Irom Sharmila and the Catch-22 paradox


By Pradip Phanjoubam

The last two weeks or so in Manipur must rank as one of those in which events overtake the capacity of a society to absorb and understand them. Just to name a few, there was the high drama over the release and the re-arrest of Irom Sharmila, the dismissal of the RIMS director, Dr. S. Sekharjit and now the unfolding tragedy of police firing in Ukhrul which resulted in two dead and several injured, according to so far sketchy reports which have begun pouring into newsrooms in Imphal. Though none of them must go without a commentary, space limitation would restrict this column to focus on Sharmila which is today emerging as one of those curiously paradoxical and irresolvable cases. Moreover, the RIMS case and Ukhrul firing are too recent and explosively unfinished to be with any fairness encapsulated within the length of a newspaper article. In the RIMS case, there is still a legal question as well, therefore the likelihood of a commentary amounting to the offence of “subjudice”, by undermining and attempting to influence the course of the adjudication process.

The Sharmila case – by this I mean not just the fact of Sharmila putting up such an epic and heroic resistance against a draconian law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, but also the manner her protest is being received by supporters and detractors alike, is verging on the edge of absurdity – the kind of absurdity of the Catch-22 situation. If those of us who have read the 1961 Joseph Heller novel by the name still remember, this is a situation in which a problem is inherent in the very answer to the problem, therefore both the problem as well as the answer remain logical but frustratingly unresolved. In the novel set in the backdrop of the World War II, any American fighter pilots who thinks he has had enough of combat flying and wanted to be grounded could do so only if he applied formally that he has become insane. But if he did manage to fill up such a form and apply, it only proved he was not insane so could not leave his combat duties.

In explaining the Catch-22 paradox, the popular internet encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, has some very interesting and illustrative examples. One of them says it is like looking for your car key after locking it up inside the car, and another likens it to looking for the light switches in a room where the lights have been switched off. I like the second example, not for anything else than that it provides some room for hope. In groping blindly in the dark room, there is still an outside hope that you may stumble upon the switches and switch the lights on, unlike in the case of the car key locked up inside the car where the only way to get the key would in all probability be by breaking something.

It is very sad but nonetheless true that Sharmila’s case is becoming akin to this situation. In all the clamour for her freedom is also embedded such a paradox, for the same people who cry for her freedom also quite obviously want her to continue her heroic hunger strike and not end it in resignation. No marks for guessing, without spelling it out, and without actually meaning it, this freedom would in all certainty mean her death as well. It would be extremely selfish if anybody were to want this kind of martyrdom. As it is, without the need for dying, she is already uniquely a martyr beyond compare. Against the fearsome certainty of such a knowledge, all the sound and fury screamed out by many against the State home minister Gaikhangam’s statement that Sharmila was re-arrested so that she is not allowed to die, seem empty. No dispute that the AFSPA must ultimately go, but the million dollar question is, while this draconian Act stubbornly remains, shouldn’t Sharmila live?

Indications are, the AFSPA is not just about to go. The recent rebuff by the new NDA government, of Justice Santosh Hegde’s report on the extra judicial killings in Manipur, is enough testimony. In its statement the Union government claimed there has not been any extra judicial killing by the security forces, and if there ever were to be any, this would not be tolerated at all. An apparatus of the Union judiciary clearly said extra judicial killings have been rampant in Manipur, and the Union executive simply denied this without substantiating, as if by an absolute official fiat. Earlier, another probe by a committee headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy which recommended in effect that the AFSPA be incorporated into the civil legislation, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, UAPA, so as to make actions under it accountable to the civil justice system, was simply shelved by the NDA government without an official word. In the current heightened tension on the India and Pakistan border as well as the unfolding cold war between India and China in the Northeast India sector of the border known at the McMahon Line, it is unlikely the Union government would do anything that is deemed possible of hurting the Indian Army’s morale. We also know every well by now that the erstwhile NDA government headed by Manmohan Singh did earnestly want at one stage to “humanise” AFSPA (in the former PM’s own words), which is why the Jeevan Reddy committee was instituted in the first place, but the committee’s recommendations were not even tabled in Parliament because the Army objected to it.

This is the nature of the problem. Let us be honest. We know even the State government is quite powerless in resolving the problem. In Manipur, it is probably true that many in the government want the continuance of the AFSPA, but in neighbouring Nagaland, where Assembly resolutions have been passed for the lifting of the Act from the State, and where the militant groups there are in a peace parley with the Union government, the AFSPA nonetheless continues. Lest I am misread, let me be apologetic and reassert that my question here is not at all about supporting the continuance of AFSPA. It is about not allowing the icon of the resistance against it, Irom Sharmila, to die, at least not for anybody’s need to have a martyr out of the issue.

At this moment though, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which she is free and alive. Even if she remains in prison, it is difficult to see her coming through this ordeal alive. Here I am reminded of a lecture in Calcutta by a well known intellectual, Ranabir Sammadar, of the Calcutta Research Group, where he argued why the idea of ultimate resistance and redemption is so closely parented with the idea of death. Even by the example of history, this is seems to be the case. Jesus Christ’s resistance is just the most prominent example. By a strange coincidence, perhaps with the presence of a Manipuri (me) as the cue, in a discussion over tea after his lecture, Sammadar reminded me of Sharmila’s resistance and the way it is headed, in an effort to make his rather intellectually dense lecture more immediately intelligible.

Sammadar makes sense only if we agree that ultimate resistance is about a willingness to die for a cause. Sharmila obviously is committed to this level in her fight against the AFSPA. And the beauty about her struggle is, she is not even bitter against anybody, not even those who have made the continued promulgation of the Act possible. All she wants is the Act repealed without even bothering to blame anybody for its continuance. It is a fight against a dark idea and not anybody. Which resistance can be as pure?

What must supporting Sharmila amount to then? Should it also be an equal willingness to die for the cause Sharmila so believes in? The more relevant question is, to my mind, not so much about matching Sharmila in the commitment to have the AFSPA repealed for I don’t think there are not many, if any, who can boast of such calibre, but about what must be the appropriate response to Sharmila’s resistance, of those who are against the idea of the AFSPA but fall short of Sharmila’s commitment against it? This humility to acknowledge that their own resistance is not ultimate, and that there is no way they would be willing to give up everything for the cause, unfortunately is missing. In the end then, though there are many who spit fire and brimstone in the resistance against AFSPA, only few would be pushed to where Sammadar anticipated in the lecture. There is therefore a degree of selfishness in those who imagine Sharmila as a martyr than a living legend and leader. I for one want her to continue in her struggle but do so alive. The AFSPA must go, but while it lasts, do everything else under the sun to ensure Sharmila lives.

A parable from the Bible which those of us who studied in mission schools (or else are Christians) would probably be familiar with comes to mind. It tells of an episode from King Solomon’s life. The wise king was once called upon to deliver a judgment in a child custody dispute between two women who claimed to be the mother of an infant. When nothing else worked to resolve the dispute, the king finally gave a mock verdict that he has decided that the infant be cut in half so either of the two women can keep a half each. One woman agreed the other did not, saying her rival may be given custody of the infant than to cut it up. King Solomon’s real verdict followed. He concluded that the woman who was willing to lose custody of the infant so that it may live was the real mother. Here is a great lesson for all of us following and supporting the Sharmila issue. Taking cue from the parable, I would without hesitation say the real supporters of Sharmila are those who would fight with her without pushing her to her death and martyrdom.


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