Mother, Where’s My Country? Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur
WE GET into a rage over every small misdemeanour over caste, creed, religion, freedom, but why is it that we never get agitated about what is happening in the north-east? The release of this powerful book should have garnered many debates about the state of the north-east, and the writer’s area of interest, Manipur, but there wasn’t a single. We have gone on with our lives, turning a blind eye to this part of our country, which appears to be lost from the mainland’s memory. There are many, many reasons why it shouldn’t be this way, why we should care, and Bhonsle spells it out for us, just as Sudip Chakravarti’s Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land did in 2012.
As she writes in the introduction, Bhonsle first met Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike since 2000 against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), in 2006. Meeting Sharmila, who was only 28 years old when she began her fast, inspired Bhonsle to find out more about Manipur and, over the next few years, she conducted close to 200 interviews, pored over documents and court hearings, met soldiers and leaders of both sides, spoke to victims, survivors of rape and lots and lots of ordinary people, and wrote this stirring account.
As an outsider looking in, she tried to find out what is it to live amid guns, extra-judicial killings, month-long blockades (yes, NH 39 is blocked off at will by protesters/insurgents/rebels cutting off crucial supplies to Manipur) and dire political apathy. “The story of Manipur is that of a running, live scar of battle. It runs across the hills and through the valley. Apart from insurgent groups at war with the Indian state, protesting the original kingdom’s merger with India, there are several ethnic groups at war with each other. Arms are everywhere… Children go to school crossing barricades; they see uniformed men with guns at almost every crossroad and they know the drill of midnight knocks,” she writes.
Some of the facts she has gathered tell an ominous tale: “As of October 2015, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, almost 42 identifiable underground groups (or UGs) operate in the state.” So large swathes of Manipur “belong not to the government that ostensibly rules but to insurgent outfits who extort and govern”. Then, there’s the ‘armour of AFSPA’, which protects the forces wherever they move in the state. When the Act was first passed, it was applied in parts of Assam, Nagaland and troubled hill areas of Manipur, where the Naga secessionist movement was raging, but by 1980, entire Manipur came under AFSPA. And despite many reports of human rights violations and army excesses, AFSPA continues to be in place. And Sharmila’s fast continues.
As Bhonsle met Sharmila—and her family—many times over the years, we get a glimpse into the life of Manipur’s Iron Lady and her brave struggle: “Descriptions of Sharmila rarely venture beyond her fast, her unique feeding form and her resilient spirit. To describe her solely like this would be to not get her at all. Here was a woman infinitely comfortable in her own skin… she was an ordinary person, sensitive, easily hurt. Beneath her physical confidence there was a layer of timidity, shyness, a childlike impatience, even despair.” And when Sharmila falls in love with Britain-based Desmond Coutinho, “those around her reacted adversely…
She was an icon and icons didn’t fall in love”.
Bhonsle brings us stories from all over Manipur, and also from Ukhrul, where the hold of the Naga rebel group, NSCN (IM), is complete. Traces of governmental authority, says Bhonsle, in the form of development schemes can survive in Ukhrul only after the NSCN (IM) gives a ‘no-objection’. As a government official tells her, “The NSCN (IM) is not anti-development, as long as their cut is paid.” An army major tells her: “I am saying things are ugly, I am also saying there are very few innocent bystanders.”
On August 3, 2015, Delhi and the NSCN (IM) signed a tentative peace accord, but the agreement details are still unknown to the people, just one of the many omissions Manipur has had to face. One of the demands of the NSCN (IM) is to redraw borders of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur to set up Greater Nagaland or Nagalim by including all Naga-inhabited places in these states. As Bhonsle writes, Manipur has a large stake in any peace accord with the NSCN (IM), but it remains clueless and the promise of peace has changed little on the ground.
“The land beyond the Chicken’s Neck remains trapped in time… Everything is in a state of violent, tragic flux,” she writes. The AFSPA has been lifted from Tripura, why can’t it happen in Manipur?
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer