” people who may not necessarily believe in the struggle. The divide in opinions becomes cavernous and ,often times, the movement settles to the dust. This will continue so long as the mindset of people is rooted in the trenches of capitalism, communalism, casteism and all the other “isms” which divides them. The problem of mindset is not easy to solve. But atleast the first step would be to purpose education to a strong sense of ethics, empathy and tolerance, which India’s education system severely lacks.

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