Archive for the ‘Manipur’ Category

They’ve been at the forefront of social and political activism in Manipur but women haven’t got their due share in power yet. The forthcoming Assembly elections hold out little hope that things will change. Sonia Sarkar looks into the reasons why


  • LADIES LAST: Irom Sharmila Chanu (centre)

Imphal. It’s 4am. At five degrees, 44-year-old Irom Sharmila Chanu warms up with an hour-long suryanamaskar. She boils some rice and ‘laphu tharo’ (banana florets) for breakfast. At 7am, donning her green phanek and yellow pullover with a pink shawl, she prepares for a long day ahead. A water bottle, hat and a scarf in the bicycle basket, she sets off for Thoubal, 30 kilometres away.

“I like to start early. I get more hours of the day to meet people,” says Sharmila, famed rights activist and co-convener of the newly formed People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA).

She is having to work hard. After all, she is taking on the three-time sitting chief minister of Manipur and Congress leader, Okram Ibobi Singh, in the forthcoming Assembly elections. Also, being a woman politician in Manipur isn’t easy.

Bharatiya Janata Party’s Indira Oinam, who has been into politics for the past eight years, knows better. “As women politicians, we are made to feel that we are intruding into the man’s world and every day, we need to fight this patriarchal mindset,” says Indira, who too has pitted herself against Ibobi Singh (this is her second attempt at unseating him).

  • Indira Oinam

The irony is that women feel politically left out in a state where they have been at the forefront of many a battle. “Having women participate in social agitations is one thing, giving them their rights in politics quite another. We have failed to do the latter,” says S. Mangi Singh, professor of political science at Manipur University.

There is only a handful of women in politics in Manipur. In the outgoing state Assembly, only three of the 60 MLAs are women. And for the coming Assembly, only two women other than Sharmila and Indira have entered the fray. Both are from Congress – Akoijam Mirabai Devi from Patsoi constituency in west Imphal and Nemcha Kipgen, a Kuki from the Kangpokpi constituency in Sadar Hills. The celebrated boxer and the Rajya Sabha MP, Mary Kom, is likely to be courted by the BJP for campaigning.

“There are only a few women candidates because it’s predominantly a patriarchal society, so the real decision-making power lies with men,” Mangi Singh says.

But it’s not that women in Manipur have no say in society at all. Two Nupi Lan (women’s agitation) movements, the first in 1904 and then in 1939, both against the British, became the defining moments of woman power in the state. Protests led by Rani Gaidinliu against the British, forcing them to leave Manipur, is a local legend. In 1925 and 1932, women also led agitations against the increase of water tax by the then king.

When the late Indira Gandhi was addressing a gathering in Imphal’s polo ground in 1969, women staged a black flag vigil to press their demand for statehood. Curfew was imposed but three years later, statehood was granted.

  • Nemcha Kipgen

An all-woman campaign for prohibition, called Nisha Bandh, was much highlighted in the 70s. Irom Sharmila’s 16-year-long fast to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is iconic, of course. Also, Meira Paibis, or women torchbearers, redefined public protests when 12 naked Manipuri women agitated against the killing of 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi by security forces. Imphal’s all-women Ima market, centre point of the Nupi Lan movement, is considered to be a sign of women’s economic progress.

“But in politics, women are treated as second-class citizens,” says 57-year-old Akoijam Mirabai, the social welfare and co-operatives minister. “People feel women are not committed to politics and their focus is the family.”

That’s the reason Mirabai never got married. “I wanted to tell people that I am serious about politics,” she says.

But the journey wasn’t easy for her when she joined politics in 1980 at the age of 17 – first as part of the Congress Sevadal and then the Mahila Congress. “My neighbours used to tell my parents that my image as a woman would be tarnished if I joined politics. I fought every gaze and every taunt because I knew politics was my true calling,” says Mirabai, who hails from Taobungkhok in west Imphal.

There are several deterrents for women. “Women lack winnability. Even if we want to give tickets to women, we would lose out seats because the BJP might just put up stronger male candidates there. Social goals and political gains cannot go hand in hand,” says a Manipuri Congress leader.

In contrast to national politics, where political parties often foreground women candidates, keeping their glamour quotient in mind, Manipur politicians don’t look at “glamour” as a valid reason to give tickets to women. But glamour or no glamour, Indira thinks, women should get a chance. “When our PM talks about beti bachao, beti padhao, women should get priority in politics,” she says.

A senior BJP leader in Imphal argues that elections are all about money and muscle power and women fail to exhibit both, in most cases. “Indira will fight against Ibobi Singh but we are not projecting her as the CM candidate,” says the BJP leader.

Indira, who fetched 3,668 votes in the 2012 elections, the second largest tally any BJP candidate swung in Manipur, has faced such a bias once before. In 2014, Indira was expecting to get the ticket for Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency but the party chose R.K. Ranjan Singh, instead. Women members of the party protested openly, but quite in vain.

In the past, women in Manipur have mostly contested elections under the legacy of their powerful husbands in politics. For example, former Manipur King Bodhachandra’s wife, Srimati Ishwari Devi, contested from the Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency in 1952, but lost.

The first elected woman in the Manipur state Assembly, Hangmila Shaiza, came into politics in 1990 after the assasination of her husband and the former chief minister, Yangmaso Shaiza. Similarly, K. Apabi Devi won the 1992 by-elections after MLA K. Bira Singh died in a plane crash. Both benefited from “sympathy votes”, writes Binarani Devi in her paper, “Electoral Politics and Women”.

Again, Wahengbam Leima Devi, wife of Angou Singh, contested and got elected from Singh’s seat in 2000, only after Singh became an MP. Landhoni Devi, wife of Ibobi Singh, contested and won from the Khangabok constituency in 2007 and 2012 after Singh vacated it as he could retain only one, and that was Thoubal. In Ibobi Singh’s party, patriarchy rules. “Now that his son, Okram Surajkumar, is contesting, Landhoni Devi has had to sacrifice her seat. A woman has to make way for the male members of the family,” a state Congress leader says.

Mirabai feels that her singlehood is certainly a boon for her as a politician. “Being single, I don’t have the compulsion to listen to my husband, at least,” she laughs.

  • M.C. Mary Kom

Mirabai and Nemcha are the only two women to have made a mark in mainstream Manipuri politics without any political patronage. “When I joined politics in 2012, many discouraged me but now they are happy to see that I have sustained,” says Nemcha, who left her job as a nurse in Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences to join politics.

Nemcha – her husband S.T. Thangboi Kipgen is chairman of the United People’s Front, a Kuki militant group – claims one of her biggest achievements is forcing the government to create the new district of Kangpokpi – a longstanding demand of the people of her constituency. The creation of seven new districts, which led to an economic blockade by the Nagas, is one of the issues in the Manipur elections, besides the Centre’s secret peace deal with the NSCN-IM, corruption, unemployment and repeal of AFSPA.

But issues related to women such as compensation to widows, whose husbands were killed either by the militants or the state forces, and women’s empowerment are also likely to enter party manifestos.

In fact, political parties often float women self-help groups to generate funds. In Manipur, a woman’s entry into politics is mostly through social work. Both Indira and Mirabai were well-known social workers before joining politics. But few make it to the decision-making level of the party.

Here, another irony. Female voters have outnumbered the male voters in almost every Manipur election. In 2012, 6,94,893 women cast their votes as opposed to 6,31,223 men. The truth remains, though, that – as Sharmila herself rues – even women voters lack confidence in women candidates. She’s set on contesting nevertheless.

Irom Sharmila has again been whisked into custody. Sonia Sarkar met her before that

The small feeding tube attached to her nose is missing. It was through this that Irom Sharmila Chanu was force-fed. “I feel so nice without it,” she says. “I want to be a free bird. I want to freely roam the streets of Imphal.”

She didn’t roam for long. A day after Manipur’s most enduring — though now seemingly reluctant — symbol of resistance was released by court orders, she was picked up again. The authorities said they were concerned about her health, for Sharmila was still on hunger strike — one that she started 13 years ago.

On November 4, 2000, Sharmila vowed that she would not eat till the government repealed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958, which gives sweeping powers to the army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. The trigger was the November 2 firing by security forces on civilians in Malom, in which 10 people were killed.

Since then she has been arrested, released and rearrested on charges of attempting suicide. But on Monday, Manipur’s sessions court dismissed the charges against her.

She was 28 when she started her hunger strike. Her niece, Irom Roma Devi, was 16 when her “cool aunt” was picked up by the police. The two had often spent time together — picking up books from the library or watching films. Their last film together was the Shah Rukh Khan- starrer Dil To Pagal Hai in the summer of 2000. In November, Roma’s nene (aunt) was taken into custody.

Now 42, Sharmila finds that life around her has changed.

When she began her dharna, more than 2,000 women sat on relay hunger strike with her. On Thursday morning, in a makeshift shack in Porampot in east Imphal, there are barely six women with her.

Her protest site is one of the busiest roads of Imphal. People pass by, but few stop to greet her. A couple with a small son praises her courage and faith, poses for photographs with her — and leaves.

Sharmila says she detests being hero-worshipped. I am no God, she says. “I don’t want to live like a symbol of resistance. I am no statue. I too have a desire which cannot be hidden,” she says, as tears roll down her cheeks.

Sharmila’s mother, Irom Sakhi Devi, whom she has not met for 13 years
Life took a new turn for her after she fell in love with Desmond Coutinho, a British social worker. She openly spoke of her love for the first time in an interview to The Telegraph in January, 2011.

Coutinho wrote to her in 2010, praising her courage, after reading Burning Bright, a book on Manipur written by Delhi academic Deepti Priya Mehrotra. The two started writing to each other, and were soon exchanging love letters. They have met only once — in a courtroom in 2011.

I show her an email that I’d received from Coutinho that day. He writes, “Tell her, I love her.”

She scrolls down the mail and smiles. “Tell him, I love him,” she replies. “I want him. He should be positive and hopeful for my freedom and success.”

Dressed in a traditional green phanek and a white embroidered kurta, a gift from Coutinho, with a traditional Manipuri shawl, she looks pale. Shiny black tendrils play on her forehead. She doesn’t comb her hair — having vowed she wouldn’t do so till her demands were met. Nurses in the hospital where she was lodged say she used to rinse her hair with water mixed with rice and vegetable peels thrice a week to soften her hair. She used cotton and spirit to clean her mouth instead of water so that water wouldn’t go down her throat.

After the lukewarm response in Porampot, the crowds at Ima market, the biggest all-woman market in Asia, are overwhelming. Thousands have gathered to greet her, and she is welcomed with garland after garland — red, green, yellow. Women kiss her forehead, touch her hands and hug her.

“The market has changed,” she says. “It was a dingy place with tin roofs. Now it is a concrete building.” Imphal, indeed, has changed dramatically in these 13 years — with three-star hotels, super-specialty hospitals, mega markets and IT companies having come up across the Manipur capital.

But what catches Sharmila’s eyes is the use of mobile phones. “Every other person is on a cellphone,” she says.

There have been dramatic changes in her own life, too. Her relationship with her brother, Irom Singhajit, 14 years older, is not the same. Singhajit was her closest sibling, but differences between the two cropped up in 2011 soon after he asked her not to publicly acknowledge her relationship with Coutinho. “People of Manipur will stop supporting her if she gets involved in such relationships,” he says.

In interviews to the media, Sharmila accused her brother of threatening her. Coutinho also alleged that he had been warned not to meet her.

“But now I have asked them not to trouble Coutinho. My life is not under anyone’s control,” she says, as her fingers play with the cover of a book titled Speeches that Changed the World. She is an avid reader — and has read almost everything written by Kahlil Gibran, Orhan Pamuk and Khushwant Singh. A pile of books lies in room No. A-4 in the special ward of Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital — where she was lodged.

On Thursday, though, she refuses to talk about her incarceration. “I want to erase my hospital days from my memory,” Sharmila says. She is more focused on the future — and wants quick action. She hopes to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to remind him of a promise made by the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It had said that if the BJP came to power at the Centre, the AFSPA would be revoked in Manipur.

“If the AFSPA is revoked in Manipur, I will give up my fast. But I will carry on with the movement to repeal the act,” she says.

If it is revoked in Manipur, she will be able to see her mother — whom she has not met for 13 years. “If I meet her, she will get emotionally weak. So we promised to meet only after her demand was met,” Irom Sakhi Devi, 84, says.

Does she believe the government will listen to her? “I believe in miracles. A miracle will happen.” The onus to carry on, however, is on the people of Manipur, she says. At a press conference, she says: “I have not had a drop of water for the last 14 years. Please help me, I am yearning to have my first meal.”

But Sharmila is back in room A-4. On Friday, barely 40 hours after her release, she was forcibly picked up, put in a Maruti Gypsy, and whisked away. She will be in judicial custody for 15 days.

She is now being fed intravenously. But the feeding tube may soon be back.

Manipur is seeing a resurgence of polo. Schools have been encouraging students to play polo and women have taken to the game. Polo clubs have been mushrooming in the state.

When the city downs its shutters, H. Kaoba, 35, gets ready for action. A bandh in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, may force most residents to stay indoors. But Kaoba heads for the fields, where, with a group of like-minded people, he plays a robust game of polo.

“During bandhs, when everyone else is home, we play polo,” says the farmer’s son.

Kaoba has been playing the game for the last 22 years. But he says there has been a sudden interest in the game in the strife-torn state in recent years. “It seems to have got a new lease of life.”

If youngsters across the country are donning their football T-shirts or white flannel for cricket, the Manipuri youngster is atop a pony, playing polo — which is believed to have originated centuries ago in Manipur. Known as Sagol Kangjei, it was a game played by princes and their companions. Today, it’s every Manipuri’s favourite sport.

Polo clubs have been mushrooming across the Imphal valley and in neighbouring Bishnupur and Thoubal. Around 20 clubs have opened in the last three years, taking the total number to 33.

“Even five years ago, there were only a few clubs,” says Girimohan Singh, former captain of the state team.

The game has picked up also because the state has been hosting global polo tournaments. Though the tournament was first held in 1991, it was discontinued for lack of funds. But it was revived in 2012, and polo enthusiasts are now waiting for the 2014 games, to be held in November.

The tournament, being held with corporate funding, features teams such as England’s Hurlingham polo club and others from France, Germany and Thailand. The organisers hope that UK’s Prince William will be present during the matches as the chief guest.

“We also want him to play an exhibition match with our local players where the game will be played in the traditional way with a team of seven players,” adds S. Budhhachandra Singh, president, Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association (MHRPA), the body which organises several local matches and the international tournament.

The game, which is elsewhere played on horse with sticks and balls, has changed over time in Manipur. The teams don’t consist of seven members but of four members as everywhere else.

The only difference is that players sit on Manipuri ponies and not horses. These ponies, about 52 inches at the shoulder, are much loved beasts. There was a time when every house in Manipur had a pony, used for transport as well as to ward off enemies. The sturdy ponies now cost anything from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh.

Manipuris say that families have started keeping ponies at home. “And anyone who has a pony invariably learns to play polo,” MHRPA vice-president Rajkumar Dilip Singh says.

But the game is not restricted to affluent families. Schools, cutting across strata, have also been encouraging students to play polo. “Children start to learn the game at the age of 12 or 13. Schools want us to give them lessons in pony riding, and then polo,” Girimohan Singh, who is a member of the Nambul Mapal Polo club, adds.

“We encourage the children to keep the tradition alive. Polo was first invented in Manipur and the state should be known to the world for this,” he stresses.

Legend has it that the game was played in the court of King Ningthou Kangba in the 15th century. But it was in the 19th century, during the rule of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, that the game attracted attention — especially of the British. It gained in popularity as an assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar in Assam, Captain Robert Stewart, held a match with Manipuri kings and their team at Silchar. Stewart also set up India’s first polo club in Silchar.

In 1864, a British officer, Lt John Shearer, took a team of seven Manipuri players — called the Band of Brothers — to Calcutta for a match against a British team. The match ended in a draw, but the players returned to Manipur and started popularising the game there.

“Those were the days when everyone played polo — not just kings but ordinary people too,” Dilip Singh says.

The game remained popular till the 1950s. But with construction and the disappearance of grazing grounds for ponies, interest waned. In 1977, the MHRPA was set up by a handful of polo enthusiasts to revive the game. In 2005, the MHRPA started a pony breeding farm. It has 102 ponies which are hired by players who don’t own one.

Manipuri women have been playing the game, too. The state has five teams of women players, and there are separate tournaments for women participants.

Deventy Devi, a 28-year-old player, stresses that polo is a challenge for women in a patriarchal society. “It was hard to convince my parents that I too wanted to play polo because there was a pony at home. They were convinced only after I proved to be a better player than my brothers,” the Imphal Riding Club member says.

Manipuris have another reason to be interested in the game. Polo players often find jobs in the government. Sinam Bimol Singh, 38, is now a constable with the Manipur police — and believes that it’s polo that got him the job. “I learnt the game because I loved it. But I never thought it would help me get a job — and an identity,” he says. Bimol is one of the 30 players who have government jobs.

Some of the senior players feel that the game needs a professional touch. “If the government gives it a push, we will make Manipur visible on the global map. We want to give us a different identity through the game of polo,” says 54-year-old M. Manihar, who has been playing for the past 30 years.

For those who grew up in times of violence, polo is not just fun. “When we are mounted on a pony, we feel that the world is under control. There is no fear even if the state is under siege,” Kaoba says.

Polo’s past

Polo the game was played in the court of King Ningthou Kangba in the 15th century. But it attracted attention in 19th century, during the rule of King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba.

Polo is said to have become popular after an assistant deputy commissioner of Cachar in Assam, Captain Robert Stewart, held a match with Manipuri kings and their team at Silchar. Stewart also set up the first polo club in India in Silchar.

In 1864, A British officer, Lt John Shearer, took a team of seven Manipuri players — called the Band of Brothers — to Calcutta for a match against a British team. The match ended in a draw, but the players returned to Manipur and started popularising the game there.

A little village in Manipur has pinned its hope on the new Prime Minister. Sonia Sarkar tells us why

WAITING FOR PM: Children in front of the village school
When Bebe Jackson heard about Narendra Modi — then just a prime ministerial candidate — he was intrigued. The 28-year-old Manipuri knew little about him because he had been working in Ghana for several years. Back in India, Jackson quickly did a background search on the Internet — but not because Modi seemed set to rule India. Jackson’s interest was triggered by the fact that his village was also called Modi.

“I started reading about him because I wanted to know if he had any connections with our village,” Jackson says. “I must say I was disappointed to discover that there was none.”

Village Modi in Manipur’s Chandel district is five kilometres from Chandel town. The village — inhabited by the Anal people of the Naga tribe — is surrounded by hills. A narrow lane, covered with pebbles, runs through the village, with single-storey wood houses on its two sides. The lane curves up to the village church, which is where the villagers meet to discuss social and political issues.

These days, Modi is the topic of discussion. The village of 253 Christians has been in a state of excitement ever since the 2014 elections were announced.

L. Hringam, who runs a grocery shop
“We are extremely happy that our village shares its name with the Prime Minister. Now we hope that the fate of our village will change,” says L. Hringam, 68. “We want him to visit us. We too want to see ‘achhe din’ (good days).”

Modi’s election slogan of better times is reiterated by the people of Modi, who have lived without basic facilities such as water and electricity all their lives. “The Chapki river is the source of drinking water and we use the same water for cleaning,” says 64-year-old R.T. Thintra, who runs the only grocery store of the village with her husband, Hringam.

The river itself is a cause of worry. The previous United Progressive Alliance government had proposed the construction of a dam for the Chapkimultipurpose hydroelectric project. “But our village will be submerged if this dam is constructed,” says P.S. Raylee, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently. “In fact, we would want Prime Minister Modi to stop this project. He should do something to save the village which bears his name,” he says.

Some of the villagers have been following Modi’s rise to power since he became the chief minister of Gujarat for the fourth time in 2012. “We used to joke that this man was making us proud by doing such good work in Gujarat,” says village chief K.L. John.

Modi’s name was heard more often as local BJP leaders started campaigning for the elections this spring. The thrill peaked when the party organised its first election rally in the state in Chandel. “The BJP never took so much interest in our district or our village before. But it was different in this election — they wanted to reach out to everyone,” John says.

Twenty men from the village attended a rally that Modi addressed in Imphal. Modi spoke of unemployment and corruption and promised to develop the state. Vastly impressed by his speech, 130 people of Modi voted for BJP, John says.

“For the first time, this village voted for the BJP,” says W.S. Kanral Anal, president of the Chandel Naga People’s Organisation. But Gangmumei Kamei, the BJP candidate of outer Manipur — the Lok Sabha Constituency of all hill districts including Chandel — lost the election to the sitting MP, Thangso Baite of the Congress.

Villagers on the steps of the Modi Baptist Church
The villagers now hope to make the most of their village name. Folklore has it that the village was set up in 1893 by a man called Pashel Modi, who also belonged to the Anal tribe. Village elders say that Modi and his wife, Nula Pethem, came in search of a new place when his own village became too crowded.

“Once he discovered this place, he named it after himself,” Thintra says.

This village has been a part of world history too. Elders in the village believe that some people spied for the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II, during the battle of Imphal.

Hringam’s grandfather was one of them. “My grandfather used to keep an eye on the British soldiers who hid in our village,” he says.

In 1946, an old bomb shell burst, killing seven villagers. “We also discovered a bunker in the village,” he adds.

But all that is history. Modi, the village, wants to move on. And that’s because it’s caught in a time warp.

Villagers mostly survive on the rice that they grow. Barely 10 families in the village have their own land; the others work in the paddy fields as daily wagers.

The villagers complain of unemployment, and about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which promises to give 100 days of work in a year. The people say they barely get 40 days of work and are mostly underpaid.

The young ones have been moving out of the village in search of jobs. Some have joined the Manipur police force or the army. Raylee, a graduate from Chandel’s United College, worked in a call centre in Delhi for a year, but came back to “do something” for his village.

At a tea stall
He and a few other men pooled in money to repair the rain ravaged state highway. Nobody from the government paid any heed to it, so the villagers say they decided to do it themselves.

“It took us more than a month to repair the road. But the village gets cut off from the rest of the world if this highway is not functional,” Raylee says.

PM Modi would like their sense of enterprise. In the late 60s, when the village didn’t have a school, the villagers set up their own primary school by hiring three teachers from nearby areas. But though the school got government recognition in 1971, the village children have to walk to Chandel town for secondary and higher secondary education.

Local teachers believe their students will have a brighter future if the village catches the attention of Modi. “Just as Modi scripted his own destiny — from being a tea seller to becoming PM — our children too can do that if he gives them what they deserve, which is good education,” teacher Totorani Khumlo says.

But will Modi visit the village? Some point out that local BJP leaders visited the village only once after the election results were announced. They promised water and electricity but have not been seen since then.

But then lack of development is the story of many villages across India. Even Modi’s neighbouring Lamphoupasna village, also inhabited by Anal tribals, is underdeveloped. “We feel a little jealous because we too voted for the BJP. If he gives a special package to Modi, we too should get a share,” demands Nita Khumlo, who is an assistant teacher at a school in Chandel town.

Village Modi, however, continues to pin its hopes on its namesake. “We want Modi to turn this into a model village,” Raylee says. “Then the name of the village will be justified.”

(Published in The Telegraph, July 6, 2014

Manipur plans to have its own law to check drug trafficking. But it is nothing but a political gimmick as the state can’t have its law bypassing the already existing NDPS Act.

● June 2, 2013: Two persons arrested from Manipur’s Thoubal district for allegedly carrying six cartons of drugs without proper licence. The seized items include 41,314 Spasmo-Proxyvon capsules, 4,500 Nitrosun 10 tablets, 380 bottles of Lupicof Codeine syrup and 100 bottles of Rcof Codeine syrup.

● May 9, 2013: The officer in charge of Moreh Commando Post arrested for his alleged role in the trafficking of banned narcotic substances.

● February 24, 2013: Seven people, including a former defence PRO, arrested for allegedly trafficking a consignment of drugs to Myanmar through Moreh, a border town 110-km from Manipur’s capital Imphal. The son of former minister and Congress MLA T.N. Haokip also arrested in connection with the case.

Drug trafficking is not new in Manipur. But the recent cases have raised such an alarm that the state government is now proposing a new law to check the drug menace.

“We want stricter punishment for offenders who hold government office to instil a sense of fear in them. Government officers must know that they will not be spared if caught in the trafficking of drugs,” says a state home ministry official.

Currently, the offence of drug trafficking in India is governed by the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, and the Prevention of Illicit Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, 1985. The Manipur government plans to bring a new law that will be stricter than both these existing laws.

Manipur is one of the main transit points for drug trafficking in India. Drugs come to Manipur from the notorious Golden Triangle — the region covering Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. From Manipur these trafficked drugs find their way to other parts of the country as well as the Middle East. With the start of formal trade with Myanmar through Moreh in 1994, the illegal flow of drugs has increased.

Around 56.21kg of opium, 14.566kg of heroin and 6,808.40kg of ganja were recovered from Manipur in 2012. Besides this, large consignments of pharmaceutical preparations such as Corex, Phensedyl, Buprenorphine, Spasmo-Proxyvon too have been seized during raids in the state.

Drug abuse is one of the serious problems that the state has been grappling with. It is also one of the reasons for the rising number of HIV cases in the state.

The new law also plans to encourage informers who could help the police nab those involved in drug trafficking. “In the proposed law there will be rewards for informers who help the police capture any consignment of drugs being trafficked,” says Ishaq Shah, superintendent of police, narcotics and affairs of border, Manipur.

The state also proposes to increase the degree of punishment for offenders. The NDPS Act lays down that the punishment for the production, manufacture, possession, sale, purchase, transport, import, inter-state, export or use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances in small quantities is rigorous imprisonment up to six months or a fine of up to Rs 10,000 or both. “But the new law plans to increase the punishment to five years and double the amount of fine too,” the state home ministry official adds.

The big question, however, is whether the state can increase the quantum of punishment for an offence that is already being dealt with in a central act.

Most legal experts don’t think so. Going by the Supreme Court judgment in the T. Barai vs Henry Ah Hoe case in 1982, lawyers say that the state cannot alter the degree of punishment when there is already a central law on it.

“The Supreme Court had observed that where both laws prescribe punishment for the same offence but the punishment differs in degree or kind or in the procedure prescribed, the law made by Parliament shall prevail over the state law under Article 254(1),” says Tripti Tandon of Lawyers’ Collective.

Experts also point out that the state has the power to introduce rules but not make any law relating to the NDPS. “Sections 10 and 78 of the NDPS Act allow the states to make rules, but not enact a separate law,” says R.K. Sahoo, deputy director-general, Narcotics Control Bureau, eastern region. Adds Rajesh Nandan Srivastava, director, narcotics control, revenue department, Union ministry of finance, “Even if they formulate a new law, it would stand void. Their law cannot override the existing NDPS Act.”

However, law ministry officials in Manipur are hellbent on bringing in a new law. “We are studying the legal implications of a separate state law and it will be framed according to the parameters of the Constitution,” says state law secretary G. Rameshchandran.

Manipur’s law ministry officials also point out that the state can take the President’s assent for its law as per the provisions of Article 254(2).

Lawyers say that according to the Constitution, there are two aspects to whether Manipur can enact a separate state law to stop drug trafficking. “The first concerns the subject of the legislation, that is, drugs, which falls under Entry 19 of the Concurrent List in the 7th Schedule of the Constitution.

This means that both the Centre and the states can enact laws on this subject. However, in the event of an inconsistency between the central and the state laws, Article 254 of the Constitution comes into play. According to this, the central law will prevail over the state law,” Tandon says.

Some say the Manipur government is showing undue haste in introducing a new law to check drug trafficking only to pacify those who have taken to the streets protesting against the involvement of senior Army and Manipur police officials in drug trafficking.

“It is an attempt to show people that they are serious about eradicating the drug menace in the state. The NDPS Act is good enough to deal with the problem,” argues a senior Narcotics Control Bureau officer in Guwahati.

Clearly, the powers that be in Manipur beg to differ.

Ratan Thiyam, one of India’s best known theatre directors, feels the government does little to promote the arts.

Monks in saffron chant mantras in the dark. A beam of light slowly falls on them. The monks move in a circle, and then, from the centre, a very young Ashoka emerges, clad in a dhoti and paying homage to the priests.

The burly man who has taken his seat in the dimly lit empty auditorium is keenly observing the members of the Chorus Repertory Company as they rehearse the opening scene of his play Uttar Priyadarshi at Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre, a theatre in the heart of the city. Minutes later, the actors are queuing up — this time to seek the blessings of the man in their midst, Ratan Thiyam.

The doyen of Indian theatre and the founder of the repertory gives them a quick lesson. “If you don’t have discipline and professionalism, you fail as artistes,” Thiyam says.

He has both — which is possibly why he is one of India’s best known theatre directors today. A playwright, he is also the backbone of the modern Indian theatre. “We had all really worked hard and created an identity for Indian theatre. From a musician to a playwright to an actor — everyone contributed to the movement,” he says, referring to what’s known as the Theatre of Roots, the movement that shaped modern Indian theatre.

Thiyam, who has produced some 60 plays over 35 years, is in Delhi to receive the Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship for outstanding contribution to theatre. He has been flooded with awards over the years, but feels that the government needs to do more for the arts than just honour artistes.

“Giving away awards and honours is one thing while promoting art is another. In this country, there is no political will to promote art,” Thiyam, 65, says. “In India, many talented actors have no place to go.”

His voice is a deep baritone, and he speaks haltingly in English. He looks tired, and it seems that a part of his mind is on the play that is flowing in front of him. Through the interview, he is interrupted by people — actors and others — who want to have a quick word with him.

There’s much they can learn from him, for Thiyam is not just Manipur’s best known director and a former head of the National School of Drama, he has also seen the best of theatre. In his youth, he came across the works of — and interacted with — directors such as Utpal Dutt, Sambhu Mitra and Ajitesh Bandopadhyay.

“I saw a lot of eagerness, enthusiasm and courage in them to bring a change in Indian theatre. They were the real force behind the movement,” he says adding that Bandopadhyay had often invited him to Calcutta to watch Bengali plays.

The director’s relationship with Bengal is an old one. He was born in West Bengal’s Nabadwip because his Manipuri dancer parents — Thiyam Tarunkumar and Bilashini Devi — used to perform mostly in Bengal. As a child, he used to travel with his parents’ dancing troupe. “I was brought up in costume boxes,” he laughs, stroking his short, white beard.

That was also when he came in touch with the works of Rabindranath Tagore — whose plays he has been directing over the years. Apart from producing Shakudaba Shaknaiba based on Tagore’s Raja, he has translated many of his poems from Bengali into Manipuri. “I have always looked at Tagore as a spiritual guru,” he says.

Thiyam moved from Bengal to Manipur when he was in his teens. He lived with his grandparents in his ancestral house in Imphal’s Uripok and went to the Johnstone High School. By the time he was 14, he said he had starting hating everything about the performing arts, mainly because of all the travelling that his parents had to do. “I swore that I would never become a performing artiste,” he says.

What he wanted to do was paint. At 15, he also enrolled in a school of art in Imphal. Painting, he holds, is still his first love. In his plays such as Andha YugChinglon Mapan Tampak Ama and even in Uttar Priyadarshi, every scene looks like a painting — showcasing a combination of colour, music and movement.

Most of his plays are on epic themes, dealing with mythology while focusing on issues of personal responsibility and issues such as good and evil. “I love to experiment with the different philosophies of life. I am into the continuous process of discovering and re-discovering oneself and the art of theatre.”

That Thiyam’s whole self is devoted to theatre is evident. He deals with every aspect of a play — from writing the script to directing it, to composing music and creating the set designs. Manipur figures prominently in his works — including elements such as Manipuri raas leelathang-ta (Manipuri martial art), pung-cholom (acrobatic dance with drums), nata sankirtana (folk dance form) and wari liba (oral storytelling). “Tradition — with rituals and art — is so rich in the state that it cannot be taken away from theatre,” he says.

Ironically, Thiyam never thought he’d do theatre. He wanted to be a writer and had started penning poems and short stories in his teens. At the age of 17, he even published a compilation of short stories Lonna Haigey Tumimmatao.

Soon he was bringing out the literary journal Lasani and a cultural magazine Reetu. Then one day, when he was in his early 20s, a group of young actors in Imphal asked him to write a play for them.

He adapted and dramatised the Bengali novel Nabab Nandini by Damodar Mukhopadhyay. The director of the play asked for his assistance in direction. He agreed. Then, when one of the lead actors left the play four days before the show, he was coaxed into taking on his role.

“I had no choice but to agree. Surprisingly, everyone appreciated my work,” he recalls.

Gradually, he started acting in Manipuri plays produced by local theatre groups. The growing interest in theatre led him to the National School of Drama (NSD), which he joined in 1971.

“I wanted to brush up my Hindi and Urdu speaking skills, so I joined the acting course,” says Thiyam, who loves reading the works of Hindi poet Udayan Vajpeyi.

At NSD, Thiyam came under the spell of director Ebrahim Alkazi, whom he describes as his mentor. After watching Thiyam’s Chinglon Mapan Tampak Ama (Nine Hills One Valley), Alkazi had said to him: “With this one play, you’ve managed to outdo what I did in my entire life as a theatre artiste.”

But the student gives all the credit to the master. “He always told us that we had to work hard to get what we wanted. I wish I could be somewhere near him,” he says.

Thiyam returned to NSD as its director in 1987. He laments that the institute has failed to emerge as a centre of excellence even 54 years after its establishment.

“NSD has remained the same as it was in the 1970s,” Thiyam rues. “Regional centres of NSD should be opened for spotting talent from various parts of the country and this school should be transformed into a centre for advanced learning where one can do good research in theatre. NSD should produce more professionals,” he says.

It was to give theatre a boost that he set up his repertory company in 1976. But it was not an easy start, especially in the strife-torn Manipur.

“Initially, I couldn’t pay a salary to my actors as there were barely any sponsors in Manipur. All I could manage was a cup of tea for my actors. Later, when we started getting sponsors while performing in several theatre festivals in Delhi, I could pay them a monthly salary of Rs 40,” he recalls.

Some of his best Manipuri productions include ChakravyuhaLengshonnei (an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Antigone) and Ritusamharam (based on Kalidasa’s work). Over the years, a great many awards have been bestowed on him, including the Indo-Greek Friendship Award in 1984, Edinburgh’s Fringe Firsts Award in 1987 and the John D. Rockefeller award in 2008. His productions have travelled to many countries such as the US, Thailand, the former Soviet Union, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

A visiting faculty member at New York’s Fordham University, Thiyam has always been vocal on social and political issues. It was to register his protest against the government’s extension of a ceasefire with the militant NSCN (IM) group that he returned the Padma Shri in 2001.

“It was a small protest to bring to the notice of the government that what is happening in the state is absolutely wrong,” he says.

But why has Manipur’s Irom Sharmila — on a hunger strike for over 12 years in protest against an armed forces act in place in Manipur — not figured in his works or protests?

“Irom Sharmila is always there on my mind,” he promptly replies. “But there has to be a strong script, too, for a good play on her.”

Thiyam is married to Damayanti Devi, a former lead actress in his company. He has three children — son Thawai is a co-ordinator in his repertory company, Menaka is a filmmaker in Manipur and Manasi is married and lives in Bangalore. When he is not working on a play, he tries to spend time with his grandson and granddaughter.

He listens to music — from Manipuri rock to bhajans — but plans to go back to his first love. “I want to paint all over again,” Thiyam says. But then, the stage has always been his canvas.

(Published in The Telegraph, June 23, 2013)

In the run-up to the Assembly elections in Manipur, the state’s rock bands have been telling people to vote for better governance through their music. (Telegraph, January 29, 2012)
Vote band: A Phoenix performance;

The crowd roars as Alvina Gonson’s strong voice washes across the stage. The lead vocalist of the rock band White Fire taps her high-heeled boots and belts out the song I am afraid of time. It could have been any old rock show in music-loving Manipur. Instead, the performance was at a gathering organised by the newly formed Naga People’s Front (NPF) in Noney in Tamenglong district. And the band was exhorting the crowd to vote against corruption.

About 50km from Noney, the mood is equally rebellious in a studio in Wangkhei in east Imphal. The sounds of the guitar and the drum meld with the voice of vocalist Tolen Thoidingjam. Thoidingjam’s band, The 3 Strings, is on a mission too. “The meaning of democracy has changed, from for the people to kill the people. Wake up everyone, ignite the power of your souls. It’s time for the battle,” he sings.

Indeed, it’s the time for a battle. And musicians are leading the fight as Manipur’s rock bands take to the streets for a better government. For weeks before yesterday’s Assembly election, the bands urged the youth through their songs to vote carefully.

“We have been mere spectators in the polling process. But if we don’t speak up now, we can’t do it ever,” says Raj Kumar Ritan, the 23-year-old guitarist of The 3 Strings.

Alvina Gonson

Music has always been the lifeline of the young in Manipur. But the tenor of the bands — angered by issues such as insurgency and economic blockades — has changed. With more than six lakh unemployed youth in the state, resentment against politicians is rife. Not surprisingly, the youth are turning their music into a weapon.

It all started two months ago when a group of young Manipuris organised a rock concert with the elections in mind. Titled Vote For Change, it featured five rock bands — Phoenix, Brothers, The Wishess, The Dirty Strikes and Fringes. The bands together decided that they’d try and make a difference in the 2012 election.

“The message was simple and clear — let’s not vote for the corrupt and the incompetent,” says Roshan Samom of the event management group Spotless Event, which organised the show in west Imphal. The bands stress that they are not asking for votes for any political party in particular — only urging voters to keep out the corrupt. But there is resentment against the Congress which held power for two terms.

The songs of the bands reflect their concerns. “As I grew, I saw the tear, it hurt me more than I could bear. Now, is the time, no more fright, let’s rise and fight,” The Wishess sing in Evolution. Phoenix, which split in 1995 and has now made a comeback, asks the questions “Can there be a real man? Can anyone bring a new change?” in a song called Stop The Killing.

“Being the senior-most rock artistes in the state, we think we have the responsibility to raise awareness among voters through our songs,” says Phoenix lead vocalist Laishram Sando, 54.

The lyrics strike a chord with the young who’ve undergone similar experiences. When Sonamani Rajkumar, lyricist and vocalist of the group Cleave, was frisked by security forces on his way back home from a rehearsal three months ago, he wrote the songThe Night of the Damn. The words, he says, reflect the “distorted freedom” of Manipur.

“It was frustrating to be challenged in my own land. Music is the only way I could have expressed it,” says Rajkumar. “It’s the only medium we have for venting our anger and resentment,” adds Abow Rajkumar, Cleave’s keyboard player. “Otherwise, we would have taken up the gun,” he says, as he reads a text message about a bomb blast in Imphal.

The names of the bands too reflect their angst. “We want to strike back against atrocities through our songs. So we call ourselves Dirty Strikes,” says bandman Kennedy Heigrujam. The name Fringes articulates a paradox. “Living on the periphery of the Indian Union is a different experience and it has its own social and cultural implications,” says vocalist Haraba Ningthoukhongjam.

The musicians are often found playing at Shallow River, a jamming studio in the heart of Imphal. Another popular spot is Bedrock, a studio in Wangkhei. “This is where we put our stories of pain and distress in rhythm and beat,” says Thounaojam Bishikanta Singh, vocalist of The Wishess. “We let our guitars gently weep,” adds Ningthoukhongjam.

But rock bands in Manipur were not always known to be anti-establishment. They emerged in the 1960s, bolstered by the music of Christian missionaries. But though rock music was hugely popular in the 1980s, many groups disbanded over the years. After a long gap, bands are back with a big bang in Manipur.

“The reason is that they write their own compositions. Also, these days songs don’t just revolve around love and romance but talk about the people of the state,” says R.K. James, an event manager who organises rock concerts across the state.

Perceptions about rock bands have also changed, adds Momocha Laishram, former drummer of Cannibals. “Earlier, rock bands were considered to be a bunch of flamboyant drug addicts. But now, people are ready to listen to rock music and the message behind them.”

And the messages, clearly, are hitting home. For example, Lie Instead, Mr Ruler by The Dirty Strikes revolves around false promises made by politicians. It’s your choice by the band IIIrd Chapter warns against freebies that politicians offer before a poll.

Vote buying figures in the song Democrazy of the band Eastern Dark, which sings in English and Manipuri. “3 pegs of liquor, 1kg of pork, a plate of rice, then slapping your face, with a 500 bucks bill, they flatly bought you, and you still expect democracy to flourish,” it sings in Manipuri.

Social analysts believe the bands’ political voice is a healthy trend. “Change means movement but they should stick to the agenda even after the polls,” says S. Mangi Singh, professor, department of political science, Manipur University.

Politicians too are keenly eyeing the trend, for 28 per cent of the 17,41,581 voters across the state are in the 18-29 age group. The bands’ efforts have already pushed the young to the polling booth. “I always thought voting was a waste of time but these songs have motivated me to vote,” says a 23-year-old student, Bijenti Mutum.

Taken aback by the music bands campaign, political parties have been promising to deliver. “We have given 40,000 jobs to the youth since 2005. We will not disappoint the youth if we get back to power,” says Nongthombam Biren Singh, who is contesting from Heingang Assembly constituency in west Imphal on a Congress ticket.

But the youth of Manipur have heard many such promises. And this time, if the promises are not met, they are going to sing some more.