For the first time in her 45 years, Irom Sharmila celebrated her birthday. On March 14, she was about 3,700km away from her home in Imphal, Manipur. Yet, she looked so much at home among friends and well-wishers in Attapadi, an impoverished tribal area in Kerala’s Palakkad district. Social worker Uma Preman, her host who runs the Santhi Gramam NGO there, produced a pink, iced cake. And, Sharmila was all smiles.
Yet, when alone, she looked weighed down. Naturally. Ninety votes for 16 years of self-imposed starvation. Sixteen years with a plastic tube that snaked through her nose into her gullet. Ninety votes for standing up to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Internationally, she became an icon of nonviolent protest. But, in Thoubal constituency—against Congress candidate and three-term chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh— Sharmila came up short. Really short. Ninety votes and Irom Sharmila. That doesn’t add up, does it?
In 2016, she called off her fast and announced that she would contest the Manipur assembly elections. And, she picked an opponent who was chief minister for 15 of the 16 years she was in custody. She powered her campaign with donations from friends and supporters, most of them non-Manipuris. The image of a lonely Sharmila cycling through her constituency, begging the support of the people for whom she had struggled, was an enduring one from this year’s campaigns. When the dust settled in the hills, she had 9