Burning Manipur

In Search of ‘Chitrangada’

Saswati Datta Roy

Amere 2,500 km away, both physically and mentally, Manipur has never really captured people’s attention. Unfortunately Manipur stays untouched from public gaze.

Manipur, the land of Chitrangada. What a charming tale lies hidden within its borders! Once upon a moonlit spring, Manipuri princess Chitrangada bewitched the mighty warrior Arjuna with her beauty and fiery spirit. Oh, what a wonderful drama of love and detachment intermingled with each other! The fragmentary epic weaves profound passion unfolding amidst grand national politics. Being framed in this mythical, mystical romance, Manipur becomes an enigma entwined with legendary tales.

Yet, mainland people never bothered to “recognise” Manipur in their socio-economical as well as political space.

But suddenly, a flicker of light reveals the truth–medieval barbarity has engulfed the land! The violence against two girls shocks everybody, and social media profiles turn black in solidarity. The aggrieved indulge in cartoons, posts, and poems to express themselves, as if that would change the bitter reality.

For the past two months internet connection of entire Manipur was severely shutdown and the state was doomed in total isolation. The condition is suspicious, but mainland people just ignore it. In fact, Manipur, Manipuri Net or Manipuri Fate–it’s all the same to the people.

But now, due to compulsion of circumstances people change their mindset, want to protest eagerly and raise voice:
“Why the drum beats and beats
Hey the watchman?
The blue door has knocked by the cloud-army–
Why the drum beats and beats
Hey the watchman?
The freighted door
And the closest floor
Shivers down terror
Ho watchman, why the drums beat and beat with tremor?”
(by Sankha Ghosh)

On 27 April, the Manipur High Court in its verdict awarded the Meiteis the Scheduled Tribe status. But did the Manipur government speak up then? No, they maintained calculated silence, indifferent to the rights and emotions of the other scheduled tribes. The looming storm of discontent was evident, but they chose to pretend it didn’t exist.

The court’s order became visible to the public like a rare comet streaking across the sky. Then chaos and lawlessness followed suit, almost like an orchestra playing the symphony of unrest.

“We’ll not comply, nor shall we accept”.–A tribal solidarity march took place consisted of Kuki, Naga and Jomi community on 3 June against this verdict and clashes erupted like popcorn in a hot pan. The Kuki-Naga-Jomi communities didn’t want to get involved in the mess consciously, but they were in trap! Then, from that night itself, clashes began in Manipur. The intensity of this clash was so violent that within just two days, by May 4th, the number of dead had surpassed 70. Internet services were suspended. Countless lives were shattered, disconnected from modern India.

The rest of the country got to know the situation bit by bit through various reports and analyses breaking free from the womb of silence. The Manipur government did not utter a single word on this verdict at that moment. The government seemed sufficiently indifferent to the rights, emotions, and pride of the tribe. The high court’s decision, accepting Meiteis’ recognition, was not well received by other communities, so the government preferred a policy of silent stalling.

This stillness obviously indicated an imminent storm. When the recognition of one community happens, it may create deprivation, inferiority, and frustration among other groups, even if their rights of water and forest remain unaffected.

But how the elites, the astute society of Manipur perceived this looming cloud of darkness is honestly, a matter of curiosity?

To quench this curiosity, the news of two girls being stripped and paraded was brought to light on July 19th. But even before June, the country’s National Commission for Women’s Chairperson, Rekha Sharma, had been informed about this incident in detail. In a recent interview, Rekha Sharma explicitly stated that she had been informed in writing about the atrocities against women of the Kuki-Jomi community. Even more astonishingly, the truth of this matter has been revealed by Rekha Sharma sending three letters to the Manipur government in the past three months. But the Manipur administration has not even acknowledged the receipt of those letters until now.

In other words, the enlightened were not blind at all! But the problems were not taken seriously by the Manipur government or the police administration for some unknown reason. As a result, the reputation of the nation was plundered, the ‘consciousness’ slipped out and fell in the threshold of the nation.

All the Kuki, Naga, Jomi communities certainly did not wish to be involved in the conflict. The desire for a non-violent resolution with the National Women’s Commission was evident in a section of Manipur civil society. Even amidst this lawlessness, there undoubtedly exists a united “Manipuri” identity, like that of an undivided Bengali. But when internet services were cut off in the month of May, the rebellious voices couldn’t reach outside Manipur. Unfortunately pain of Manipur didn’t resonate everywhere.

Before saying ‘Shame,’ before protesting against nudity, it is better to accept this truth. Actually, the common people, have never considered them their own.

A fake video was released and circulated in the market to instigate the conflict between Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. What was in that video?

This was a fabricated video, with a blueprint of an assault and rape scene. The date mentioned in the video was May 3rd. A female nurse was being assaulted. On the night of May 3rd, the incident took place at Churachandpur Hospital in Manipur, where the nurses were attacked by a group known as ‘Kuki-Naga’ extremists.

However, the video was misleading, and everything changed when the fire broke out. The conflict escalated quickly due to the intense fire that engulfed Manipur. What happened next?

On May 4th, in a village near Thoubal district, there was an attack by Meitei militants. According to the statements of a 21-year-old girl who was a victim of the attack, the perpetrators were heavily armed with AK-47, INSAS, and SLR rifles.

How did these heavily-armed individuals with modern AK-47s, INSAS, and SLRs reach the hands of a special group so quickly? Even a self-loading rifle (SLR) or AK-47 cannot be found in the open market. Not even the state police have access to such armaments. How did a fully equipped modern group gain control over them so quickly?

As a result of this unjust aggression, the helpless villagers were forced to flee. This exodus brought a Kuki family to the shelter of a nearby jungle, accompanied by two women from the village. Escaping the atrocities, harassment, and murders made their entry into the jungle difficult. Perhaps their tribal instincts had made them forest-dwellers.

The whole night passes in fear, and in the morning, the family returns to the village. On their way back, they see a police vehicle from Nongpok police station. The terrified and fearful family thus seeks refuge with the police and the police team sets off on a journey to provide them with a safe place to stay for their protection.

However, while returning to the police station, the criminals surrounded them on the road. The assailants brutally murdered the 21-year-old survivor’s father and younger brother right in front of the police without any hindrance. According to the survivor’s statement, the assailants threatened to kill all three women. Afterward, they took the two women completely naked to a paddy field, threatening to rape them, then and there. They said, “Lay down. We will rape you. Your boys have raped our girls.”

But since she knew some of the men, who were present there, she wasn’t raped.

The video of the incident, where the naked women were constantly being groped by others was posted on Twitter. Until then, the two women were not assaulted further as they were known to the criminals.

While the women were being undressed, they were threatened by saying, “either undress yourselves, or we will kill you”, the police was standing, being a silent audience. Before the video was circulated everywhere, the police or the state was the first to witness this with their own eyes.

After May 4th, as a result, fourteen days were spent in spellbound horror. Then, on May 18th, with the help of the head of Bifineam village in Kangpokpi district, the survivor filed a ‘Zero FIR’ in the same district’s Saikul police station. On June 21st, Manipur police filed an FIR, and felt that the “great duty was accomplished”, and satisfied with their work, they peacefully slept for another thirty days.

Manipur continues to burn. The whole of India witnesses the fire and the entire nation turns a deaf ear, returning to their own concerns.

After the video went viral, “India Today” reported it first. Within approximately twenty-four hours, this nudity, this appalling incident, pierced the entire nation with shame. Manipur’s police-administration-chief minister’s delayed slumber is shattered. And at around 1.30 am, only one boy was arrested for this crime.

However, the two naked women were clearly held by seven to eight hooligans, each of them were clearly visible in the video. With a little investigation, each of them can be identified and traced.

Meanwhile, the democratic netizens were busy, blissfully unaware, sipping tea, pretending like nothing was happening.

Now people finally felt a hint of shame! Manipur is just a pawn in the prudent political game.

So, Manipur continues to burn, while the rest of India turns a blind eye and goes about their daily lives. The parliamentary session has already begun. Just 78 days after the incident, the Prime Minister has spent only twenty eight seconds discussing the “sad events” of Manipur. Although, outside the parliament, he stated that he was disturbed, pained, and angry at the event, which has brought shame to civilisation. He promised that the culprits will be punished, and strict measures will be taken. However, this statement was not recorded in Lok Sabha, though it was reported outside!

Why is there such a hush-hush about this issue? How did the conflict reach such a dangerous level in both central and state territories where the same government is in power? Is what’s happening in Manipur still not a conflict? If it is a conflict, there are two clear sides. Is it between Meiteis and Kukis? Or is it a Vaishnav vs Christian conflict? 246 churches were reportedly burnt .Like the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, what is this claim of “taking everything, even women”? So, even in a matriarchal society, does it mean that women are just objects, usable for marketing and buying?

Why is the oppression of only two or three women highlighted while the bigger issues are not addressed? If Meiteis are being ethnically integrated, why are Kukis being targeted? Is it the fear that leads them on the path of violence? Do Kukis participate in solidarity marches with the Naga Jomi? Is their unity a threat to Meiteis---the supposed elites? Are they so superior that they disdain any attempt to uplift the consciousness of the supposedly backward, and take their AK-47 to Kuki villages?

“Love blooms amongst palash, Ashok, shimul.
But the greedy teeth still shine. The colourful spring fails to find the meaning of life,
And you are deceived by the tremendous treachery.
You live in the house of cards,
Doing everything per rules,
And you often think to yourself,
Who are they?
Sitting right above you,
Taking accounts of your every move, calculating everything?”
(by Ranadev Dasgupta)

Behind these extreme exaggerating expressions of shame, disappointment, and resentment, is there any other major truth being suppressed? Is there a bigger imposition of totalitarianism happening in Manipur? Is Manipur victim to any separatist movement or contemporary despotism that people are unable to grasp?

The civilised people of India, often forget that a huge amount of people of this great grand nation still lives with the wilderness of the forests in their heart. The forest is not merely a weekend venture to them like urban people. To them the jungle is a concept incorporated with dream and destiny, ego and self esteem.

Then, in this fiery spring, amidst the hustle and bustle of media coverage, can there be any real solution? Is it a tricky power-game by which the episode of ‘Khandav-dahan’ is faded whereas the ‘Dyutakrira Parva’ along with the ‘Vastraharan Parva’ highlights with a prompt cunning way?

An unfortunate history is repeated. The Forestry Rights are on stake! The glorious era of Lord Dalhousie’s masterstrokes, the art of political trickery reached its zenith. And now, in the realm of Independent India, one witnesses the reincarnation of forced land acquisition through the sacred law of jungle decimation, all cleverly wrapped in a circular by the Environment Minister on 28th June. Oh, how convenient for those private corporations seeking to devour the forests for their selfish interests!

So, if one dares to defend the rights of the wilderness, be prepared to be labelled as a rebel, a traitor or a terrorist! Tragically enough, the Kuki, Zomi, and Naga people, like the mythical creatures of ancient tales, are now branded as enemies of the state.

Manipur, the jewel of the northeast, is showered with the “benevolent” inclusion of the elite into the corridors of power. Yes, the good old Divide and Rule policy is alive and kicking, albeit with a modern twist of “ethnic cleansing.” And how wonderfully systemic it is to decorate the massacre of forests while turning a blind eye to the real villains! People conveniently forget that beneath Manipur’s mountainous embrace lies a wealth of precious minerals, eagerly coveted by the big business.

China’s creeping invasion, Bangladeshi immigration crisis and Indian corporates’ potential exploitation of Vanishing Manipur; the democratic rights of this forsaken land stand at the mercy of opportunistic greed. Who will speak for Manipur? India or China? Who will triumph over the jungles--- the corporate rules or the tribal community like Kuki, Naga, Zomi or Meitei elites? Then Manipur is no more than an “Object of Desire” to the powers that be, a mere pawn in their eternal game of control. Who will be its master? Who shall claim its sovereignty?

What does Manipur want? What does it desire? The nation hardly gives it a thought. And the so-called proponents of democracy seem equally disinterested.

Today, as the canvas of spring paints itself red with the blood of resistance, the media’s fleeting glances and moments of conscience prove futile in finding any real solutions.

In the grand drama of Manipuri Nupilal revolt, the courageous tales of “Mairi Paiba” and “Ima” echoes through history’s corridors. But honestly, on the political stage of Manipur, the magical music of Manipuri flute and the enchanting verses find no place.

Instead, people witness the birth of a blue-printed conspiracy to steal Manipur’s bountiful land and minerals.

Time is of the essence. Time is slipping away! It’s time to embrace the timeless courage and March boldly towards Manipur’s embrace, where the fire of resistance shall be nurtured.

No, it’s not the charming Kuki damsel who is suffering; it’s India’s beloved democracy that has been violated. It’s the protest against injustice that’s being looted. While the mighty Kumbhakarna snores, the opposing voices gain strength, constantly and constantly.

“Why does the watchman stay silent? Why does the watchdog not bark?”

Honestly, what a time to be alive! What a delightful time to be an Indian!

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Vol 56, No. 7, Aug 13 - 19, 2023