Manipur people are demanding justice and an end to the impunity granted security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)
While the rest of India celebrated its 62nd year as an independent country, in its northeast corner there was little to celebrate. On July 23, "an ordinary day" in the Manipur capital, Imphal — if indeed there is such a thing as an "ordinary day" — Rabina Devi, a pregnant woman, was going to the market when she was shot dead as the police chased a young man. At the same time, a "suspected militant" was pushed into a pharmacy and shot. The police claimed he had shot at them. But the fake "encounter" killing was captured by a photographer (who is petrified of being discovered) and leaked to the magazine Tehelka. The 12 pictures are a damning indictment as they clearly show an unarmed Chongkham Sanjit being pushed into the pharmacy and then being brought out dead and loaded onto a truck. All this happened in a crowded market place in broad daylight (at 10.30 a.m.).
Anger on the streets
The Tehelka expose has led to an explosion of anger on the streets of Imphal. Women, men, young people are out on the streets, agitating, demanding justice and an end to the impunity granted security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This demand is not new. It surfaces every now and then but refuses to die out. It requires only one incident for the anger to spill out on the streets. The State's response to such agitations is also not new. Dusk to dawn curfew, tear gas used against agitators, a show of force. In turn, people respond by calling bandhs, defying curfew and courting arrest. And so the cycle of violence continues.
This time, the problem is not limited to the Imphal valley, inhabited by the majority Meitei. Even in the hills where the Tanghkul Nagas live there have been bandhs and protests over the killing of two "suspected militants" on August 12. Manipur, according to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's address at the recent meeting of Chief Ministers in New Delhi, accounts for a third of all violent incidents in India's Northeast.
What always continues to amaze the outsider looking in to Manipur is the mobilisation of women and their fearlessness. Amateur videos on You Tube show scores of women on the streets, throwing down the gauntlet literally (they spread the cloth they wear as the upper garment as a sign of defiance as no one is supposed to trample on these) and facing a phalanx of police personnel armed with rifles and tear gas shells. The women from Imphal's remarkable all-women market, the Ema Keithel, have been courting arrest in droves as their mark of protest. The women are calling this another "Nupila" (women's war), reminiscent of the struggle against the British.
"We women cannot bear anymore as it has reached beyond a tolerable limit. That's why we have come out unitedly to get ourselves killed or get arrested by the police", Chaoba Devi, one of the women leading the agitation, told the press. Women talk about how curfew has disrupted education and the livelihood of thousands who depend on daily wages. A visit to Manipur earlier this year showed us the challenge of living under dusk to dawn curfew — and the burden women have to bear to ensure that their children are fed, that there is enough water, and that they can reach a healthcare facility if someone falls ill.
The situation in Manipur is highly complex. In a population of just about 25 lakhs, there are deep divisions along tribal and ethnic lines resulting in over 40 different underground groups fighting each other and the State. In addition, there are thousands of military and paramilitary troops who have extraordinary powers over the civilian population under the AFSPA.
The media in Manipur often has to rely on the media outside the State to report on what is going on as individual journalists are caught between the State and the underground groups. Even routine reporting is like walking through a minefield. As a woman journalist recently stated, they are "caught up between two hard stones, the State and the non-State." The photographer who captured the extra-judicial killing, for instance, would not have been able to publish those pictures in Manipur.
For those of us who live on the "mainland", as northeasterners often call the rest of India, it is imperative that we are at least educated about what is happening in a State like Manipur. Not everyone will understand the intricacies of the local politics. Manipur, of course, is not just a State infected with what appears a conflict without end. It is rich in theatre, music, sport — the award-winning woman boxer Mary Kom is from the State — the arts, traditional craft and much else. The first step towards engagement is information. And that, sadly, is sorely missing.
For, while the voluntary shutdown of Pune and Mumbai because of the swine flu scare was being widely reported and debated, we knew little about the forced shutdown of large parts of Manipur. And even as the media focused on the incident revolving around film star Shah Rukh Khan's so-called "detention" at Newark airport in the United States, few would know that people in a State like Manipur go through such incidents every day. Being asked to step out of line and questioned in another country might be offensive. But it surely cannot beat what you feel when you are questioned and checked even when you go about routine tasks in your own country. This is what thousands of people in Manipur experience very single day of their lives. And their protests are neither heard nor heeded.
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