Irom Sharmila and Soni Sori – A hope, for the democracy of the future.

                                   Rajaraman Sundaresan 

Recently a friend of mine, while discussing about democracy and ways of life said ‘sometimes too much democracy is problematic’. In fact, he poignantly added, he felt dictatorial, when he said this statement. The thought remained with me and I was scratching my nerves to understand what he meant. That’s when I realized, in the present political context, India is a majoritarian dictatorial democracy. All that we as citizens care about is this façade of representing ourselves as a democratic country adhering to democracy as a way of life. But, fundamentally we all know that, we are slowly turning into a democracy which is dictated by the majority.

One of the greatest failures of democracy has been its representation in the electoral system. The idea of majority and minority not only sticks out as fangs that carries venom to kill the sacredness of democracy but also fundamentally kills the very thought of diversity and plurality as a way of life. The situations of Kashmir, Kandhamal and Bastar are perfect examples showcasing the failure of electoral democracy in every sense. But, at a more fundamental level the problem lies within the idea of nation state, as a collective representation of a majoritarian identity.

Two women, in my view are challenging the idea of majoritarian electoral democracy and the idea of nation state as a collective majoritarian identity in two different ways. One is famously known as the Iron Lady of Manipur – Irom Sharmila, and the other is the face of adivasis in Batsar – Soni Sori. These two remarkable women have not only defended human rights within a constitutional framework of a democracy, but have gone beyond, in showcasing the paradoxes that lie between justice, development and internal-security.

Each of them are activists of a different kind, but at a collective level are finding ways and means to reinvent democracy. As story-tellers they have captured the pain and poignancy of their surroundings. They are candid, courageous and are phenomenally self-reflective in the Gandhian sense. In a deep and fundamental way, these women are addressing a broader fundamental malaise in the society that no electoral democracy or nation state is ready to confront.

Irom Sharmila recently concluded one of the greatest acts in history, the sixteen long years of protest which in fact brought to the light of the world that a constitution which promises Right to Life cannot uphold the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). By using her body as a vehicle of protest, Irom Sharmila in the last sixteen years has tried to challenge the nation state as an entity which has always resorted to destruction of the bodies as an excuse for restoring law and order. In fact, it also shows that as a society we have become less caring and indifferent. We as a nation maybe not without the nation state have learned to live with a woman who resisted chewing anything for close to sixteen years and there is no national guilt around it.

The recent visit of our hologram Prime Minister Narendra Modi to South Africa and posing for a photo as a stoic in the same train that Gandhi was once kicked out of looks incomplete without an answer to Irom Sharmila’s sixteen long years of protest. It in fact tells us as a civilization we no longer celebrate non-violence, but end up, believing that security and governance measures can withhold democracy. I think the fundamental question that one needs to ask here, whether the democracy that we are envisioning for the future is non-violent?

For a democracy to be non-violent, what one needs is not only a consciousness of self-reflection as a society but also a science, which is self-reflective in nature. A democracy without a self-reflective science becomes a threat to the very idea of democracy as development is today. Right from the Nehruvian era to Modi era there has not been much of a difference in the way the nation state as an entity has absorbed or internalized science policy and scientific perspective as if it is a national flag. The seriousness and the officialdom with which a nation state treats science invariably makes it a holy cow and anyone who questions it is constructed as anti-state or anti-development. As science became bureaucratized, knowledge lost its sense of play and was removed from the democratic imagination of the public. One of the greatest debates on science and technology came not from scientific academies or laboratories but from local socio-political struggles. It was the local struggle against dams, missiles, setting up of industries and industrial accidents that re-creates the dialogue between science and democracy and these became the dissenting academia that not only confronted the violence of science but culturally had different alternative pathways for a non-violent science within the democratic setup.

Soni Sori, an adivasi woman who survived rape and torcher by the police is creating a new poetics of imagination and resistance in Chhattisgarh where development as a scientific commodity is being thrusted upon the tribal for consumption. She was a teacher in an anganwadi, who had typical middle class dreams and aspirations. She says that she is happy representing herself and her community in the fight for justice. In fact, she poignantly adds pointing towards her face (acid attacked) that fighting for justice leads you into a situation like this and today that is the face of democracy. As an adivasi woman she understands the relation between life, lifestyle and livelihood and thus she emphasizes on the rights of an adivasi over jal, jungle aur jamin.

For a nation state which looks at water, forest and land as a natural resource waiting to be exploited or as real estate business propaganda, the adivasis become an hindrance in their road to economic development. In fact, Soni Sori admits in one of her interviews that she understands the difference between Sarkar and the Naxal regime. She says that the fight is not to eliminate Naxalism, but it becomes a cover through which the adivasis are being sentenced to death everyday.

In many ways, the battle that these two women are fighting, gives us a hope of futures that not only pretends to be democratic in the electoral sense but also adopts it as a way of life in its real sense. This opinion piece is an invitation for re-inventing and re-imagining democracy of the futures.

(The author is with KIIT & KISS. He is also the co-founder of student group named Rhythm of Nation. Currently, he is an independent researcher working in the field of knowledge studies.14054616_10206624528084070_516189501_n

  • K SHESHU BABU

    The two women have a lot in common. Soni Sori has been fighting police repression and atrocities on women in Chhattisgarh. Irom Sharmila has been fighting the same police repression and atrocities on women in the state of Manipur. Both have suffered by inflicting injuries to their bodies — soni Sori had acid attack and Sharmila had fasted for so long that the fasting effected her body. Their struggles are people’s struggles – also supported by naxals. They have achieved a lot and still, a lot remains to be achieved. They are the precursors to intense mass struggles in future all over the country.

  • maharamki

    Well said. Thought provoking.
    Every change need to begin with self, inspiring others to join (not follow), to lead others to join.

  • maharamki

    For a democracy to be non-violent, what one needs is not only a consciousness of self-reflection as a society but also a science, which is self-reflective in nature

    • maharamki

      It is now a self destructive mode