Against blaming the people of Manipur for #IromSharmila ‘s defeat

Shantanu Nevrekar on the fallacies of the enlightened #Indian elite

After Irom Sharmila’s humiliating defeat in the recently concluded Manipur Assembly Elections, where she got only 90 votes, social media was filled with concerned citizens and activists going berserk, talking about how poorly this defeat reflected upon the new political culture of India. The idealism and politics of Irom Sharmila was put on a pedestal to an extent that people sitting far away from the rough and tumble of Manipur’s politics saw themselves as capable of pronouncing judgement upon the morality of the people of Manipur. Not only is there something intrinsically wrong in blaming people for not doing something which you would have liked of them, while you sit comfortably without having to live their lives, it also shows a fundamental disconnect of much of the activist and academic community in Delhi and other metropolitan spaces, with the areas which they write and comment upon. I, myself, am not an expert on Manipur but I found this tendency of dispassionate criticism of the electoral choices of the common people quite deplorable, which forced me to write this piece.

Irom’s defeat could largely be put down to three fundamental reasons. Firstly, her campaign just could not connect to the basic issues of jobs and development, which dominated the sentiments and desires of the people in this election. Secondly, the political movement and party which she initiated under the name of People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) was a newcomer to the electoral space and had neither the cadre, nor the political experience nor the grassroots level ideological support which is essential to electoral victory. As Pradip Phanjoubam wrote for The Hindu about Irom Sharmila and PRJA, “its idealism is still too nascent to generate the kind of wave that wins elections.” Thirdly, and most importantly, the might of Indian National Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and the other parties of Manipur was just too overwhelming, both in terms of money and muscle power. Irom Sharmila decided to contest the Thoubal Constituency, a quasi- fiefdom of the heavy weight Okram Ibobi Singh, the three time and incumbent Chief Minister of Manipur, who has allegedly pampered his constituency much more than others and has reaped substantial rewards from the pampering. Considering its nascent foray into electoral politics and lack of strength, this contest was predictably going to demolish Irom Sharmila. If she could have contested in some other seat, she probably might have done slightly better, even though winning would, even then, have been out of question. In addition, a major role was also played by the divided public opinion regarding her discontinuation of a long drawn out fast and hunger strike against AFSPA and state atrocities. She lost a lot of people’s support when she discontinued the hunger strike (the morality of which is questionable but which is still a view which can’t be ignored). In addition, a lot of people were also skeptical of her foray into electoral politics, a space they felt was unfit for an activist.

When the people in Thoubal would have gone out to vote, they might even have been sympathetic of Irom Sharmila and her 16 year long struggle against AFSPA. However, sympathy lives in a world at least partially disconnected from electoral choices. Sympathy seldom figures as a factor in the cold and merciless calculations which form a part of the electoral decision matrix of the voters. Obviously, that is unless the sympathy is being garnered and mobilised by well- established and organised political parties, like the sympathy wave which won the 1984 elections for the Congress after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. This inferior role to sympathy is for good reasons. People’s electoral decisions are vital to the future of the region they live in and where their lives are to be sustained. Their ability to raise the correct issues and choose candidates on that basis would decide whether their desires are even partially fulfilled. In addition, votes are often given to less preferred candidates from stronger parties in order to avoid splitting of votes and thus strengthening the undesirable party. For example, in Thoubal, a number of people might have voted the Congress only so as to keep the BJP out of consideration. Electoral decisions are based on a complicated calculus decided by a variety of factors and sympathy seldom figures as an important factor in the decisions of people who are hungry for change, jobs and development in their region, where the conflict and ethnic tensions have brought all of these to a screeching halt. Manipur is a state which has, over the last year, faced increased ethnic tensions between the people in the hills, mostly Nagas, and the people in the valley, mostly Meitis. This ethnic tension has a longer history but the recent series of crippling blockades imposed upon the Valley in Manipur has been disastrous and has brought everyday life in areas like Imphal to a standstill. The prices of basic necessities have increased and lives have become vulnerable and precarious. In areas like Thoubal, which form a part of the valley, the main issues revolve around the hill- valley relations, jobs and the effort to bring normalcy to lives devastated by the blockade. Here, one cannot also easily blame the Hill Nagas for the troubles of the valley, which ignores the complex history of the relationship between the hill and the valley. The point, here, is just that the issues around which this election revolved in Manipur, and Thoubal, were nowhere near those around which Irom Sharmila was fighting. Thus Irom Sharmila’s rhetoric of justice and accountability and her anti- AFSPA struggle, even though important and highly inspiring, was not the main issue in the election. So when the defeat came, it was heartbreaking, but certainly not unpredictable.

The distance between Delhi and places like Manipur is large enough for a partial understandings of people’s everyday issues to take precedence over organic and rooted opinions of local complexities, with the former masquerading as intellectual opinions on public issues. The kind of condescending disapproval from some elite activists and other people from metropolitan areas, of the people’s choices in Manipur elections seems a reflection of this distance. When one does not have to face the crippling blockades in Imphal and Thoubal, these everyday considerations do not enter the perspectives of the individual and the more dominant and intellectually popular readings of Manipur’s politics take over the person’s interpretation of any event. Thus, prior to the elections, if one considered AFSPA and the insurgency to be the primary factors constituting the decision calculus of the people of Manipur, one would have been utterly shocked to see the way that Irom Sharmila was defeated. Obviously the immediate set of factors which the person would then salvage to their rescue would be “election rigging” and the “spectre of polarisation to distract people from the real issues of state’s persecution and oppression in Manipur.” Some, as mentioned earlier, would also question the morality and hope which the people of Manipur show in their politics. All of these judgements are understandable considering the heavy emotional appeal which the struggle of Irom Sharmila commands in the minds of the liberal intelligentsia, university students and civil society in India. However, it is from the allegedly aware and self- reflexive quarters of people like the ones mentioned, that one expects a more humble, nuanced and well- read opinion. Therefore, when such people end up making statements as irresponsible as some which I have seen among numerous people on social media, it is indeed disappointing and says a lot about the inadequacies of the activist and academic gaze which is unable to give an accurate picture of what exists on the ground. Such instances, though, also provide an opportunity to civil society and the establishment which comments on politics, where it could introspect into why has this gaping hole has emerged between the aspirations and rhetoric of the people at the grassroots and the moralistic judgements passed in the confines of academic spaces of India’s universities.

AFSPA rather than forming a context to the life in Manipur, atleast that of the present, is more a part of a whole gamut of issues, forming only a partial lens to look at Manipur and its politics and society. Politics in a place under AFSPA is never only about AFSPA and there is rather a heterogeneity of political formations and issues which people create and identify with even in such places. By choosing to call out the morality of the people of Manipur for not electing Irom Sharmila we  deny people complete human agency, rather imagining their subjectivity perpetually in relation to AFSPA. But more than that we also become blind to the how individuals engage and negotiate with the political system in highly diverse ways. Rather than treat AFSPA as a context, it is important for the activists and academics in the mainland to treat AFSPA as a part of a larger discourse where the people form a multifaceted relation to the state and other communities around them, forging new identities and struggles. Anything less than that would not just be an injustice to the people whom one writes about, but also an injustice to the scholarship and activism which one swears by.

This article is not an attempt to decry scholarly and civil society activism or the role of social media in giving voice to people’s expression. However, it is extremely important for the people engaging in such activities to be more humble and self- reflexive about what they write and speak. Most importantly, it is important for us as political and social commentators from the metropolitan areas and English- speaking elite classes of India to be aware of our privileged position and not consider our own partial and often uninformed ideas of popular politics in a distant, far- off regions as anything more than what it is, an uninformed and generalised opinion which would sound ridiculous to any person with an awareness of the ground level realities of these regions. And while this article too runs the risk of being one of the same lot which is being critiqued, it is intended to contribute to a conversation on the subject rather than being a polemic.

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Shantanu Nevrekar Written by:

MPhil student in Sociology at Delhi School of Economics

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