THE AUTHOR, ANUBHA BHONSLE, IS THE EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF CNN-IBN based out of Delhi and hers is a deeply researched book about the state of chaos that reigns in the ‘neglected’ state of Manipur. The state has always been in the news for violent reasons such as the burning down of the state assembly and other buildings in Imphal after the ceasefire agreement between the government of India and the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland was extended without territorial limits in 2001, or the women parading naked to protest the death of Manorama Devi (a suspected member of an insurgent group) in 2004, or more women, this time tribal, protesting in Churachandpur against the passing of land/identity related bills.
For her material Bhonsle draws on interviews with military personnel, politicians, leaders of militant groups and the ordinary people who are being ground into the dust between all these powers.
The hunger fast of the political activist-poet, Irom Sharmila, is the main story in this clutch of heart-breaking tales about life in Manipur, though Sharmila’s cause is by now forgotten. The fact is that she started her fast to protest the death of Sinam Chandramani, who won a National Bravery Award as a four-year-old from the prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and who was then shot by Assam Rifles men in Malom Village while waiting at a bus stop. Chandramani’s parents were not informed that their son had died in an arbitrary act of violence and it was because of that event Sharmila began her fast. However, what she called her ‘not quite life’ has moved on and Manipur has moved on since then. Despite her force-feeding in hospital and the fact that she was hailed as a heroine, the moment she abandoned her fast, the headlines too abandoned her and she failed in her stand in the elections and eventually married the man who fell in love with her, Desmond Coutinho.
Bhonsle has captured her struggle, but, in retrospect, one wonders what it was all for. Those pathetic dreams of being handfed rice by her mother meandered into nothingness. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act that allowed encounters to proceed unchallenged is still in force in Manipur, barring seven assembly constituencies of Imphal. Irom Sharmila challenged the Act from November 2000 to August 2016, and with what effect, we can now see. Manorama’s story is stagnating somewhere in the Supreme Court and the culprits are yet to be identified and brought to justice, though it has at least gone so far.
Quite inevitably the author finds it very difficult to find any gleam of light. The stories she has put together, outdated or otherwise, still have the power to make the reader wonder. How could a country be so uncaring towards its own citizens? Of course racism towards the North East still persists in Central and North India where students from Meghalaya and Manipur are frequently referred to as ‘Chinki’ and become victims of abuse. In the east this issue does not exist, though youngsters from the North East are forced to migrate to the centre in the hope of finding a better future.
The author seems to find it very hard to see any light in the Manipur scenario, but given the past history of the province, who would blame her? She reveals the despair of the people of Manipur and their unwillingness to connect to India’s mainland. Tourists to the state complain of encountering hostility and non-cooperation.
Of course the people of the hills would point out that many of Bhonsle’s stories relate to the Imphal region. Nagas, for example, believe in fighting, not fasting like Irom Sharmila—but then, the Manipuris are not all Nagas either, and are fighting for the freedom to assert their national identity through the rebel Naga groups like the NSCN (IM).To be fair, Bhonsle includes stories from places far flung, like from Ukhrul as well.
A state once ruled by a king is now fragmented between politicians and terror factions, not to speak of the Centre. Violence remains a way of life.
TALL TRAVELLERS’ TALES
India’s North East has never really been part of the country. Journalist B.G. Verghese spoke of how people in the North East had been discriminated against for centuries simply because they were a mostly slant-eyed people who spoke their own languages and worshipped animistic gods. When the Hindus and later the Muslims overran those parts, they formed their own communities, raised their temples and mosques and ignored the local population as far as they could. With time and for various reasons, insurgency raised its head in the North East. Naga tribes spilled over into Manipur, Bangladeshis crossed non-existent borders and set up shops, and the whole area became a pot that was constantly boiling over.
Sidhartha Sarma, a journalist by profession, born in Assam, set out in the spring of 2008 to walk through the troubled North East and take a look at life there. He started most naturally with his home state and then went on to Meghalaya, Arunachal, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, finally crossing the border into Moreh in Myanmar. What he has is an incredible fund of tall traveller’s—though not tourist’s—tales. He will tell you about being chased by stinky soup in Manipur, or about the “waves of badass anger on Lachit’s face”—Lachit being the heroic nephew of an ancient Ahom ruler. He will also tell you that one of the favourite sports in Guwahati is falling into storm drains, or that the Dimapur city sport is ‘the Great Crappy Restaurant Food Game.’
If you are expecting ecstatic descriptions of natural beauty, you would be disappointed more often than not, except for snippets like the fact that Arunachal smells of orchids. He counts tribes along the way and occasionally potholes—the Nagas get kudos for having studied tourism and set up model villages and the Tragopan Sanctuary. Mizoram, except for its lost Jewish tribe, is rather glossed over. Gradually, however, as he progresses on his lonely road, the book becomes more and more political. There are gun-toting students in Manipur. You will have a problem taking cell phones and cameras into Myanmar, but can easily walk out with a katana and a couple of daos. The Myanmar leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, Sarma says, would be better off dealing with the Buddhist monks in her country and with certain of her own team members who are determined to make life difficult for the tribes in the north. The novelist Arundhati Roy, who was born in Meghalaya, is brought in with a tongue-in-cheek reference to turnip throwers.
Occasionally you wonder why Sarma peppers his pages with words like “dadgum,” “badass,” and “prolly” for ‘probably’ while making fun of what he calls “Potato Chip Tourists” who spend their life sms-ing and cannot spell. But all this is because he is being presented as a man who has an inflated opinion of himself, “nearly stoned,” and to back this up, occasionally his editor chips in with comments on Sarma and his tall tales in bold font. “Yeah, right, I can see the readers cracking up” is one typical example of an editorial comment.
The style is quirky and fast paced and it is an entertaining way to go junketing over roads seldom travelled while studying history, architecture and politics. The only thing is, sometimes you wish there were a “dadgum” or two less.