I am a Manipuri and I am not Ashamed When Irom Sharmila got only 90 Votes

I have my reasons.

I have come across many news-reports and comments on social media shaming the people of Manipur for “forgetting” (as they put it) what the Iron Lady of Manipur has done for them. Irom Sharmila has fasted for 16 years demanding the repeal of AFSPA. She has been an icon among many. She is one of the most well-known human rights activists in Manipur. Inspite of her fight for the rights and dignity of the people of Manipur, she has secured only 90 votes (less than the NOTA counts which stood at 143) in the recently concluded Manipur State Legislative Assembly Election, 2017. And, this, according to many people all around the country, has proved that Manipuris have forgotten the Iron Lady, who has fought against all odds, who has sacrificed everything for the people of Manipur.

I was not happy when Irom Sharmila got defeated in the elections. I was not certainly celebrating the victory of the former Chief Minister of Manipur. I was actually reasoning why the Iron Lady was not winning.

My views may not go well with many of you. But do not shout without reading it first, without understanding what is in the article.

Irom Sharmila contested against the strongest candidate of the Thoubal constituency, Mr. O. Ibobi Singh. Mr. Ibobi, as everyone already know, was the Chief Minister of Manipur for fifteen years and was still the C.M. at the time of the election. In these fifteen years, Mr. Ibobi has brought many developments in his constituency like never before. (What about Manipur? Well, you have your answer already). He has provided jobs to the youth in his constituency in the largest scale (some even claim that every household in his constituency has one member in government service because of Mr. Ibobi. That’s the rumour. I don’t have facts); he has constructed roads, markets, hospitals, and carried out many other development works in the constituency which has made the people of his constituency ready to do anything for him. (Well, most of them). If there is any politician in Manipur who has best performed from the perspective of the people of his/her constituency, it will not be wrong to assume that it is Mr. Ibobi. In the political history of Manipur also, Mr. Ibobi is not without any credit.

Coming back to the election result, in a constituency, what is the first priority most people have? I can say that, in Manipur right now, repeal of AFSPA, which is the campaign theme of Irom Sharmila throughout her non-violent protest as well as during elections, is certainly not the one. Even if we carry out a referendum in Manipur asking people to choose between the repeal of AFSPA and development now, I doubt that they will go for AFSPA at this time. It is not to say that development has been brought in the State of Manipur. Remember, we are talking about a constituency and an election result that has prompted a debate on how the people of Manipur weigh its very own Iron Lady at this very moment in the State’s history.

I cannot blame the people of Thoubal constituency for choosing Mr. Ibobi. In fact, for the people of Thoubal constituency, voting for Mr. Ibobi appears to be the right choice, the most rational decision in the circumstance. If the Congress in Manipur won the election, Mr. Ibobi was most likely to become the Chief Minister of Manipur again and bring development and employment to the people of the constituency. This could not be assured by Irom Sharmila’s victory. Moreover, Mr. Ibobi has done impressive work in his constituency which the people of the constituency would not forget easily in this generation. The people might be emotionally with Sharmila. In fact, most people of Manipur, including Thoubal cannot and will not forget the Iron Lady. However, the practical considerations will make them (the people of the constituency) choose Mr. Ibobi in the election which they did.

On the other hand, the political awareness and participation of the people of Manipur, (forget Thoubal) is not that widespread. Almost every person in Manipur complain, get angry and frustrated against the state government saying that it is full of corruption, nepotism, and does not bring development (whatever they mean by it) in the state. They say that their rights are violated. This continued till recently until the BJP-led coalition formed the government in the State (and most of the people are hopeful that this new government will do some good work). The same people also voted for the same party which they criticise and get angry at for fifteen years. They call politics ‘dirty’, and politicians ‘liars’, but accept the money handed out to them by the same politicians they hate with their own dirty hands. They sell themselves, their rights for another five years.

Another example of the level of political awareness is shown by the election-related program conducted by the ImpactTV and the kind of response we got from the students of Manipur University, the most elite institute in Manipur for higher education and whose students and their views are expected to play a significant factor in shaping the perspectives of Manipur society. The reluctant, uninterested, ignorant, and indifferent attitude of the university students while expressing their views on election issues and the politics in the state tell a lot about the state of political awareness in the State.

In such a scenario, expecting Irom Sharmila to win the election from Thoubal or for that matter from any constituency in Manipur would not make much sense. Yes, she could garner more votes if she contested in some other constituency in Imphal. This is not to say that the people of Thoubal are less politically aware when compared to people in Imphal. For the people of Thoubal, they made the most practical choice, which I believe is definitely the right one. I will not question why Irom Sharmila decided to contest only in Thoubal against Mr. Ibobi. She must be having her own reasons which she believes is the right one. Yet, I strongly believe that if she had contested against another candidate in a favourable constituency, she could do very well. Again, she might have wanted to prove a point and she might have had her own reasons. Besides, she is not a politician and she did not contest the election with political calculations. That’s what I think after her decision post election.

This moment in our society is not the one which we see the amount of political maturity that could provide a political environment ensuring that the likes of Sharmila emerge as the winners in the electoral process. Many things in our society need to be changed. The starting point being ourselves. We need to change ourselves, our thinking, the way we see things, the way we treat our neighbours, another fellow being. We need to stop beating the wives, hating the poor, disgusted at work, and most importantly indifferent towards politics.

I frequently watch ImpactTV programs from which I learn few things about the views of Manipuris- old and young- towards politics. I have learned about the same from social media, interactions with young students, and views I read in mainstream media. (I will take another time to exclusively write on it). Most people in Manipur has the perception that politics is dirty, it is bad. They seem to be very proud when they say that they are not interested in politics.

What I would like to assure to my fellow people is that politics is not necessarily bad. Yes, we have seen a side of politics which we call dirty and nasty, a politics which is about muscle, money and power. We have seen a type of politics which we think is full of corruption and nepotism. That is not entirely wrong.

However, I would like you to see the other side of politics. This view of politics relates to the one expressed by one of the finest and most successful politicians of the twenty first century who has tried his bit to bring forward the other tradition of politics, Barack Obama, the former president of the United States. During the initial years of his political career, many people asked him why he was into something as dirty and nasty as politics. He had this reply in the introduction to his acclaimed book, The Audacity of Hope:

“there was- and always had been- another tradition to politics, …. a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done.”

I believe in what he says. All of us must. Politics has a good side. Since the very foundation of democracy in the ancient Greek city states, the finest of philosophers and great thinkers have given the utmost importance to political participation by the citizens, that is, the people, all of us. From Plato to Aristotle to Hannah Arendt to the political thinkers of our time, all of them have agreed that citizens should actively participate in politics.

One of the most important, but not the only, form of our participation in politics is in the election. It is in the election that we are given the opportunity to exercise one of the most important rights given to us by the Constitution, that is, the right to vote. Our vote decides the fate of each one of us for those five years. If we collectively send the right person as our representative to the assembly, we can make a big difference in the politics of the state as well as the development dream we carry together. In a state like ours I think the most crucial form of participation continues to be the election. Unfortunately, we often do not value our right, ourselves, and do not make the best decision.

I see people coming forward, willing to make a change, during this years’ assembly election. I saw many young people of our generation supporting it widely in social media and willing to be a part of this change. This is a good sign. I hope that people become more aware of the value of their political rights and effectively and positively use it. I would like to further affirm that politics is not necessarily bad. In fact, it has a good side. We should show interest towards politics. We should actively take part in shaping the political course in the state.

And, yes, we cannot blame the people of Thoubal for not voting wholeheartedly for Irom Sharmila; we cannot blame all Manipuris for not making her win in the election. We, however, can contemplate on what is at stake for all of us, we can come together with a strong belief that we have a stake in one another, and collectively fight for what is just. For, what we act today shapes what becomes of tomorrow.

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