When Manipur’s Iron Lady Irom Sharmila was campaigning for the assembly elections, she was showered with support and respect. However, that support failed to transform into votes.
Several people were of the opinion that Sharmila should have stuck to fighting issues of human rights instead of taking on political activism. Several even believed that politics is a dirty game and thus as the ‘Iron Lady’ or ‘Mengoubi’ – the fair one – she should have maintained her distance from it.
Sharmila is a human rights activist, and a renowned one at that. But her personality is not one of a typical politician. Her opponent – Okram Ibobi Singh – is a powerful politician who has ruled Manipur for three consecutive terms.
After ending her 16-year-long hunger strike – considered the longest in the world – when she decided to contest the assembly elections, her aim was to create a political will to lift AFSPA from the state.
The issue of AFSPA and the extra-judicial killings in the “disturbed” state by the security forces with full impunity, is significant for the national media. For the people on the ground, however, it falls much below the day-to-day struggles of bandh and blockade and lack of development.
When her fight against AFSPA began, the situation in Manipur was significantly different. The Manipur of 16 years ago has since changed. As awareness among the people has increased along with the presence of handy visual recording devices like smartphones, the security forces in the state can no longer afford to operate the way they did when Sharmila vowed to fast until AFSPA was repealed.
Also, when people are caught in a conflict situation for a long period of time, they tend to internalise and accept the difficulties and instead look towards fulfilling their daily needs.
It was also an election fought on ethnic lines, many in the majority community, the Meiteis, looked at Ibobi as a leader who could challenge the Nagas.
Months after Sharmila announced that she would fight from Thoubal along with her home constituency, Khurai, she dropped the latter, which could also have been a factor in her defeat.
Irrespective of how the results, Sharmila deserves to be appreciated for her consistent struggle and her decision to form a political party with AFSPA as her plank. Sharmila knows she no longer has the backing of the people who once supported her in her struggle. Even though new people joined her in her political fight, they don’t have the same pull.
Her being a woman may also have been a factor for her defeat. Among the 268 candidates in these elections, there were only ten women candidates. National parties like the BJP and Congress fielded just two women candidates each – a clear signal of an absence of women in the political space.
In a state where you see a unique phenomenon like Ima market, one that is operated solely by women, the strong female presence has not translated into politics. Politics in Manipur is often viewed as the man’s business.