Manipur: The Forgotten Land
Vijay Nair explores Manipur through an improvised play, human rights violations, dramatic protests, and a local’s memory of childhood.
Two years ago, a friend from theatre who hails from the Indian state of Manipur asked me if I would be interested in acting in a play that she had conceptualized. She had written the bare-bones of a script and wanted the actors to add lines during the rehearsal process. Excited at the opportunity to interpret a script written by another playwright, I agreed immediately. A major incentive to get on board was that I thought I would learn something about her state. The story she wanted to tell on stage was set in Manipur.
Manipur is a small state in north-eastern India that borders Burma. During the Second World War, which commenced and ended before India attained freedom from British Rule, the state witnessed many pitched battles between the Allied Forces and the Japanese. However, the Japanese were trounced before they could enter Imphal, the capital of Manipur. That battle was reportedly one of the turning points of the war.
Most Indians living in the plains know little about the seven states that fall in the country’s hilly north-east. However there is an awareness about the difficulty many of these states had in their process of accession to the Republic of India and it is well-known that they have their share of what we call “insurgents.” These states also fall under the purview of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, an act that was formulated in 1958 to curb insurgency in disturbed areas. Under this act, unlimited powers are granted to the members of the armed forces posted in these areas. Many of the rights granted to the Indian citizens are suspended under this act, including the right to freedom of expression.
Like in every state where this draconian act is in place, Manipur has had its share of gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Indian Army. The ordinary law-abiding citizen tends to be harassed by both of the warring factions. The army is suspicious that a typical citizen could be supporting the insurgents, while the insurgents not only expect him to fund their activities, they also suspect that he could be acting as an informer for the army.
As always, attempting to curb dissent by brute force never succeeds. The human spirit always finds a way to express the disappointment, disillusionment, and rage that oppression brings in its wake. In Manipur, women have usually been the face of protest, which is rare in a patriarchal society like India.
Irom Sharmila Chanu, or the “Iron Lady of Manipur,” is possibly the most heroic figure of the protests. She is an activist and a poet who has been on a hunger strike since November 2, 2000, demanding that the Indian government repeal the Armed Forces Act. She has refused food and water for more than a decade now and the authorities have resorted to force-feeding her. Sharmila has been the world’s longest hunger-striker and is currently on trial for attempted suicide. Her story has a striking parallel to the long struggle of the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Like Suu Kyi, Sharmila’s chosen forms of protest have always been non-violent and inspired by Mahatama Gandhi.
Still, one of the most shameful episodes in India’s recent history happened in 2004, following the discovery of the bullet riddled body of 32 year-old Thangjam Manorama, in Imphal. Initially, soldiers from the paramilitary group Assam Rifles picked Manorama up from her home because she was suspected of having links with separatist rebels. Hours later, her body was found with multiple bullet wounds and displayed signs of torture. Violent protests erupted across the state.
A group of women stripped themselves naked in front of the Assam Rifles camp and taunted the army with placards asking the military personnel to rape them. This act of subversion shamed the entire country and the Central Government was quick to order a judicial enquiry into Manorama’s death. Nothing much came out of the process but the army seems to have been more careful in recent times.
One day, during our rehearsals, the playwright from Manipur shared a story from her childhood:
“On some evenings, the insurgents would show up at our home to demand money. It was always the women who negotiated with them. It was safer. They were less likely to shoot a woman if anything made them unhappy during the negotiations. The women would tell the insurgents that the man of the house had not returned from work.
On the days my father was at home, my mother would ask him to hide in the bedroom and go out to negotiate with the insurgents. He had a cough that would get aggravated in the evenings and we could hear him even though he tried his best to muffle them. After the insurgents left with the money they collected, my mother would shout at my father for not stopping himself from coughing. We children witnessed this on many days. It is one of the most enduring memories I carry of growing up in Manipur.
The morning after the insurgents’ visit, soldiers from the armed forces would show up to grill us. They would want to know what the insurgents were doing in our house. It seemed like a game both parties had devised and were playing with us, and we were just the instruments for their needs and entertainment.”
This is one of the saddest stories of childhood I have ever been privy to.
In the play I performed the role of an eccentric academic who spouts bookish nonsense all the time. That role put me in touch with my own ignorance about the parts of India, like Manipur, that lie forgotten because the corporate-sponsored media find nothing newsworthy to report about them.