No eulogies please, it's Fidel Castro

Evolution of man? (Photo montage: Fox)

A 90-metre long cigar as commemoration on the 90th birthday might fit in more with a dictator or a feudalistic leader in any part of the world rather than a perennial rebel.

That cigar, though, was an over-the-top representation of Fidel Castro, much as most symbolism tends to be. It is an overt image that might have nothing to do with beliefs and actions. In fact, Castro had stopped smoking 30 years ago.

This imagery has sustained, although he is not as big a character on the T-shirt market as his compatriot Che Guevara. Castro was what seemed like almost a gentleman politician who had to hobnob with world leaders. Even though he would be dressed the part of a rebel, it was more like a uniform when it was not seen as an affectation.

I say all this now.

In years when one was acquiring knowledge beyond books, I got to read about the Bay of Pigs. Suddenly, John F. Kennedy became the bad guy. It is not Islamist terrorists that made me appear to be politically anti-US, but these superpower tactics that had not as yet appeared anywhere on the Middle East horizon. The fact that a small bunch of brigand-like leaders could challenge this mighty power had all the trappings of grand romance.

Of course I did not know too much, which is how romances work anyway. Only the peripheral mattered: That Castro was dressed for the part. That he was with Che. That he smoked a cigar (which, incidentally, looked so Hollywood – but the irony of that didn't hit me just then). That the US tried several times to get him killed. That he did not like capitalism ("I find capitalism repugnant. It is filthy, it is gross, it is alienating... because it causes war, hypocrisy and competition.").

This was probably naïve and, some might suggest, hypocritical. Cuba under Castro was like an island known best to the outside world for the stuff that its leader smoked. In that, the freedom-seeking rebel Castro was Cuba, and by appointing his brother Raul as President in his later years, it does seem like he was protecting the cult.

However, there is also a tendency to strip a person of the gloss that perceptions form of him. It might not be inherent, so it is really not his to make or mar. Socialism, which Castro stood for, is indeed an ideal for any society to aspire to. It is not easy to implement in its purest form, though, because somebody 'ushering in equality' is itself an imposition.

US President-elect Donald Trump said, "Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty."

The comment, coming as it does from this man, only proves that what he says about Castro applies to him as much. This statement was not his first. His initial reaction was simply, "Fidel Castro is dead!"

The King is dead. Long live the King. Trump seems to herald his own accession rather than grieve for the Cubans.

In death, should one choose to highlight the good or the evil? Can the evil be interred with him or should it be aired for the sake of verity, of history, even though the truth would be based on who and where you are?

I wonder if Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was thinking about all of this. He paid a fulsome tribute to Castro that has been rebuked. He said: "While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for 'el Comandante'."

What? Why? Wtf! Such have been the reactions. I notice that many are conservatives; one of them even wants him to retract his statement and not attend his funeral.

Given how the West operates as extrajudicial keeper of democracy in lands not belonging to it, many in those parts of the world would mourn for none.

The hashtag #trudeaueulogies did a nice tongue-in-cheek turn with examples such as these:

“While a controversial figure, even detractors recognize Pol Pot encouraged renewed contact between city and countryside.”

“Today we say goodbye to Mr. Mussolini, the former Italian prime minister best known for his competent train-management.”

"While Emperor Nero was controversial, his dedication to song and writing poetry signaled a Roman artistic renaissance."

He shall remain remarkable and legendary because he stood up against the mighty. It's a pity his people who suffered could not.  They will remember Fidel Castro the most.


Meanwhile in India, we remember that Castro gave Indira Gandhi a hug in Delhi at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in 1983:


Show me the money

For over ten days now, all of India is talking about money. A nation where over 32 per cent people live below the poverty line, and where some have not even seen big denomination currency notes, this itself seems like dark comedy. Dark comedy becomes a reality when the demonetisation move ostensibly introduced to get rid of black money mocks itself with a bureaucrat seeking and getting a bribe in the new currency notes.

On November 8, Prime Minister Modi decided that all ₹500 and ₹1000 notes were not to be legal tender from midnight onwards. This pushed even those who did not have black money to rush and offload these stacks.

A lot has been said and discussed on the subject, and it is rather obvious that the PM's populist move, and the false premise of how such money is used for terror funding, is not going to work this time.

What the overnight tamasha has done, though, is to challenge the social dynamics of class. Suddenly, anybody not categorised as poor is assumed to be rich.

I did not suffer because I did not have too many old notes with me. Just ₹15,000. The just is deliberate when you consider that four people in India would survive on this much for one month. As though this is not humbling enough, there have been stories of deaths, violence, illness, quarrels, hunger, of marriages postponed, of empty markets, half-stocked stores...people are affected.

I thought I was the affected, too. On the first day, I landed up at the bank. This was most unusual for me. I suspect I wanted to experience the moment. A friend I bumped into said, "Why do you need money? I thought you lived on ideas."

"Yes. But what if right now that idea is money?"

In the queue I did not see any poverty. In keeping with its international reputation, the bank was plying us with tea and coffee. We, the few people ahead and behind, were jokey and relaxed. We were more concerned about Americans under Donald Trump. But live jokes can't be played in a loop. After an hour and a bit, I gave up.

My banking is these days restricted to using the ATM. One is in control there and not waiting before a teller who will scrutinise your cheque to authenticate whether your money is indeed yours.


The doctor did not have a credit card swiping machine. His secretary pointed at a bundle of notes that were used to return as change. I didn't have the cash and I had got this appointment after a month. "You stay quite nearby, don't you? Then you can issue a cheque."

"Oh, that would be nice. I'll be back soon."

"We have that much trust in you."

I wondered why I was trusted. This was my first visit, we did not know each other. Trust in social situations is based on class factors - I wore a fragrance, was reasonable dressed, seems educated, and spoke in English. Would this courtesy have been extended to a person who would speak in Hindi or Marathi, who would be shabbily dressed?

We, all of us, judge people on superficial aspects. It isn't always wrong to do so, but is it a foolproof yardstick?


Eight days later when I managed to get the new notes, I had my first encounter with the streets. At a small store where I made some purchases, I told the seller that I had the ₹2000 notes and he would have to get me the change and, no, I would not accept the old currency. In the next ten minutes he had tapped people around his store and brought me the change, some in ₹10 denomination. 

He was accepting old money because he had no choice. "I wait in the bank for 4 hours to exchange and then come here. Can't afford to lose clients."

"But there is a limit to the amount changed..."

"We try all sources...different banks, different people."


At the signal, a eunuch approached me. "Dus, bees rupaiyya de do, sab achcha hoga..."

For 10-20 bucks I was being promised utopia. I had no change and said so.

"To phir 500 de do, saree khareed loongi aur tumko yaad karoongi..."

For 500 bucks, I'd be remembered by a eunuch. 

This was an unusual barter, especially since I have an inbuilt need to be forgotten. 


Any such upheaval brings forth genuine sympathy, and then there is a segment that will ride on it. On public fora, such displays reek of opportunism where this becomes one more chance to build up a samaritan profile. 


How Pakistani Muslim Tarek Fatah became a Hindu Rightwing Fantasy

Among the many absurdities that constitute iconoclasm is the hero worship of a Pakistani by the Sanghis, an extremely narrow-visioned, ill-mannered segment of the Indian rightwing.

Although they get their name from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), they lack the organisation's discipline and abstinence, real or merely touted. They are, in fact, totally out of control.

But this is not about them. It is about their new hero — Pakistan-born Tarek Fatah, who was educated in Karachi, worked there as well as in Saudi Arabia, and now lives, writes, hosts a TV show in Toronto, Canada.

He has been widely seen as a Muslim-bashing atheist in the past. He spoke out against anything Pakistan, which made him appear like a liberal to Indians. He spoke against Islamic countries, which suited the Islamophobes. 

The Sanghis accepting him is, therefore, understandable. 

But why would he, a well-read, fairly erudite person, play to a gallery made up of those abhorrent to the worldview his lapses into rationality seem to fight against — religiosity, conservative mindset, and mixing of religion and politics? 

This is where we need to pause and take a deep breath. I watch him as he responds gleefully to his social media followers and then I watch him on Aap ki Adaalat, a mock courtroom show. Then I read what Congress party leader Manish Tiwari said about him being a "deep Pak" man. 

It is probably a conspiracy theory, but hypothetically this could bell the cat. After all, he was an adult when he went off to Saudi Arabia, his pet hate. Why did he choose this Arab kingdom and not any other country if it is so ideologically at odds with his own? 

Right now, it would be safer to state that while his relationship with his fans among the Indian right wing is mutually beneficial, it would be more appropriate to say that he is making them dance to his tune. As he spoke on the show, running down Pakistani leaders, Arabs, Indian Muslims, they cheered lustily. These young people were a fine study in bigotry. All were from Delhi, the nation's capital. This is the future of India. It is easy to dismiss it off as a mere studio audience, but think of the other studios where this is replicated. 

Even worse is that they did not seem to have a clue that they were being held hostage. In fact, it is amusing to watch many right wing intellectuals (those who at least have the capability to analyse) laud him for what they might have dismissed in others as a nautanki performance. 

So, forget what the others – Muslims, leftists, liberals of various kinds – have to say about him. Do the serious rightwingers lack self-esteem that they are willing to be indebted to a foreigner? In the Raj days, the RSS was obsessed with the British. Today's Sanghis might find getting approval from the west a bit tough, so they are willing to bite a Pakistani bait. 

How does he manage to get them to do so? By completely denying that he is Pakistani and asserting that he is Hindustani. It is no mean feat for a Muslim Pakistani to appeal to the Hindutva brigade. His young fans plead with him for a reply, they call him a cute teddy bear (among them are young women who might have suffered at the hands of Bajrang Dal had they as much as celebrated Valentine's Day with a male friend). They often come across as blabbering fools begging for munificence and he obliges as paternal pontiff.

The man who needles and provokes from a Twitter handle and TV studios, who does not even want to be with Muslims, is hailed as the best Muslim by them.

He is a smart man and is willing to update his own positions. There has been a tactical shift. He is marketing his Muslim identity in a most passive-aggressive manner. He quotes himself incessantly, posting news and trivia about Muslim demonic acts. These days his stand is like that of a reformer on a mission to clean up his religion.

He picks up random "my kind of Muslim" examples to ensure he remains relevant to his Muslim roots. This is very important because Indian Muslims are a large group, they cannot be done away with overnight. He professes to help the jaahils see the light.

The most eye-popping of his declarations was that Prophet Mohammad was against cow slaughter. “Why do Indian Muslims insist on eating cow meat then?” was his provocative query. That beef is consumed by other Indians, including Hindus, did not bother him; that he did not have a thing to say about cow meat in other countries by Muslims reveals clearly that he was riding on the Indian cow vigilantism. Amazingly, he does not care to shame those who go on a rampage and kill suspected beef eaters and even cattle traders.

Had his agenda not been so laughable, it might have been laudable. He will tell us about a mullah caught with his pants down, but not about the charlatans and their history of abuse in ashrams. He does not ridicule Hindus like Swami Adityanath. 

For the past few months he has become a regular on Indian TV. What exactly does he represent — Pakistan, India, Balochistan, Muslims, Islam? It is quite interesting that he happily accepts all the identities (he has to accept the Pakistani one for authenticity) even though he is none of them. This strategy is working out well. 

People like Tarek Fatah hate Indian Muslims comfortable with their roots and the tree unlike rootless expat Pakistanis who realise they won't get a toehold back home. He has seen that the Sanghi is most threatened by the idea of the Indian Muslim and plays on that. He challenges Muslims in the subcontinent to critique Arabs, but will not question Hindutva. He thinks he is liberal because he takes on his own, but if an Indian Muslim questions the government, he thinks we are traitors, or even Pakistani under the skin. The idiotic Sanghis buy that from a Pakistani. Why?

He really does not have the global reach they imagine, so he can't take their message far. If one were to use monetary analogy, then they are sponsoring him for selling their story to them. No guesses for who laughs all the way to the bank.

The media is not so stupid, though. For them this is a wonderful opportunity to do their second-rate journalism and feed on rightwing populism by adding to the "snakes within" phobia. He fits the blueprint or plays it. He pontificates on how radical IMs should behave. You will be able to better imagine the extent of the damage when you consider that these channels would never invite an atheist Nepali Hindu to discuss Indian Hindus because of, say, Bajrang Dal types. 

Appalling to think that a Tarek Fatah can imagine he'd get Indian citizenship on the basis of spewing hate against Muslims – and that his fans seem to believe that is qualification enough. 


Bob Dylan and the Neighbourhood Bully

The Nobel Prize for Literature committee has had it easy this year. Everybody knows who Bob Dylan is. There is no "looking him up" required. 

One viewpoint, shared among some writers, was that he was too famous and perhaps, since the prize helps sales, it should have been given to a lesser-known nominee who would get exposure and readers would be introduced to new writing. 

Some also believe a song writer's words cannot be literature. There is the valid point about how the creation of a song is not just words and the music arrangement plays a huge, sometimes greater, role. 

There are many analyses there on him “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. And it is probably true. 

Let's face it, all of us have quoted him, hummed his songs and have a favourite or two. Following the award, he has been lauded for speaking up against racism and imperialism. 

His support of Israel is left out. Neighbourhood Bully was an anthem for Israel:

"The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land
He’s wandered the earth an exiled man
Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn
He’s always on trial for just being born
He's the neighbourhood bully..."

Dylan being a Jew is not germane here, but his being pro-Israel in a political sort of way is. He uses counter-projection of how the bully is not really a bully but is painted as such because "his enemies say he's on their land". 

Dylan even seems to justify the bully's destruction of a bomb factory because those bombs were for him:

"Well, he knocked out a lynch mob, he was criticized
Old women condemned him, said he could apologize
Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad
The bombs were meant for him. He was supposed to feel bad..."

Peaceniks get their time too:

"Well, he's surrounded by pacifists who all want peace
They pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease
Now, they wouldn't hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep
They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep..."

Towards the end, there is the question:

"Does he pollute the moon and stars?" 

The query at once is a challenging assertion that the bully obviously would not do so and It would do the world good to look upon him well for he took their crumbs "and he turned it into wealth". 

The allegory is powerful in the verses, and some passages could perhaps hold more true for the enemies than the bully.

As Dylan wrote in another one:

"Though you might hear laughin', spinnin' swingin' madly across the sun
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'..."


"Come near me..."

Few people realise that you could fear the familiar. The places and spaces you've been to before might have memories that claw at you. We stand by the door because of trepidation, unsure of our ability to walk beyond...

Anyhow, here is one trance-like walk:

"We've been here before, don't fear me
Don't stand by the door, come near me
We've been here before, don't fear me
Don't stand by the door, come near me"

The Fashion Industry and Disfigurement

Reshma before the catwalk. Pic: The Independent, UK

Reshma Qureshi, an acid attack survivor, walked the ramp for the New York Fashion Week on Thursday, September 8.

That same day, three years after he threw acid on Preeti Rathi causing her death from severe burns, Ankur Pathak, her spurned suitor, flashed a victory sign after the court awarded him the death sentence.

Pathak got sentenced because his victim died. Reshma's assaulters are free; most such perverted criminals in India are free. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) cites 309 registered cases in one year. They have access to all manner of chemicals and these come for as cheap as Rs. 25 (37 cents).

Reshma was assaulted by her brother-in-law. She was 17 then. As she lay writhing in pain, nobody came forward to help. At the hospital the doctors would not attend to her peeling skin and flesh until she had filed a first information report with the police. The cops made them wait. It took eight hours before she was attended to. By then she had lost vision and most part of one eye, her face had turned pulpy. It would take months of reconstructive surgery before she could get a face, not her own anymore.

The mirror became the enemy.

That day on the ramp, all eyes were mirrors. She was the face of acid attack, like others are the faces of Dior and Givenchy. Few must have noticed what she wore or how she walked. But they would have seen the scars.


The ‘fetishisation’ of scars should concern us.

Much as I admire Reshma Qureshi for her immense courage and poise, I do not believe that the fashion industry exploiting her disfigurement conveys any message other than the primacy of beauty.

Reshma’s videos for Make Love Not Scars have a powerful message. As its representative Bharat Nayak explained: “We wanted to create a contrast by using a topic as superficial as makeup to address a hard hitting issue of acid attacks. There is so much stigma attached to this, that we felt that video of this kind can change people’s heart and make them feel survivors are as normal as they are.”

Applying lipstick and eyeliner, and then telling us that acid can be procured as easily, she immediately connects and forms an intimate bond with the viewer. On the other hand, as an audience nurtured to watch silhouettes of seasonal garments and pulchritude on the ramp she is held up as an anachronism, the celebration of which is philanthropic rather than intrinsic.

The producer at FTL Moda New York, the fashion house that invited Reshma, said:

“We want to give voice to these amazing women, who have been silently suffering, hiding, and too often depriving themselves of the opportunity to declare how beastly, and cruelly they have been attacked. FTL MODA and Global Disability Inclusion are activating a powerful movement called #TakeBeautyBack, in partnership with Fashion Week Online, to make all diverse models, feel beautiful and included in fashion and entertainment. We are working to create a world where acids used in these attacks are unavailable to the public.”

Did any of those watching her even imagine the pain she went through lying in the street? What sort of awareness is possible in a bespoke controlled environment?


This is a huge personal victory for Reshma and her intent to inspire other women who have suffered is commendable. However, the sheer eyeball-grabbing might act as a hindrance for others due to the overwhelming global attention it has garnered. An acid attack survivor might want to be a teacher, a doctor, a cab driver or a homemaker if she chooses, and such examples too need to be highlighted. The world is not a ramp and women, especially those who have been targeted with intent to make them invisible, should not have the disfigurement projected as their selling point by an avaricious industry.

The assumption behind reinventing the idea of beauty is that there is only one. There isn’t and there never has been. The fashion industry itself shows off thick eyebrows, man boobs and curvy profiles during different seasons as the beauty trend; a trend is not supposed to be perennial. An acid attacked face or the lack of an arm or leg is.

By flaunting one or two examples, you only underscore the trending standardised looks. Amputees, including children, somebody with Down’s Syndrome, acid attack survivors are coopted into buffering the looks trade. The Bionic Model, for example, stands apart and if anything is a tribute to ‘otherness’.

Beauty is certainly not everything, but one does not hear it said when a Giselle Bundchen or a Kate Moss sashays down the ramp. Reshma has been told this. All the time. The belief that this will end the stigma is stigmatic.


The higher purpose of ‘beauty beyond’ is firmly embedded in the beauty myth. It is not easy even for those with no apparent ‘handicap’ to conform to exhibionistic norms. In cases such as Reshma’s why does the fashion house emphasise “Take back beauty” and not self esteem? Although self-esteem too is hinged on the idea of looks because confidence is low due to its loss.

Pause here for a moment to consider what Rekha Lodhi did to herself. Six years ago, she was the toast of Pilibhit in North India. Her husband and his family showed her off as their charming daughter-in-law. She became popular in the town and drew a lot of attention. In a couple of years, her husband and his father began to taunt her for being “too beautiful”. Rekha could not take it anymore. She burned and disfigured her face.

So powerful and patriarchal is the hold of what is deemed to be beautiful that a woman sought to destroy it to become acceptable to an insecure spouse. Her self-inflicted scars are as much a comment against the beauty stranglehold as somebody attacking a woman for it.

An attack of another kind occurs when she is held up as an example of a distinctive allure. There is nothing unconventional about an acid attack victim. She is the target of a crime, and while her grit to survive and conquer is admirable the fashion industry trying to give it a soft-focus halo reduces the severity of the crime.


Uniqueness in fashion is a market creation. It helps corporate business to expand. To be fair, one cannot accuse it of such expansionism in the case of the subject under discussion here. However, causes often come in handy as a peg to hang wares and corner new markets. Remember the Benetton ad that 'celebrated' models from different races? The 'multi' industry seems to create its own stereotypes, and stereotypes in the bazaar are lucrative. It is to be noted that mainstream fashion decides on what is different and what those who are different may wear.

Instead of dealing with biases, the fashion industry indulges in symbolic opportunism.

During the period of supposed self-realisation it might even appear to be downplaying its pet contoured mascots. But you will never hear about a celebration of blemishes and pigmentation that regular models too suffer from, for it will cash with their allied interests.

Holding a pennant on the ramp for those who are victims of a heinous crime or accident and are battling with more than beauty issues is the equivalent of finger-pointing in the street. It’s like a dose of realism in the fairytale world. How can you normalise a physical impediment when you make all the effort to highlight it?


Published in CounterPunch


Roads and Ways

I have been watching Abbas Kiarostami's roads, and I have to confess that a few respectful minutes after he started speaking I muted his voice.  It is not because I dislike his voice - but if you watch the amazing topography and the unobtrusive, almost silent, music, you will know how speech comes in the way.

I am glancing at his words in the subtitles, for I do not understand the Farsi that he speaks. It is indeed a journey. But like the great artist he is, he makes the viewer look for their own journey.

That is what I have been doing. There was such a moment of metaphysical serendipity in the shots where after the slow movement forward the camera moves back, as though retracing every step. Sometimes we just go ahead without caring about what we are going through, what we should be seeing along the way.

The roads look sometimes like flowing rivers, occasionally like limbs and often as slivers on a larger landscape. Do we look this closely when we travel - be it for errands or work or for leisure? Even on our long drives, we switch on the music or talk with whoever is with us.

Kiarostomi was right. "I've often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it's inside a frame."

And so he framed these for us:

Maggots, Miracles and Mother Teresa

I met Mother Teresa above an antique mantelpiece in the living room of a celebrity. Her image shared equal space with Husain’s horses on the walls. The ‘saint of the gutter’ seemed anachronistic in that high-ceilinged room. For many of those 'touched' by her, she had transformed into a collection, an investment, even a penance providing absolution for guilt.

On Sunday, September 4, when Pope Francis canonises Mother Teresa, there will be many walking around with the halo of samaritans in the cause of the saint. Sainthood does not depend on ideology but the ability to produce miracles, and Mother Teresa has had two to her credit. Canonisation is a religious matter. Yet, it becomes political, because the miracles infringe on society and mores. 


In 1998, Mother appeared in a paddy field – as a vision to Monica Besra, a tribal woman with a cyst in her stomach. She says she got miraculously cured when she held a medallion that had been blessed by Mother: “I tried many doctors, lots of medicines but nobody could really heal me. On the death anniversary of Mother Teresa, I prayed to her and I could see Mother herself.”

Sister Nirmala, Mother’s successor at the Missionaries of Charity, had said then, “It has been investigated scientifically and it has been proven it’s a miracle.” Aside from the verifiability claims, does not the stature of an ecclesiastical event get reduced if science is brought in to confirm it?

Anne Sebba, associate producer of ‘Mother Teresa: The Making of a Modern Saint’, wrote, “There is an especially strong paradox in Mother Teresa’s case, since she did not devote her efforts to effecting miracle cures. Doctors and nurses, even those who wished to join her order, had no particular role to play there. She said many times that she was, quite simply, demonstrating Christ’s love in action by helping people die a beautiful death, not by helping them live an extra few years. So why the need for a miracle? Because it is the only way to insist that God, not man, has directly and specifically intervened in the process.”

Faith can move mountains, but it was too pat for a simple villager to have prayed to Mother and even remembered her death anniversary. That she converted to Christianity after the miracle and her family was provided for by the missionaries of charity, and that some years later she would accuse them of neglecting her, seems to suggest a transaction. The sudden cure should have been boon enough. Why would the nuns take charge of the family?


Romancing the Activist

Pic: Wire.in

As a new bunch of young followers lend hashtag support and start a social media campaign in her name, the process of moving on, of forgetting begins.

But she needs to remember, for in that memory alone is lodged her identity.

Irom Sharmila Chanu, known to the world as “the longest hunger striker in the world” and a prisoner of conscience, broke her 16-year-long fast with a drop of honey. Soon enough media commentary that had earlier given her a pedestal warmed to the altered position and began to humanise her, quite forgetting that it was her inherent humaneness that made her take such an extreme and committed step to fight the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the North Eastern state of Manipur. AFSPA allows the army to shoot at sight, arrest without warrant, use any ruse to spot “contravention of the law”.

On November 5, 2000, anguished upon seeing pictures of blood-soaked corpses of ten civilians shot dead by the Assam Rifles, she gave up food. As she said some years ago, “I was so upset that I didn’t eat. My colleagues told me to take my fasting from outside the bedroom and into the public sphere…”

She became the face of the movement.

Attempting suicide is a crime in India, so she was put under house arrest. A room in the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal served as home, where she remained incarcerated with a nose tube force-feeding her. The state spent Rs. 10,000 a month on her liquid diet of vitamins and protein. $150 does not seem like a huge sum, but Manipur ranks second highest in the below poverty line index. Around 40 people, including doctors and cops, kept vigil.

As simple as the beginning of the hunger strike was, her decision to end it without getting anywhere close to the goal is wrapped in mystery.

There are no visible shackles now. Is it the undertrial who has been liberated from prison, or the activist from lobbies, or the woman from her nurturer of the cause role or the wannabe politician from martyrdom?

Sharmila did not tell anybody about her decision. Her mother Irom Sakhi who had blessed her, her brother who was her supporter, her close associates, nobody knew. Would they have coerced her to remain the totem?

On August 9, not only did she end her fast, she also announced that she would get married and contest the state elections. But the man she wanted to marry was nowhere in sight and she has no identity card to even prove she is a citizen of India. A friend said, “It is unimaginable for anyone without a voter ID to be a people’s representative.

For 16 years without any tangible evidence of her status she fought as one who belonged, who felt the pain. Nobody asked her for documents of proof; the supporters accepted her as their symbol of struggle and hope. For 16 years she was the people’s representative.


She says she wants a normal life. In many ways by fighting for a people’s right to life she challenged life itself by denial and self-destruction. She may not have wanted to become an icon but her act, tenacious and brave, was iconic.

Pic: BBC
Such was her position in the state that it was said there could be riots were she to die. As late as 2013 Human Rights Alert director Babloo Loitongbam reiterated it: “Then there would be incalculable damage to this country.”

Sharmila did not think she could have a national impact. She had no hopes from politics at the time: “Could Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have afforded to ignore me for 10 years if I belonged to a state in mainland India?”

What changed her perception overnight? Manipur remains on the fringes; the army has killed and raped many in the years she was tied to the hospital prison. Politicians did nothing.

Yet, only the government can change the status quo and repeal a law. However, unaccustomed to the territory and with new admirers, she will have to continue in the civil society mode. The system is usually quite relaxed about it, for while the protests get teeth they are in no hurry to bite. For the trouble-makers there can always be trumped-up charges.

Loitongbam, a close associate, believes, “If after 16 long years, her fasting has had little impact on the government and there has been no progress in the move to repeal AFSPA, then what is the guarantee it will happen if she fasts for another 16?”

There is no guarantee that contesting elections will bring any result. Proponents of the new strategy ignore the fact that in politics fighting as an independent candidate does not amount to remaining independent. The major parties have welcomed her decision. Those who sponsor strikes on civilians – which her battle was against – want to woo her now that her status reads ‘single’. Her rebel resume will add edginess to their drab portfolio.

Politics is not the best strategy for the idealist.

Soni Sori, tribal leader imprisoned and abused for being a Maoist, is now a card-holding party politician. She continues to be beaten up, her face blackened. Worse, diversted of dissidence, the opposition accuses her of using the victim card for petty politicking. Sharmila is more ambitious. She wants to be chief minister – to bring about positive change.

These are genuine emotions, but in their utterance they seem to negate all that has transpired before, whether it is decrying that she did not receive the kind of mass support that the Anna Hazare movement did or of being isolated. 

It is indeed possible that had she conducted her hunger strike in a public square many more would have joined in, but it would not have sustained itself the way it did. Her strike is important precisely because it was not coopted by the leadership or big corporate houses. Only a Mahatma Gandhi could get away and remain a saint with such populism.


A teenager was one of the victims of the November strike that inspired Sharmila’s fast. His father Tokpam Somorendra is disappointed today: “By choosing a political path, she has come down from the highest Himalayan peak to a hillock.”

She has every right to choose her life but she had chosen a public form of protest for a public cause. Her decision would affect both. Those closely associated with her and the movement against AFSPA feel let down. The Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign) that carried her name has been dissolved. From a fight for the common good it has transformed into a love gone sour. 

Her supporters are being criticised for questioning her ostensibly impromptu decision to give up the fast and enter politics. The media needs a vulnerable hero even if all it wants to do is pay lip service to the cause. For one who said her supporters considered her public property, she will now be crowd-funded with every rupee contributor claiming her. But she is enjoying what she sees as a fresh wind blowing: “I have been deprived of this for the past nearly 16 years and it is overwhelming to be a part of this change that we all yearn for. The distance between me and society is now clearing.”

While she has reiterated her commitment towards it, she might no more remain the light of the movement.


Desmond Coutinho, even in absence, looms like a shadow in the Irom Sharmila story.  It was a role he was prepared for. He had written once, “I am like Yoko Ono. Or Gandhiji’s wife. I will enable her to do her thing, which is give witness to the oppressed. I am marrying a mahatma and I have a rough idea that it’s not going to be an easy-going life.”

Pic: The Quint

Normality is seen as antithetical to activism. As goddess Irom Sharmila could be canonised, but the woman preserving gifts from a man she barely knew was viewed as brimming with illicit promise.

It was after reading a book on her that Desmond wrote to her. All they’ve shared is a short meeting, and waiting. He has been demonised, and those doing so have their reasons. He claimed to be Sharmila’s spokesperson; he was said to influence her, despite having access to her only through letters; he was an outsider, a Goan Indian UK citizen. Perhaps the biggest threat he posed was that he made her desire life.

Her confessions about Desmond may have fractured opinion, but he anticipated it quite some time ago when he said, “I am grateful to our opponents for putting so many obstacles in our way that it has forged in her mind that I am some kind of picaresque romantic warrior monk…” He would not have anticipated that her feet would stand on shifting sand. Within a week of declaration of intent he has become conditional to her public acceptance: “I've imposed one condition on entering my personal life. If the masses ignore my new strategy and abandon or insult me, I'll begin a new chapter of my life.”

What sort of ordinariness and normal life is Irom Sharmila seeking? How well does she know her new supporters? If she sticks by her resolve to contest as an independent she will remain isolated; if she goes along with a political party, she will have to toe their line.

She may have chosen a utilitarian option, but it is not a normal life. Perhaps, all she might have wanted to do is to savour the taste on her tongue and hold a hand and reclaim at least some of the dreams of the youth she has lost. Another struggle has just begun.


Published in CounterPunch