Irom Sharmila has finally called it ‘quits’. It is a seminal event in the history of this country’s continuing fight for the enjoyment and expansion of human rights. Finally, Irom’s difficult and long watch at the gate of Democracy has ended. It is undeniably sad. Especially because she failed. Don’t get me wrong, she did more than anyone else in bringing awareness to the abuse of power by the corrupt establishment. And she helped start something truly unique: she helped ordinary people everywhere, but especially in the North East, raise up their voices and halt the erstwhile unquestioned rampage of the “State”. But the truth is AFSPA is still in place in Manipur. Undeniably, Irom has done more to ‘move the stone’ than anyone else. But the ‘stone’ is still there. There is no way around that fact.
It is rumoured that Irom will be joining politics in Manipur, i.e. that which involves canvassing and winning elections. Personally, I think that is great news. She ought to because we need more people like her in parliamentary politics, those who have actually heard the din of the crowd and who have been weathered by the coarse light of the public’s gaze. Yes, the same public which has currently turned their backs on her. In our own lifetime, we have seen a Christ figure who has suffered for other people, whose body and soul has been stretched to their breaking points, and despised by most of the multitudes. Irom, must not take the cruelty personally. They had put her up on a plinth for a good number of years now, it is only natural that they would feel let down at the moment. They are cruel but she must not be.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Manipur has reacted so angrily against Irom is because of her decision to join ‘active’ politics (as though she was not a fixture earlier). There is a very bad reputation people associate with politics, in general, but especially electoral. I really don’t see why that should be the case. Not every politician is greedy or nepotistic (I know I just said that!). Examples where governments are formulating progressive measures like ‘universal basic income’, ‘rent control’, ‘democratic green energy solutions’, regulating private enterprises more closely are surely not the works of such politicians. There must be ways to control the other sort of politician as well for the public interest. Maybe through societal or cultural pressures or perhaps legislation? This is where activists are vital. I admit it is a very strange situation if we expect that our legislators would make laws that contain or check their own power without pressures. It is almost impossible to imagine especially if you believe in the work of those like James Buchanan but it can be done. The very first step on the road to this is by not vilifying electoral politics; crucify the rotten politicians, go ahead but why discourage people from entering politics? If we keep the ‘good people’ away from such things, is it any wonder only the ‘bad ones’ rule over us? Participatory politics doesn’t need to be divorced from parliamentary politics. In fact, we ought to encourage their symbiosis. As it stands today, only the Legislature represents the people in a direct sense. We need to stake more claim in it, not retract.
Irom has been an icon for a number of activists within the country and abroad. They might feel let down but I am sure that this decision is definitely not out of some sudden impulsion. Some people have argued for her ‘right to have a normal life’, for her ‘right to be happy’; they are absolutely correct. In turn, the activists, should have no delusions about this heavy blow. It is a loss to their fraternity. What will be the next steps, post-Irom? A way forward could be for more activists to emulate her example. Re-considering politics and not simply outsourcing political responsibilities to activist groups is a way forward. I am not denying that we need (political) activists – they are absolutely vital for a vibrant democracy – but we are dooming government by ‘retreating’ en-masse from the (parliamentary) political sphere.
Social media is rife with activists of every disposition. More research needs to be done on whether social media has actually increased the number of activists out there because it certainly looks that way. There are student activists, LGBT activists, animal rights activists and the list goes on. It would be great if every citizen was a professed activist. A lot of activists, seem to me, to enjoy flirting with power. Activism turns them into ‘experts’ in their fields, which in turn allows them access to resources and recognition which they might not have had otherwise. There are definitely power relations in how activists engage with the government and the citizenry. With the former, political activists have an often ambiguous relationship, content to tease. This does not necessarily mean that all of them are like this, of course.
Right-wing and Liberal political activists criticise a current government, the party in power and its policies. Many Left-wing pol-activists also do this, but in addition, seem fatally drawn towards “anarchy”. This would be fine if that “anarchy” was the sort that led to the ‘dissipation’ of the power of their office i.e. they would act against their own self-interest, not misuse their authority, “come down to our level”; a “personal anarchy” in a sense. But Anarchy as a concept is fundamentally opposed to the idea of the organized entity we call Government. Since we arguing within the Left tradition, let us take the example of Marx. Marx and especially his immediate apostles were never against the idea of government. They believed that the Old Order needed to be toppled, for sure, but that would eventually lead to some form of (revolutionary) government during the course of time. How long such a government would need to exist is open to debate (until reification is dispelled, I suppose) but they realised that government, is a crucial tool for social organisation and management for the greater good. I am not saying that revolutionary government (Marxist Leninist even) was always a good thing but that it was a valid and obvious choice in the formation of an alternative political ideology.
The lack of prominent Left-wing politicians, under 40, in India today is not only because of some dated ideas prevalent in the Old Left (e.g. there is no need for caste discussion, religious debate etc.) but also because young people are not encouraged by the older set to stand on a clear Left wing parliamentary platform. Many people start out as Left wing activists but sadly go Liberal or worse Right wing in their later political careers. At uni., young people are encouraged to explore ideas about equality, solidarity, justice etc. but the only way to effect expansive, timely socio-economic change in this constitutional setup is by assuming “power”. While we debate ‘revolution’ for the umpteenth time, people are dying of hunger. While the Left is distracted by the performances of Arnab Goswami, the RSS is informing its cadres on social media that “If you don’t like a Rule…Just Follow it…Reach the Top…And Change the Rule” (apparently a quote by Hitler). Interestingly, that is exactly what the Neo-cons of America say.
“Power” is what many in the Left worry about. They are correct in being suspicious of it; History provides us ample examples of its abuse and corruption. But is “power”, by its very nature, corrupt? And is there no way around this negative aspect? We cannot afford to be so pessimist about the ability of political power to shape the Future for the good of all. Many in the Left today, seem allergic to ideas of “power” except of it being an entirely oppressive force. They want to throw off the ‘manacles of the State’ and it is a very typical statement by many political activists. Their favour seems to be drawn towards “negative liberty” i.e. one where the concept of an individual freedom is without much outside interference. This is remarkably what many Right wingers argue for in the context of government and economy. Though it might be hard to digest, government is a form of social control. But I contend that it is necessary. We need a balance between both concepts of Liberty, and the State has a crucial role to play in the maintenance of that balance.
Yes, ruling governments can be extremely oppressive especially in trying to maintain the power and privilege of the ancien regime but in a lot of discourse about the “State”, our political activists are increasingly characterising the “State” only as oppressive or downright evil. Context has to be maintained. The “State” as it has shown itself is terribly brutal in Kashmir and Manipur but to import that as a truism for the entire concept is irresponsible and dissuading. Meghalaya, Kerala etc. might not have that same tale to tell. Indeed, smaller societies with more control over their own political economies with more social securities might have very different experiences. For Irom to contest and win in Imphal might be more difficult than for some new up-comer in Shillong there is no question about that but the option of power through the parliamentary system is still open but it has to be a Progressive option, one that brings on board everyone. People deserve more than this INC-BJP ballocks.