by Bhavana MahajanAugust 30, 2017
I recently finished watching the television show “Narcos,” a popular American crime drama detailing the life of illegal narcotics king Pablo Escobar. For 17 years, Escobar kept Colombian and U.S. forces on their toes; killing, smuggling and kidnapping at will before being gunned down in the streets of Medellin. Yet the mystery surrounding Escobar’s shootout/suicide has left his “Robinhood” image intact for a quarter-century since his death.
There is so much that contrasts the life of Escobar from that of Indian political activist Irom Chanu Sharmila. For 16 years, Sharmila embarked on a hunger strike to protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that sanctioned state-led violence against any individual suspected of being a terrorist in Manipur. After witnessing first-hand the death and destruction wrought by the AFSPA, Sharmila decided to run for office herself in 2016.
Despite Sharmila’s many international awards, including the a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian Human Rights Commission, and extremely visible struggle for human rights in India, she received a mere 90 votes in her favour out of the 27,271 cast. Many political analysts said the dismal electoral results sounded the death knell for the fight against the draconian AFSPA.
But should this be cited as a case of “failed nonviolent activism?” Or is this populist denouncement missing something?
Reminder one: It is important to distinguish between the action and the actor. In observations of Sharmila’s attempt to bring about change, the rookie mistake that most naysayers make is conflating the two. Sharmila is an actor who chose nonviolent action to seek change. Nonviolent action is the method, the path, a way of being, to register a desire for change. The method can and does work, but the way some actors implement it may or may not, and there is ample academic evidence to prove it.
Actors are important starting points; they birth the movement! It is their passion that sparks it. But eventually, movements, just like children, need to become autonomous to be successful and sustainable. Sharmila’s supporters championed her association with AFSPA to such an extent that her political loss ended up being projected as a loss for the movement.
This is where our second reminder lies – movements need to become bigger than the sum of individuals. As tempting as it is, popular support needs to be rallied not for the individual but for the cause itself. Sharmila was heart-broken; she is human after all. But did her political loss spell the loss of the fight against AFSPA in her state? Maybe not.
The third reminder is the simplest in form and design, but the toughest tool to implement in the arsenal of any nonviolent activist: take care of yourself. Sharmila stepped down from her “fight” to reclaim her private life. “I need love and companionship,” she said. She had begun a long, hard struggle on November 2, 2000 and waged it, unrelenting, for over 16 years. “This woman has denied herself food for 16 years!” one of her closest supporters once exclaimed to me. The nature of her protest made Sharmila an icon in the public imagination.
But exhaustion can translate into cynicism and foreshadow the onset of a movement’s failure. By its very nature, nonviolent action seeks systemic re-engineering, and it takes time – sometimes decades – for systems and structures to evolve. If, and when, they feel overwhelmed, an activist needs to be able to take a step back and assess whether their preferred tactics are working or not. They need to be able to learn from failures, not succumb to them. And they need to be willing to adjust midstream.
Different movements have different end-games. In democracies, political office is often considered an effective and legitimate means of bringing about social change. However, not all movements have to be judged by paradigms defined by the very structures they seek to redo. Sharmila’s success lies in the fact that she managed to build national and international recall for Manipur and AFSPA. “I will win. I am very confident,” she had said when she embarked on her political campaign. I think she had already won.
That is the fourth and final reminder I have: define your movement’s success on your own terms. Minnie Vaid, who has chronicled Sharmila’s struggle extensively, said to me, “Those who saw her as a goddess with spiritual powers—for only thus could they explain her steadfast fast—have to accept the reality that Sharmila has achieved what she set out to do: Shine a torch on the issue of human rights in areas where the AFSPA continues to be used and misused.”
The end-game doesn’t have to be political, legislative or socially transformative. Sometimes, the little things like highlighting an injustice, or rallying others to remember the dead, or inspiring a young girl sitting thousands of miles away to know more about Manipur is success, too.