Manipuri Is Not Merely A Dance

The Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in east Imphal is jam-packed with women. Most of them mothers, aged between 70 and 75. They have been there from early dawn, perhaps skipping their breakfast. Tension was palpable in the atmosphere. Gun toting khaki clad policemen menacingly observed the scene, outside the hospital gates. Media persons jostled for vantage points. Anxiety and anticipation writ on every face.

We had reached Imphal only two hours ago; but we were impatient too. ‘We’ means about 60 women journalists who had come from various states in the country to attend the 7th annual convention of Network of Women in Media. It was already 4 pm. The curfew starts in one hour. Our friends, the organizers of the convention are concerned about the safety of those of us who have come from outside. They are certain to create a fuss to return by 4.30, which would mean that we will miss Sharmila.

We had decided that we would somehow or other meet Irom Shanu Sharmila while in Imphal. She has been fasting for the last eight years. She started her fast when she was 28 years old, demanding the withdrawal of the controversial AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) passed by the parliament in 1958 assigning special powers to the armed forces in Jammu Kashmir and the north-eastern states including Manipur. Not only in the history of India, but nowhere in the world has anyone undertaken a fast for this long. Not even Gandhi.

The government, apprehensive of the consequences if Sharmila -an idol for large segments of the people- dies, tries to keep her alive somehow or other. She is being force-fed through the nose in the heavy security prison cell in the hospital. The crime that is clamped on Sharmila, who is fighting against the atrocities of the army, is ‘attempted suicide‘ under section 309 of the IPC! One can be remanded under judicial custody only for one year at a stretch. So she is released on the completion of one year and arrested after one day. This had become an annual ritual.

Sharmila is going to be released today. The court proceedings were completed earlier in the day. What will be her condition? Totally worn out? We had heard that her vital organs had been affected.

Those who were waiting were increasingly becoming restless when the police opened the locked door. Sharmila slowly stepped out. A green wrap-around and green blouse, a light violet shawl. A blanket with red flowers was wrapped… Her face, almost a white sheet, was drained off blood. Unkempt hair had gone curly. Her eyes were unable to adjust to the daylight. She was wiping her brimming eyes. Cameras surrounded her and flash bulbs popped nonstop.

We thought Sharmila would get into the waiting vehicle. But that did not happen. She walked slowly. The mothers supported her and held her like their own daughter through the one kilometer to the agitation-pandal. Camera persons lay low on the ground to capture her unsteady foot falls. Meira Paibis (The Torch Bearers), to which these mothers belonged had been on agitation for the last 88 days.

The pandal was crowded. The workers of Apunbalup- a coordinating body of 32 organizations including Mairapeibi, cultural organizations and human rights groups fighting against AFSPA- had gathered in large numbers. Police surrounded the pandal. Sharmila started talking slowly.

“What does she say?’

A local journalist standing nearby translated her speech for us. Lyrical words, not a bit feeble.

“I do not intend to leave this world like a drop of water on a lotus leaf, without leaving even a tiny mark. I will not turn away from my destination even if I have to pay for with it with my life. Enough strength is still left in my legs to march through the streets of Manipur. Do you have the strength to accompany me?’

“Journalists from other part of the country are present here,’ a mother who was holding the mike for Sharmila informed her. ‘Do you have anything to tell them?’

“This struggle is against all kinds of violence. The struggle, to re-establish democracy. Why is the government afraid of me? Why don’t they free me instead of keeping me alive, spending so much of money? The world outside doesn’t know what is happening here. It is for you to reach it to them…’

We had reached Imphal three days ago via Kolkata. Military trucks dotted the road around the airport. Those who had come from Bangalore and Mumbai were also there. We waited for Anjulika. It was Anjulika, a journalist with the Imphal Free Press who had done all the footwork for organizing the convention and who had contacted us on email. She had told us that she’d be there at the airport to receive us. But it was Chitra, a freelance journalist who had come with the Maruti van. She does not miss any opportunity to laugh out boisterously.

Standing in the van, she drew her hands forward dramatically and addressed us:

“Dear friends, welcome to Imphal! Let me tell you in advance; you’ll have to put up with some inconveniences for the next three days.’ Chitra continued with a large smile. ‘Our meeting is from nine to five. But don’t think you can go sightseeing after that. The curfew starts at sharp five. You have come all this way; tasting a little bit of Manipur is called for, no?’ She laughed again.


“Yes, there is curfew for the last 12 days. In the first three days, it was from dawn to dusk. Now it has been relaxed and begins only at five in the evening.’

Most of us in the group, work for regional or national newspapers and channels. There are columnists and analysts who filter and ferret out news. Yet no one knew about the curfew in Imphal! It was not reported in the national media.

“No?’ Chitra laughed in derision. ‘Then may be Manipur is not a part of India. In fact we have had this doubt for quite some time.’

The van sped along dusty broken roads. The way-side sights did not have the splendor or glamour of a city. Petty shops and small buildings. Faded dirty walls. Women selling vegetables or fish. Screaming military vehicles. Masked men plying cycle-rickshaws with only their eyes showing. Most of those who ply these rickshaws are college students. They are forced to take up cycle-rickshaws for a living, due to acute unemployment and poverty. They do not want to be recognized and hence cover their faces.

“Where’s Anjulika?’ We asked Chitra.

“She is in mourning. Her cousin was killed by UGs two weeks ago,’ Chitra replied. UG is the short form for Under Ground. This north-eastern usage, very common among the people and the press of this area was quite novel for us.

Kishan who was in the Indian Administrative Service was only 30. He had come to Manipur from New Delhi only recently. He was a bureaucrat with ideals and strong nerves. Kishan was killed for refusing to comply with some demands of the guerrillas. UGs killed his driver and aid too. That too in the most brutal manner, hacked by axes and clobbered by heavy rocks.

Imphal was rocked by the agitations launched by the joint action council demanding the arrest of the culprits. There was also another incident the very next day in which six migrant laborers from Bihar were burnt to death. The situation went out of control. Curfew was imposed. A state capital in the grip of acute tension for several days was not good enough to be news for the national media!

“But Anjulika will be there with us full time from tomorrow,’ Chitra said. They were evidently determined that the NWMI meet must go on even in the midst of all this convulsions.

Our van turned to the right when it reached Mantripukri. It is 10 kilometers from the airport to Mantripukri. A small market place with a few shops and two or three phone booths. Our stay was arranged in the Catholic Retreat Centre one and half kilometers from here, in the valley of a mountain. Manipur in my mind was all lush green. But it turned out to be all dry and drab. May be because it was still summer. Anyway, it was quite cool even at mid noon.

“No power, you can use the solar lamp,’ the girl with chubby nose and slit eyes courteously told us with a smile.

Power supply was out for the time being and would be restored shortly was what we thought. But the three days at the Retreat Centre made us understand the reality. 20 hours power cut! It was then that one felt tenderness for the half hour power cut in Kerala. It is not as if power is not generated in Manipur. Terrible mismanagement. Transmission loss is 70 percent! We were also told that electricity was being sold to Nagaland on the basis of some agreement. The only ones who escape the long power outage are the hospitals, media establishments and the VIPs. People do not generally bother to pay the electricity bills.

“It is during those four hours that we recharge our mobile, laptop and camera and press our clothes and have our bathe in hot water,’ another opportunity for Chitra to laugh her heart out.

Our first conference was at Kangla Fort. Once it was the seat of power of the Manipur kings. When Manipur came under the British, the fort became the head quarters of the Assam Rifles. After the 36 year old Manorama Devi was brutally killed while in the custody of the Assam Rifles, an agitation flared up in front of Kangla Fort which lasted for months. The country was shocked by the naked struggle of twelve mothers who bared themselves in front of the gates of the Fort holding the banner: ‘Indian Army Rape Us.’ The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the then home minister Shivraj Patil dashed to Imphal. The Imphal municipal area was brought out of AFSPA and the HQ of Assam Rifles was shifted to Mantripukri. The fort was thrown open to the public. Nothing much of a fort is left now. It was ruined long ago in an earth quake. Now it is being reconstructed. Remnants of military barracks and few dilapidated military vehicles are still there.

Anjulika had put on a white blouse and pink wrap-around, the traditional mourning dress for women in Manipur. We spotted many women in similar attire on the streets of Imphal in the following days. Manipur is a state that is far smaller to Kerala. The population is only 23 lakhs. But the armed forces comprise of no less than 55000, including of Assam Rifles and the CRPF. And 12000 UGs on the other side. Everyday two or three die of bullets. Bullets of either the armed forces or of the rebels.

Kishan’s wife, Ongbi Romita who spoke to us on the third day of the conference, too was in mourning like Anjulika. She stood at the dais facing us. But she could not utter a single word beyond ‘Kishan’. Choked with emotion, whatever she wanted to express poured out in tears. Anjulika held Romita close to her chest. There were other women too in the audience in the same white and pink. None of them spoke. The documentary by Anjulika perhaps speaks all that they would have said. Ever so many deaths and no one know why they were killed or who killed them. Three died in January alone. It seems the death toll is less according to Manipur standards. ‘Till date 90 people have been killed this year in conflicts. 25000 people including 5000 women have been killed in the last six decades,’ Anjulika reels out stunning numbers.

Since fresh killing take place every day, the earlier ones are not followed up properly. Proper investigations too do not take place. Culprits are not punished. An association has been formed in Imphal by the widows of those killed by the security forces and by the militants.

All those who spoke on that day, spoke only of strife, tension and conflicts. How the rebellion started and took roots, the moving in of the armed forces, atrocities committed by the forces, the draconian law that AFSPA is….Speeches and power point presentations. The past and present of Manipur, the social and political realities of the tiny state gradually unfolded.

It was in 1949, two years after the British left, that Manipur joined India. It was not a voluntary decision. Like other princely states, Manipur too became part of India under pressure. The king of Manipur was summoned to Shillong for signing the agreement acceding his kingdom to the Indian union. He initially refused to do so, but was forced under duress to sign the documents. Initially Manipur was not accorded statehood. Even when Nagaland was formed in 1962 to appease the Naga rebels happy, Manipur continued to be a union territory. It became a state of the Indian union only in 1972.

But by that time, the seeds of rebellion were already sprouting. The activities of Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN) which was formed in the early 1950s spread to Manipur. Five of the nine districts of the state are mountain regions with thick forests. The other four districts including Imphal are in the valley. The mountain regions are generally inhabited by Nagas and Kukis who were converted into Christianity. And those in the valleys, constitute mainly of the Meiteis of which majority are Hindus and the rest Muslims. The Nagas and Kukis are at loggerheads since the olden days. This tribal hostility was amply exploited, first by the Meitei kings and later on by the British. At present, the armed forces too are using the same tactics. Following the footsteps of FGN and Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), Pan Mongloid Movement and Manipur Revolutionary Party became strong. And as a continuation of these, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was formed. All these organizations challenged the unification of Manipur with India and wanted the state to become an independent republic.

It was to suppress the separatists that the government first sent the armed forces to the North East. The forces can kill anyone at any time if they are suspected of anti national activities. They can search houses without a warrant, can destroy households, arrest people, interrogate. But the atrocities committed by the armed forces, cannot be questioned in any court of law. This law which was initially applicable only in the hill districts of Manipur was made applicable to the whole state in 1980. The presence of armed forces is very strong. 35 soldiers for every 100 civilians. Even in the neighboring Myanmar, where military is in power, the ratio is only 1:100.

The large presence of the armed forces only worsened the situation. There were continuous reports of innocents being killed in army shootouts. 14 people, who were watching a volleyball match, were massacred in Heirangoithong in 1984 when CRPF fired at rebels. Nine soldiers of Assam Rifles were killed in a shootout by rebels on an outpost in Oinam village in 1987. Consequent to this, the army started ‘Operation Bluebird’. Many villagers lost their lives in the three month military operations in 30 villages. A woman in her late pregnancy was forced to deliver her baby in an open ground, without any one’s assistance, while paramilitary men surrounded her and jeered. Similar inhuman incidents are just too many. Maddened by the attack of rebels on them, Assam Rifles soldiers indiscriminately fired at a random group of people waiting at a bus stop at Malom in 2000, killing 10 people including a 65 year-old woman. Sharmila started her fast following this macabre incident. Manorama’s killing happened four years later. She was dragged from her home in the darkness of a late night. Her body full of deep wounds and bullet marks was found in an isolated place, next morning. Vijayalakshmi, of Manipur University concluded her speech saying that Manorama’s mutilated body had haunted her sleep for many nights and with a lump in her throat, she hoped she may never have to see such a sight ever again.

Each one who spoke from the podium had almost the same questions to ask us: “Why are we being denied the opportunity to know what is freedom, even six decades after the British left? Are we second class citizens? Why is the mainstream India neglecting the North East? Why don’t the national media discuss the strangulation of democracy that is taking place here?’

It’s true that the national media had given prominence to the killing of Manorama. But the reason for that was the protest in the nude by the mothers. It was really a shock treatment.

The three day meet concluded. We can’t stay anymore at the Retreat Centre. There was slight tension as we picked up our bags and stepped out. Everyone had left. We were alone now. No arrangements have been made for accommodation. In Kolkata, we were told that there is a Malayali hotel in Gandhi Avenue and that we could try it out, even though there are only minimum amenities there.

It was during the short trips we undertook while we stayed in hotel Shangi that we had the real feel, and came to know the color and smell of Imphal and Manipur. We had decided to avoid tourist spots and instead meet as many people as possible. We wandered about the streets of Imphal in the evenings. The city had the look of a place shattered in a war. The north eastern states have a special development package. All the funds come from the centre. But there are no signs of any development activities anywhere. And why should there be! The funds from Delhi hardly land here. The whole packet is looted by the politicians, bureaucrats and the UGs.

A land with a history of 2000 years and a rich culture in absolute penury! All roads in search of the reasons for this pathetic state of affairs lead to New Delhi. The tragic baggage Manipur is now burdened with is the result of the opportunistic and shortsighted policies of the rulers in Delhi. A populace that counts it fortunate to be alive is being systematically decimated by politicians and bureaucrats neck deep in corruption and by the gun wielding UGs. Not just the devil and the deep sea, but there is also the burning fire for the people of this small state to confront with.

Continuous flow of funds was the only panacea the centre could think of for minimizing the threat from the rebels and separatists. But soon a nexus of contractors, bureaucrats and politicians came into existence for grabbing these funds. Many roads were built in the state, but only on paper. Their maintenance too was, naturally, on paper only. Grains meant for public distribution reached the black market. People were totally alienated from the development process. The rich became richer and the poor, poorer.

It was in retaliation to the corruption and atrocities that the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) etc came into existence in the seventies. These revolutionary organizations which initially professed left ideology were welcomed with great enthusiasm by the educated youth, cultural workers and the intellectuals. Many left the universities to traverse the revolutionary path. Guerrilla attacks increased towards the end of the seventies. The objectives were seizing weapons from the security forces and extortion of money for purchasing more sophisticated weapons from outside.

It was at this juncture, AFSPA was imposed in Manipur. The markets in Paona Bazar and Thangal Bazar where there is a concentration of Marwari and other business men came under frequent attacks. The aim was extorting money from those who were cheating the people and diverting commodities to black market. These organizations did not spare the contractors, politicians and bureaucrats who became rich through the corruption route. In other words, the revolutionaries too were becoming part of the fund diversion game. A large chunk of the developmental funds reached the hands of the revolutionaries through the gunpoint. Gradually these organizations deteriorated into gangs of extortionists. In the beginning, the revolutionary organizations used to approach the general public only for donations. But by the middle of the nineties, extorting money by threats was institutionalized. Ideology was blown away and money took its place. UG groups multiplied .Many groups splintered and spawned. No one now seems to know as to how many UG groups are out there in Manipur. Revolution has apparently become a moneymaking activity without working, for many of the youth. And if at all one is keen on getting a job, huge bribes will have to change hands. The rate quoted for a sub inspector in the police is reportedly 12 lakhs now. But join a UG group and you are paid Rs 500. The lure of the UG is hard to resist. Incidentally, the ‘white collar’ attitude is very much prevalent in Manipur as in Kerala. Most of the physical labor is done by migrant laborers.

It is pointed out that the UNLF and PLA and others have efficient finance wings. How much money is reaching the state as development funds, how much is there in the bank accounts of officials and contractors…all such information is reportedly in the possession of the UGs. The demand they make is based on this data. Government servants are paid their salaries after deduction of the monthly ‘contribution’ to the rebels. They are free to enter any government office at any time. Obtaining contract work for their members by threatening the chief engineer or concerned official is a common occurrence. ‘Tax’ has been imposed on business men and industrialists. Petrol, kerosene, rice and diesel for public distribution reach the camp of the militants. Prabha, who runs a tea shop in Mantripukri, told us that she buys a gas cylinder paying Rs 500. She is supposed to get five liters of kerosene every month on her ration card, but she considers herself lucky if she gets one or two liters. If this is the state of affairs in the capital, the public distribution system has ground to a halt in the interiors. At the same time the UG s have also been trying to cultivate a Robinhood image by selling rice and kerosene at a very low price in the villages close to their camps.

Most of the educational institutions in Manipur are run by Christian managements. They are also not spared by the rebel groups. Fr Paul of Retreat Centre told us that five schools under Catholic management had to pay Rs 25 lakhs to UGs two years ago. Even though money was paid, because of the delay in making the payment, five priests were gunned down.

We heard many such stories from different people. But all of them spoke on the condition that their name or other details will not be revealed. A Malayali teacher, who spoke to us at length on Manipuri women and their customs, became restless when the conversation turned to the UGs. ‘You will leave within two days. But we still have to live here,’ she said with a smile and hastened away bidding us good bye!

During our stay at Imphal, we felt our pockets emptying faster. It took us some time to realize that we too were indirectly paying the UG s. When we buy a thing we pay them. When we book a ticket, we pay them through the travel agent.

The politicians and the UGs are apparently sustaining each other. The support of the UGs has become indispensable for all parties at the time of elections. Most of the candidates make election promises to curtail the powers of the armed forces. But once they are in power, it is all forgotten. It can be seen that the state government takes up such stance as would please both the forces and the militants. The ultimate losers are the common people.

As the government machinery is at a standstill, people do not bother much to fulfill their duties as responsible citizens. We mentioned about the electricity bill earlier. As for telephones, the line will be cut only when the arrears mount above three or four thousands. But one doesn’t have to bother much. Spend Rs 50 and the line will be restored. The vehicles on the road are never inspected. Majority of the autos on the roads of Imphal are dilapidated and decrypt, causing heavy pollution. Manipur is a classic example of how the unrestricted flow of funds coupled with corruption destroys the self respect and sense of responsibility of a people. ‘Why should we?’ is the instinctive reply to the question, ‘why don’t you pay taxes.’ Questions like, ‘shouldn’t the people have a role and participation in the development of the state’ may not even be comprehended.

Things being as they are, many people long to choose the last option of leaving the place for ever. That’s what Dr Varab Sothing admitted to us on our way to Nana, a village in Pallel, 50 kms from Imphal. The doctor was sitting on the seat next to us in the bus. He turned around hearing our conversation in Malayalam. The doctor knows Tamil very well. He had his education and also worked in Nagarcoil. He has friends at Kottayam and Trivandrum. He returned to Manipur two years ago. His house is in Ukhrul district. Dr Sothing was nourishing the idea of a marriage and a family when his house was burnt down by the UG s. They had demanded 55000 rupees, which he could not afford to give immediately. He practices in a backward area and has about 15 patients a day. As it is, he collects a consultation fee of 100. How can I squeeze the poor villagers to pay the UG s, he asked. Not just one, but many groups approach him with such demands. No one has been arrested so far for the arson. He doesn’t expect it too. What can the police do? Even they do not have sufficient security. Even the IG of police has to cough up money for the UG s. There is no guarantee for the police that they will see the daylight again, if a case is registered. Why police, even the judges do not dare to give a verdict that goes against the UG s. The security cover which the ministers get is not available to the judges, no? He has decided not to test his luck anymore and is going back to Nagacoil. Many parents tend to send their children out of the state for studies; at least let them escape the turbulence and uncertainties of Manipur go the thinking. Nearly one crore rupees is estimated to flow out of Manipur on account of education alone. Dr Sothing continued to talk to us turning behind from his front seat till he got down at the stop just before Pallel. His last words to us were: “Our only hope is in the media. Only media can do something.’

Rathan Luvangcha leaned back and burst out in laughter.

“True! Sentinels of democracy. But we too are between the devil and the deep sea. All of us work risking our life.’ 43 year old Ratan is the editor of Hueiyan Lanpao, a daily.

We had contacted him the day we landed in Imphal.

“Your meeting is at Kangla Fort, no? I’ll be there,’ he had assured us. Next day he was there clicking pictures for his newspaper and helping the organizers. Ratan could as well be holding a gun as a camera. He has a ‘commando’ look. Ratan was there at the hospital on the day Sharmila was released. But in between he had rushed to a place 30 kms away on hearing that a shootout had taken place. Now in the office, he was in the editor’s chair. Ratan had taken up the new responsibility only recently. He was the bureau chief in his last assignment. However, despite being the editor, he is almost always in the field.

“Everyday, there will be at least one news of a conflict in the front page,’ Ratan said. On one side the underground groups. On the other side the armed forces and the government. Both interfere with the freedom of the press. Journalists are generally allowed some amount of freedom even in the thick of terrible wars. But that is not the case here. A bullet might get you any moment.’

Two years ago, when he was the general secretary of the Manipur Working Journalist Union, one of the underground groups had made an attempt on his life. Ratan was standing in front of his house, when assailants charged in on a motorbike and showered him with bullets. He was in a coma for several days.

“Why this attempt on your life?’

The UGs threaten journalists constantly. They would insist that their press releases should be published. If you publish the statement of one of the groups, the rival group threatens. Sometimes, you get statements that are contradictory from two factions of the same group. Thus, publish or not publish, you are under threat. The situation became so exasperating that the union took certain decisions. No news or information that is received through phone will be accepted. All statements are to be on the letterhead of the organization. It should contain the seal, the names and signatures of the office bearers of the organization. No statements that malign other groups or that may lead to violence will be published. I was the secretary of the union… so off with him, they thought! Ratan laughed. This intermittent laughter seems to be his trait.

In the last 15 years, six journalists have been killed either by the UG s or by unidentified killers. Apart from killing, kidnapping of editors, keeping them prisoners, banning the publications for one or two months are the pressure tactics used by the UGs. The newspapers stop publication in protest against the interference of the militants.

Ratan alleges that instead of trying to create a safe working environment, the government too interferes in the freedom of the press. It was common practice to arrest journalists for possessing or publishing the statements of the revolutionary groups in the 1970s and 80s. That policy has not changed even now. The government insists that any document that has anything to do with any banned group should be first shown to the authorities. The authorities have imposed several restrictions on the media in the name of the militants. When Manipur was tense and turbulent and violence was in the air consequent to the killing of Manorama in 2004, journalists had to face harassment and torture from the police and the armed forces. The ISTV, a news cable network was banned by the administration for telecasting the march of thousands of people through the streets of Imphal demanding the withdrawal of AFSPA. The journalist union had accused the state police of having had a hand in the murder of Rishikantha and had demanded a probe by CBI. The government did not budge. Media persons sat on a dharna for two weeks. The human rights associations and people’s organizations joined hands with the media workers and decided to launch a massive rally. But the establishment persisted with their negativism. The rally was telecast live by ISTV. There was a public meeting after the rally. Just as the first speaker started to speak about the death of Rishikanth and the negative approach of the government, the channel was forced to close transmission. Media persons are being suppressed and harassed using the National Security Act.

“The attempt to kill you; a case must have been registered?’

“A case was of course registered. But the police have not even recorded my statement till this moment.’

Even though an editor, Ratan doesn’t get a fat pay packet. The media persons in Manipur are poorly paid. Yet they work risking their lives.

“Why do you work for such a low salary? Can’t you move to a newspaper out of Manipur?’

“Yes. I can. But then that may become a trend. Some others will also leave. If the journalists too were to leave Manipur, who will be here to write about what is happening?’ Ratan laughed again.

Though an editor, his camera is the whole and soul for Ratan. He bought a car to cart the camera around safely. The camera is costlier than the car. Ratan swiveled his chair and double clicked ‘My Pictures’ on his desktop.

The first folder contains pictures of the armed forces. Shooting practice, crouching soldiers, dead civilians, bleeding bodies, victims of those killed in ‘encounters’

“As far as the armed forces are concerned, Manipur is a training ground,’ Ratan explains. The place where you learn how to shoot to kill.’

The second folder had photographs of the militants. The hideouts in the forests, weapon training, farming’¦

The impacts of the unending conflicts and violence are quite visible in all walks of life. The new generation is steeped in insecurity. They find refuge in drugs. And AIDS spread through the syringes. All nine districts in Manipur are high risk areas. How to make easy money is the only preoccupation of most of the people…

Ratan is not laughing now. He is sitting with his head bent, looking at nothing in particular.

It was almost three hours since we had come to his office. We bid him good bye.

Chandel is one of the bigger districts of Manipur, in the south-east. And Moreh is a border village in the east Chandel. India ends here and Myanmar begins. Step into Myanmar and there is a big market. Almost anything is available there. Most of the people who go there buy things cheap and sell them at a much higher price at Imphal. The market on the border is a large centre for smuggling.

It is 110 kms from Imphal to Moreh. But there are no buses from Imphal. However, transportation is not a problem. Many private vehicles, Tat Sumo, Maruti Omni…will be waiting for passengers from the morning. The journey takes three hours. These vehicles return in the evening stuffed with goods of all kind. You have to pay at least Rs 100 extra for the return trip.

It was the second day of Holi festival. In fact, we had planned to go the previous day. But the taxi drivers were not willing to take us. All money in our pockets would be grabbed by children was the excuse they were putting before us. We did not understand why they should be so apprehensive of children.

We left for Moreh early in the morning. A forty year old woman and her elderly mother were the co passengers. The mother started smoking the moment the car left Gandhi Avenue. Chain smoking. The side glasses were up since it was very cold. So we remained passive smokers for quite some time. Finally the daughter seemed to understand our predicament. She turned around and shouted at her mother. Impassive, she poked the burning cigarette on her lips and extinguished it. Then she took out boiled eggs from her bag and started eating.

Very soon we understood why the drivers were afraid of children. That day also children’s groups were active. Kids of five and six to adolescents of 16 and 17 were there in the group. They will hold a rope across the road or just hold hands and stop the vehicles. Sometimes benches will be put across and they would sit on the benches. They won’t let you go unless they are paid money. Small sums would do, but there would be ever so many groups on the way. A driver will end up paying at least Rs1000 on that day. This road robbery is the right of children for the two days of Holi. The grown up will not intervene. Girls are the leaders of this road show. Boys will be watching the scene with toy guns in their hands. There is no point in reasoning or getting angry. They will return the compliment with double gusto. The driver naturally compensated his loss from us on reaching Moreh.

The journey is through NH 39. The roads were okay till Chandel district. From there it is mountains and forests. A small village in between and then there is not a soul for miles together. Ups and downs. It is exhausting with all the bumps and buffeting.

There are many check posts all the way up to Moreh, manned either by the Assam Rifles or the Manipur police. The checking is very strict. From where, where to, what for… all these have to be satisfactorily answered. The rigor of checking increases on the way back. They search every inch of the vehicle. Handbags and even camera cases have to be emptied out.

There is a reason for the scrutiny to be so strict. Chandel and Churachandpur are the two districts with maximum number of militant hide-outs. These two districts along with Ukhrul district share as much as 350 kms border with Myanmar. Chandel is the route of the clandestine armament trade in South Asia. Contraband drugs too are smuggled through this route. The rebels did not possess any sophisticated weapons in the sixties and seventies. But with the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia in 1979 and with Myanmar signing a peace pact with the state of Shan, arms started flowing to South Asian markets. Lethal weapons manufactured in Russia, China, USA, Britain and Thailand reached the market. The UGs augmented their arsenal with sophisticated weapons like light machine guns and rocket launchers. It is estimated that there are at least 20 training camps in Myanmar alone. Moreh is the link of many a secret deal.

We reached Moreh by 11 am. The Indian border with the tricolor fluttering in the wind. Shops, lodges, small hotels and telephone booths clutter the area. Manipur police this side, Myanmar police the other side. The check post with a ‘˜no entry’ sign is crowded with people crossing across both ways. Cameras and mobile phones are not allowed into Myanmar. We lodged them with a telephone booth and crossed over.

On the return trip our taxi was shared by an Imphal businessman and a dark, lean lady. The driver was addressing her as ‘Bhabhi’. We had to wait for nearly an hour and half for this Bhabhi. We were quite exasperated waiting for an unknown travel companion. But the businessman was quite cool about it. The driver was adamant that he would start the car only after Bhabhi appeared. Finally we three were accommodated in the rear seat and the car took off to Bhabhi’s home. The Tamil speaking Bhabhi sat in the front seat with the driver.

After getting through several checking by the armed forces and the police, the taxi again came to a halt half way through. The policeman at this check post scrutinized the insides of the handbags minutely and then started talking in low whispers to Bhabhi. She seemed to be quite a familiar person with the police.

‘What is going on?’ we asked the businessman, unable to suppress our curiosity.

‘They are telling her that she should not carry so much money on her.’

‘How much does she have?’

‘One lakh rupees.’

One lakh rupees! That too on a road route where anything could happen anytime. What courage to carry such a huge sum when there is so much of vigilance! But Bhabhi was unfazed.

The car again moved ahead.

‘How much money do you have with you?’ she turned around and asked us in Tamil.

‘750 rupees’

‘Can you hide some of my money on your body?’ She was quite direct about it.

We were as shocked as we were two days ago on realizing that our money had been stolen.


She didn’t say anything after that.

The businessman and the two of us got down at Gandhi Avenue. The car took off in another direction with Bhabhi.

Many of those who work in Moreh and the Burma Bazar are carriers like Bhabhi of many things. It is very difficult to free oneself once you get entangled with the mafia gangs. The police and the border security personnel get their due in all such deals. The driver will get a commission of Rs 1000 rupees for facilitating the transport of 1 lakh. No wonder he wouldn’t budge from his parking lot without the Bhabhi.

It was twilight by the time we reached the head quarters of the Assam Rifles at Mantripukri. The Assistant Commander of the camp, NA Mathew is a Malayali. For the last few days, we’ve been hearing only about the atrocities perpetrated by the armed forces. As journalists, we have a responsibility to hear their version too. We had talked to him couple of times over the phone.

‘Come right now, if you want to meet me, ‘Mathew said. ‘I will be busy tomorrow.’

It was six in the evening. Curfew will start only at 7pm because of Holy. We were too tired after the Moreh trip, but got into an auto.

‘You must understand one thing. An armed force is dispatched to a province to suppress violence and rebellion and not for finding a political solution. That is the responsibility of the government and the political leaders.’ Mathew tried to explain in a friendly tone. ‘We try to fulfill our mission in the best possible way. In a state like Manipur, where there is a civil war like situation, special powers are a must if you are to function effectively.’

What about the killing of civilians?

‘Civilians may get killed when encounters take place. It is not intentional. But how will we function, if it is immediately followed by clamors of human rights violation? Have only civilians died in all those incidents which you quoted? Ever so many soldiers too died. Is it that their lives have no value?’

Yes. They do have. We had met some paramilitary men who were doing guard duty in front of the government offices and nationalized banks. Men who have come from faraway lands, leaving their families behind. Some of them told us that the situation in Kashmir is by far better. A Malayali soldier had narrated how five of his companions were killed in a UG grenade attack on a CRPF battalion two years ago, the very day they had reached Manipur. He had shown us the pictures of the dead and of the destroyed vehicles in his mobile phone. He virtually gave us a study class on grenade attack. Yes, life ‘“any one’s- is precious.

‘Do you have any idea as to what will be the state of affairs here, if the armed forces were to withdraw one fine morning?’ Mathew asked.

He spoke for some more time, about the Assam Rifles battalions, their style of functioning, about the militants, and finally: ‘After all, what can Indian journalists write against the Indian armed forces?!’ He laughed.


The armed forces cannot be withdrawn on a fine morning. Things have deteriorated to that extent. But at the same time how long can it continue like this? Whatever be the hardships, the people of Manipur do not want to live indefinitely in the shadow of the gun.

They have been repeatedly saying this from all available platforms. The central government had appointed an enquiry commission on the aftermath of Manorama’s death, when people’s wrath against the armed forces became a conflagration. The commission was asked to examine whether AFSPA could be withdrawn and also to study the situation in the north-east and submit recommendations. The five member commission headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy sought the opinion of the people holding sittings in various parts of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Students, teachers, advocates, doctors, engineers, government officials and peoples organizations actively participated in the sittings. Except for the representatives of the armed forces, police and certain corporates, everyone else demanded the withdrawal of the black law. The commission recommended that the existing law be replaced by a more human law. But this report was blacked out by the government. It was not tabled in the Parliament and no discussions took place. The contents of the report were subsequently scooped by the media.

Even when emergency was clamped down in 1975 sections 21 and 22 of the constitution which guarantee the right to live was not suspended. But not so in the case of AFSPA. Anyone can be shot dead at any time. And its time limit can be extended to any extent. This is what people oppose.

PLA ‘Is it not more than half a century since the armed forces have been here for putting an end to violence? And violence has only increased day by day.’ Human rights activist Babloo Loithongbam says. ‘A time limit should be fixed for the armed forces. Say five years, or ten. If things don’t improve even after that the government should accept the fact that armed forces are not the solution.’

Is it not a legitimate demand? Is it not necessary to evaluate why a section of people take up arms? Instead of finding out the basic causes and solving them, how long will the government continue the strategy of suppressing them with the armed forces?

Many of the underground organizations are on the war path with the objective of seceding from the union of India. Is there any relevance in a referendum on this?

“Referendum should have been held when the British left. It was not done then. For the last sixty years, Manipur has been in India. It was the policies of those who came to power in the state and the centre that destroyed Manipur. What is the point in asking now whether Manipur wants to be an independent republic? Ending the discrimination against Manipur and other north-eastern states is the need of the hour.’

This small state with only 23 million people can still be saved, is what people like Babloo still believe. Burt that requires political will and vision. Those in Delhi do not have time for a hard think about what is really required for the north-east. They don’t have the desire too. Who is interested in the welfare of the people beyond the arithmetic and tricks of electoral politics and the tug of war of power? After the next election, UPA may come to power, or NDA may come to power. It is not going to make any difference to Manipur. Violence will continue.

Those who deeply analyze the political and social manifestations of the conflict have warned that schemes like ‘Vision 2020’ which have been formulated supposedly for the development of the north east without comprehending the realities of the region will end up as disasters. The implementation of these mega projects, which include large dams, airports and new railway lines, would entail massive eviction of people.

Babloo discussed the nuances of Vision 2020 with us while on his way to file a public interest litigation against the eviction of 900 families for the development of Imphal airport. Thousands of people are there in the forefront of the struggle against the proposed scheme. The government is handling the struggle very harshly deploying the police and the security forces. There is acute unemployment in the state. More than half of the population depends on agriculture for livelihood. If they are evicted from the land and are forced into the streets, their final refuge in all likelihood will be the hideouts of the militants.

We went once again to meet Sharmila, this time on the day of her arrest. There was only handful of people in the agitation-pandal. Sharmila was lying on a bed roll on the floor, covered up to her neck by a sheet. She appeared extremely debilitated. Few women sat around Sharmila, fanning her. Gloomy faces all around. The atmosphere of a house where a death has just occurred. Police would barge in anytime now.

We sat by her side. What could we speak to her! She slowly opened her eyes and smiled at us. Then she gripped our hands. Burning touch. Is she feverish?

“She is quite tired. Even nasal feeding is not there for the last three days,’ a woman tenderly wiped Sharmila’s face and said in broken Hindi.

“No, I’m still strong,’ pat came the response, feeble but firm.

It would have been a surprise only if she had not responded in this manner. Because the women of Manipur are made of this stuff. Fighting injustice is their dharma. It is for sure that Sharmila will not call off her fast even if she were to lose her life. No woman will ask her to end her struggle. Not even her mother.

When her mother, who was ailing, came to know that her daughter had commenced her fast, she made her take a pledge and commanded ‘Don’t come to see me before achieving your goal.’ but Sharmila had to break her promise when the mother was hospitalized in a critical condition.

‘I walked to and fro in the corridors of the hospital for three hours, unable to make up my mind whether to go in to the room or not.’ Sharmila recalls. ‘Ultimately, I went in and ma became furious at me for my breaking the solemn pledge.’

That is the women of Manipur. Their struggles are not mere tags that are added to that of men’s. It is women who spearhead the movements in the economic, social and political spheres. Men usually join them when the movements gather strength and momentum.

A good number of the male population having gone underground. The responsibility to look after not only the home, but also the land falls squarely on the shoulders of women. This is especially true of the Meirapaibi workers. They have their groups in every locality. Each household will be represented in the group. If anything goes wrong, they come out in strength with flaming torches, be it any time of the night. They also take up night vigil. If the security forces storm in to nab men in the guise of interrogation, it is the women who confront them. Meira Paibis which started in the 1970s as a movement against the alcoholism of men has grown into a mass movement. Liquor was prohibited in Manipur in 1991, as a result of their struggle which lasted for 16 years.

Ima Taruni and Ima Gyaneswari (Ima means mother), who had participated in the nude protest in front of the head quarters of Assam Rifles were present at the hospital on the day Sharmila was released. Soft speaking mothers. They don’t deal in dogmas. They confront life squarely at its face. What they speak of are routine things. Don’t we intervene when the father and son quarrel at home? Similarly when the rebels and the security forces confront each other, is it not our responsibility to save our sons and our land…

Nearly 50 mothers were prepared to confront the gun wielding security men with their nude bodies that day. Smelling some serious action from the women, the government suddenly imposed curfew.

‘Only twelve of us could reach the Kangla Fort,’ Ima Thourani recalls. ‘Nothing can be done once the curfew begins. So we did not wait for the others and just executed the plan of action already decided up on. That’s all.’ the mothers are certainly disappointed that despite all this fighting the AFSPA has not been repealed and that the armed forces are still around.

But the negative stand of the government has not disheartened them. These mothers do not have to think twice to declare that they are ready for a third war, if it becomes inevitable. By war they mean the real war. They do not know of any symbolic protests. They are speaking of nothing but a real war for achieving what their goals.

Two wars by women have been documented in the history of Manipur. The first one was in 1939. It was against the trade policies of the king who exported rice to the British garrison in Shillong, even as Manipur was reeling under famine. The women gagged the British representative in the king’s durbar and took him prisoner. British army rushed in. Thousands of women stormed the streets and resisted the army. Final victory was with the women. 12 December, the day Nupi Lal (War of Women) took place is a state holiday in Manipur. The second war too was against shortage of food in 1965. Police fired at a large mass of women who with babies in their arms stormed the Rajbhavan. Four women lost their lives. But here too the government had to accept defeat.

The mothers speak with pride about the two wars. They see themselves as fighters and a challenge will not go unaccepted.

No one except the armed forces behaves without decency to women. Not even the militants. May be they might insist on food or shelter, but no further. Everyone is well aware that there is no forward movement of even an inch without the backing of women.

As we were returning, those in the pandal were writing posters. Even in her feeble state, Sharmila was reading them and suggesting changes.

The warmth and the smell of Sharmila’s touch remained on our hands for a long time even after we reached the hotel room.

*The article is written by M Suchitra, Vidhu Vincent

*The article was originally published July 15, 2009


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