Iron Sharmila, the anti-AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958) crusader who recently forayed into politics after ending her 16-year-long hunger strike, will be Chief Minister Okram Ibobi’s main challenger in the upcoming Manipur Legislative Assembly elections. While her entry into politics has not led her to give up her struggle to repeal AFSPA that empowers the army to kill with impunity, and arrest a person without obtaining a warrant, her change of strategy divide her followers. Her sometimes furious allies ask why she would join the dirty game of politics. “Can politics be dirty on its own? Isn’t society a part of the dirty game associated with politics?”, she responded.
The Indian National Congress (INC) led by Ibobi now promise to remove APFSA if voted back to power for a fourth term. But during Ibobi’s 15 years in power so far, as many as 1528 people have allegedly been victims of so-called ‘extrajudicial killings’. A much puclicised demonstration on 15 July 2004 – a ‘naked protest’ by Manipuri women against the Indian army over the alleged rape and murder of women at the Kangla fort – epitomises the violence and anger that exist in Manipur.
While Sharmila’s party, the Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) has certainly made an impact, it is doubtful whether she will win a seat. PRJA believes they will strike a chord with the youth and those who want to drive out corruption from the state. In poorer areas Sharmila campaigns from door to door on her bicycle – she is a popular personality and her long-time resistance to AFSPA is a sure winner. In fact, the biggest political debate in Manipur today concerns precisely militarised conflict and corruption. Recently, a report announced that those military forces currently deployed in UP for the elections there are being diverted towards Manipur. The State will thus witness an extremely high deployment of security forces amounting to 280 companies, in addition to all those state and other military forces already stationed in Manipur. Sharmila is very clear that she wants AFSPA removed if elected; and, she is sure to voice her opposition against this draconian act if she wins a seat. The question is, though, whether an anti-AFSPA and anti-corruption campaign is enough to convince the voters in Thoubal constituency to reject Ibobi. In all likelihood it is not, and many political pundits already seem to indicate that the INC will emerge victorious again. While Sharmila may thus not be a game changer in Manipur’s politics, her decision to take on the current Chief Minister in his own constituency may signal that all is not as it used to be in Manipur politics.