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.

Manipuris who left the conflict-hit state for education and employment are returning home to set up businesses.
Homeward bound: Naoba Thangjam
Pic: Sonia Sarkar

Vikramjit Sharma is striking a business deal worth several lakhs over the phone. Sitting in his office in Moirangkhom Loklaobung in west Imphal, the 32-year-old co-owner of a software firm, GI Services, is also slowly finding his feet in a state that he left eight years ago.

“I had offers to set up software firms in Pune or Bangalore but I refused. I wanted to start something in Manipur,” says Sharma, who studied and worked in Bangalore before returning to Manipur two years ago.

Naoba Thangjam is expanding his business. The 25-year-old hotel management graduate left Manipur when he was eight but returned in 2009 to set up the state’s first three-star hotel in Imphal. The Classic is today a landmark in the city, and Thangjam is now planning a four-star hotel.

Kundo Yumnam (left) and Korou Khundrakpam

“I want to contribute to the growth of Manipur,” he stresses.

Thangjam and Sharma are among Manipuris who left the conflict-hit state for education and employment, but are now exploring business opportunities in their homeland. Not surprisingly, software firms, event management, advertising and graphic designing companies, retail chains and hotels have started coming up in Imphal Valley in the past three years.

“Earlier, we had just two industries — agro-based and handloom. But now other sectors have developed with young Manipuris exploring possibilities,” says Th. Dhabali Singh, president, Manipur Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

When they left Manipur, the state was in the throes of conflict. Four decades of insurgency had crippled businesses. Educational institutions too were often shut down for long periods.

“Children grew up witnessing bomb blasts, police encounters and blockades. Often, frustration pushed young Manipuris towards drugs. Parents wanted their children to move out so that they could lead a normal life,” says Professor S. Mangi Singh, political science, Manipur University.

Vikash Lourembam

Insurgency and blockades are still a part of Manipuri life, but many are keen to do their bit. “It’s about time we made things move,” says 28-year-old Harjeet Sinam, managing director, Kok Sam Lai Solutions, a software firm. Sinam studied computer science at Nagpur University and worked in Bangalore before he decided to return.

In a conversation over coffee at Imphal’s only coffee shop, the newly opened Rita Café, 28-year-old graphic designer Korou Kundrakpam stresses that troubled Manipur is drawing back its lost youth. Kundrakpam, who studied art and lived in Delhi for 16 years, returned because he wanted to experience the life he had turned his back on. “I thought I should face reality instead of running away from it,” says Kundrakpam, who runs Warakki Ways, which makes logos, designs and posters for companies.

The trigger for him was the 121-day economic blockade of 2011. Kundrakpam was then preparing to leave for Singapore for a course in painting but the crisis that Manipuris faced touched his heart. He decided not to go for the course and start a business in Imphal instead. With a capital investment of Rs 1 lakh, which he had saved up by selling his own paintings in Delhi, he started the graphic designing company.

He was joined by his friend Kundo Yumnam, a 30-year-old National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate, who too had lived away for 12 years. “I too wanted to come back but had no idea when and how to make a beginning. Then the two of us took the plunge together,” he says, adding that the company bags projects worth at least Rs 70,000 every month.

For some, the desire to return home followed the exodus of Northeasterners from the southern states in the aftermath of Assam’s ethnic violence last summer. Indira (name changed), who worked at a call centre in Bangalore, returned to Manipur in August and never went back.

“That was when I realised that no place in the world is as safe as your own motherland. Even if Manipur is riddled with conflict and corruption, it’s ours,” says Indira, who has now set up a retail store with her father.

The return of young entrepreneurs is slowly changing the face of Imphal. Working women are out on their scooties till 8.30pm, which was rare some years ago. People throng the city’s new departmental store for their groceries. Young men and women hang around in the two new restaurants that have come up in the past year.

Some other changes too are visible. Sixty private schools have come up in and around Imphal in the past two years. Manipur’s literacy rate, at 79.85 per cent, grew by 10 per cent during the past decade. And Manipuris hope that the young entrepreneurs will create jobs for the people, reducing the state’s current jobless figure of 7 lakh.

Big buzz: Imphal’s only departmental store, Vishal Mega Mart

“Most of my 180 employees have come back to Manipur after working in various places in India and even abroad. They are ready to work at lower salaries because they want to work here,” Thangjam says.

Initiatives are also being taken to develop Manipur as a tourist destination. The Manipur Tourism Forum, set up by young Manipuris, has been promoting trekking on the Leimaton range, boating in Lake Loktak, and white water rafting. In 2011-2012, 1,000 foreign tourists visited the state.

After Guwahati, we want Imphal to be on the commercial map of the Northeast,” says Vikash Lourembam, co-owner of GI Services, who worked in a healthcare company in California for four years.

But opening businesses in a state hit by corruption and insurgency is not easy. The entrepreneurs complain of a lack of basic infrastructure such as uninterrupted electricity and roads. “We had planned to start a call centre but couldn’t do so because of poor electricity supply,” says Joyremba Haobam, managing director, CubeTen, a software development firm, who also set up Imphal’s first NIIT in 2012.

Insurgents extorting money are another impediment. A young retailer in Imphal says militants called up and asked for money barely four days after the shop’s inauguration. “I had to negotiate with them, saying that I had to first run the shop well,” says this postgraduate in retail management.

Security forces also harass the entrepreneurs. “We are frisked while driving back home late night after work. Even if we want to make Imphal look like any other city, the forces repeatedly remind us that we live in a conflict state,” rues Roshan Samom, who runs the event management group Spotless Event, which organises music shows in Imphal.

Despite all this, Manipuris continue to dream. “We plan to get into real estate. Talks are on to build a complex that would house a discotheque, shopping malls and an IT park,” says Lourembam. “We want to sell dreams to the people of Manipur who never dared to dream before.”

Sharma’s dream is to be able to gift his one-year-old daughter a normal life in the city. “I will not let her run away as I did,” he says.

The men look bored. Dressed in camouflage and armed with sophisticated guns, the militants of the Kuki National Army (KNA) roam aimlessly in a camp set against the Houpi hills at one end of Manipur, barely 60 kilometres from the Chin state of western Myanmar. They are waiting for their chief to lead them to action.

The chief, Paulun Soyang Haokip, is in a quandary. He is sitting in a friend’s house in Manipur’s Churachandpur town, waiting for a signal from New Delhi. “The government is not clear on its intentions on peace talks and our cadre doesn’t want to sit idle any longer,” says Haokip, president of the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) and supreme commander of the 17 major Kuki militant groups, including the KNA which come under the KNO.

Haokip’s men have been waiting for action for the past eight years — ever since the KNO signed the suspension of operation (SOO) pact, first with the Army in 2005 and then with the Centre in 2008. In November last year, the KNO refused to extend the SOO any further and insisted on holding urgent talks with the Centre for a separate Kuki state carved out of the Churachandpur and Chandel districts of Manipur with other Kuki-inhabited parts of the state in Senapati, Ukhrul and Tamenglong districts. The Kukis are one of 40 ethnic communities of Manipur.

But nothing, rues Haokip, has moved since then. The chief has given an ultimatum to the Centre — start talks by February, or face the consequences. If the government doesn’t respond in the next few days, he says a “Quit Kuki Land” movement will begin in right earnest.

“We will target Indian Army personnel first before we target civilians. I believe the sound of gunshots will definitely reach the ears of the Indian government. Only then will they pay heed to our demand,” stresses Haokip, who adds that his men killed 300 civilians and security men in a span of 10 years till 2010.

The 60-year-old leader says he feels “betrayed” by the Indian Army which he’d thought would help them negotiate with the Centre. “We have not attacked the Indian Army after 2005. We even protected the force from attacks by other ethnic groups but they never helped us with our goal,” he says.

He has resumed talks with old friends in the Myanmar-based militant group, the Kachin Independent Army (KIA). Haokip says the KIA will give fresh military training to his 1,200-member group. A core group of 25 militants of the KNA had been trained in guerrilla warfare by the KIA in 1988, the year the Kuki outfit had been set up to press for Zale’-gam — or the Land of Freedom.

Haokip had also pinned his hopes on Myanmar’s celebrated democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, convinced that she would support the Kuki cause. The Nobel laureate, however, hasn’t responded to the Kuki overtures. “I don’t think she can do anything for us,” he says.

Haokip, dressed in a formal grey suit and red tie, doesn’t match the general image of a fierce militant. Five-feet-and-four-inches tall, he looks like a government servant instead. Indeed, he once worked as a clerk at a nationalised bank. A teetotaller, he is known in his group as an introvert. Fluent in his local dialect Khochungte, he speaks haltingly in English — but doesn’t dodge a single question in the course of a three-hour long interview.

He was born into a middle-class family in Seimei in the Sadar Hills of Manipur. His father, Paulun, was a village chief, and his mother, Nemboi, a homemaker. When his family moved to neighbouring Nagaland, he studied at the Baptist English School in Kohima and later joined the Kohima College for a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Haokip says that though he belongs to a community whose men “love their guns more than their wives”, he has not been trained for armed battle. His knowledge of weapons is limited to the operation of a Ruger gun that he keeps for his own safety. “As a young boy, I had used a gun to hunt wild boars,” he laughs. The militant leader claims that he has killed only one person in his life — a militant who raped a woman.

Inspired by religious teachings, Haokip, a Christian, came close to the KNA because of his interest in religion. In 1994, when then KNA chief Thangkhulung was killed by KNO president Sokholung, Haokip’s cousin Vipin, a KNA militant, approached him. He was urged to help bring peace to the KNA through his teachings. Haokip succeeded in the mission and was appointed the head of both the KNA and the KNO.

“Since I am from the Kuki community, I realised that this could be an opportunity to serve my own people,” he says.

KNA started its operations in 1988 to fight the Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah), which has been demanding Nagalim — a state comprising Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and parts of the Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel districts of Manipur.

“They are laying their hands on our areas. We will not let that happen at any cost,” he says.

Kukis allege that the Centre has always pampered their rivals. Haokip points out that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee met top NSCN (IM) leaders and heard them out. In 2010, the government appointed an interlocutor to facilitate the Naga peace talks. But the Kukis are still waiting to hear from the government.

“We have always been treated like a stepchild,” Haokip complains. “The government’s peace process in Manipur will be flawed if it doesn’t talk to us.”

Haokip also alleges that the NSCN (IM) gets regular funds from the government. All that the Kukis have received, he says, is a sum of Rs 10 lakh that was given to them in 2005.

Now they survive mostly on the money that they extort from contractors and traders, Haokip admits. “The money that we get from the government is not enough. So extortion is the only option left for my cadres to survive,” says Haokip, pointing out that the vocational training the government had promised his men never materialised.

Haokip, who is underground, flits from one country to the other in southeast Asia, using pseudonyms. He lived in Delhi for seven years in the late 1990s, when he wrote his book, The Kuki Nation.

These days, he has been frequently visiting Delhi and spending time with his cadre in Manipur. The men in the camp complain that they have hardly ever seen Haokip. One militant, who joined the organisation as a minor, says he met him only once in 19 years. He wanted to leave the organisation and sought permission from Haokip to do so. His request was turned down.

“We have to continue the fight till we get our Kuki state,” Haokip had told the young man.

Like this young man, many minors joined the Kuki movement during its heyday. “Children who have seen their family members being killed joined us and we never stopped them,” Haokip says.

Has he ever encouraged any of his children — two surviving sons and two daughters — to join the movement? “Once my son Mangtinthang wanted to spend some time in the camp. But I did not entertain his demand as the organisational rules wouldn’t have allowed him to leave,” he replies.

His younger son, Tongkhohao, is studying in Delhi University and his daughters — Lhaineithem and Neilhing — are married and live in Nagaland. His wife, whose name he doesn’t want to disclose, is an All India Radio employee in Imphal. “I meet my family only twice a year. I miss them a lot,” he says.

The one he misses the most is his eldest son, Lunminlen, who died in 2007 at the age of 25. Haokip blames himself for his son’s death. “My son was gay and I couldn’t accept him the way he was. He was depressed, took drugs and committed suicide,” says the grieving father, who admits that he is a bit “orthodox” in his thinking.

His traditional mindset is also reflected in his opinion on women cadre members who he believes “distract” their male counterparts. “I fear our male soldiers would end up fighting over women,” he says, adding that there are only 150 women in the cadre.

Haokip, clearly, is proud of the history of the Kukis, who declared war against the British in 1917 for the independence of Manipur. “During World War II, we also fought along with the Imperial Japanese Army and the Indian National Army against the British.”

But the militant leader does not support Maoist insurgents in the country. “I condemn their attacks,” he says. Stressing that his organisation, unlike some other Northeastern militant groups, has no links with the Maoists, he says: “The Maoists are like the al Qaida. They should not use guns for social reformation.”

But guns for a new state? That, clearly, is whole new ballgame.

Ramji was barely 14 when he landed in Imphal looking for employment. Originally from Bihar’s Sitamarhi district, Ramji, now 44, initially worked as a daily wage earner before starting his own cement shop in 1997. But he may have to wind up his business and go back to his village.

That’s because the Manipur government wants to introduce the Inner Line Permit System (ILPS), a mechanism which allows people from other states to stay in Manipur for a limited period of time and that too with a permit. In July this year, the Manipur Assembly passed a resolution to that effect unanimously.

The ILPS comes under the purview of a central law — the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation (BEFR), 1873, legislation introduced by the British to control business in what was then called the Bengal Eastern Frontier. An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is also required by people from other states when they go to Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland (except Dimapur). The permit allows them to stay in the state for a period of 15 days to six months. The measure was introduced in a bid to protect the interests of the tribal communities in the region.

But the Union home ministry has rejected Manipur’s proposal to extend the ILPS to the state. In September, home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said, “Our Constitution will not allow such things.” A senior home ministry official adds, “There is no rationale for the state to seek restrictions on the entry of Indians under an outdated law.”

But locals allege that “outsiders” are marginalising the natives. “People are being robbed of land and employment by the settlers. We cannot let this continue any longer,” says Mutum Churamani Meetei, co-convener of the Joint Action Committee (JAC), a collective of 20 non-political groups advocating the ILPS.

There are about 9 lakh Mayangs or “outsiders” in Manipur out of a total population of roughly 27 lakh. Mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, they work as construction workers, carpenters and porters. There are also other communities such as Punjabis, Gujaratis and Marwaris, who have been settled in Manipur since the early 20th century and run businesses in hardware, cement, marble and so on.

The introduction of the ILPS would spell doom for people like Ramji. “Last year, around 25 Bihari labourers left in fear. But we will continue to stay,” says Ramji, who lives in Imphal with his wife and three children and earns about Rs 5,000 a month.

Although the Manipur government is in favour of slapping on the ILPS, constitutional experts say that according to Article 19(1)(d) and (e) of the Constitution, every Indian citizen has the right to move freely throughout the territory of India and also to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India.

A senior state government official also points out it’s the Centre that has to give the go-ahead for the ILPS. “We cannot implement the ILPS unless the Centre gives its nod.”

Not so, says advocate Khaidem Mani, stressing that the state is legally empowered to make its own laws without seeking the permission of the Centre. “Article 19(5) of the Constitution states that nothing shall prevent the State from making any law with reasonable restrictions in the interests of the general public,” he says.

But constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap says that “State” should be read as Union of India, and not as a state legislature. Mani has a counter-argument. He says, “Under Article 12 in the Constitution, ‘State’ also means the government and the legislature of each of the states.”

While the debate rages, Kashyap warns that President’s rule can be imposed on Manipur if it doesn’t comply with the directions of the Centre. “Under Article 365 and 356 of the Constitution, if the President is satisfied that the state has failed to comply with the directions of the Union and a situation has arisen where the government of the state cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution, he can impose President’s rule,” he cautions.

But clearly, the Manipur government has dug in its heels and is refusing to budge. The ILPS issue is likely to be raised again in the winter session of the state Assembly. And Manipur government sources say that chief minister Ibobi Singh will try and persuade the Centre to reconsider its proposal.

This is not the first time that migrants are being targeted in Manipur. In 2008, 14 migrant labourers were gunned down by militants. Government sources say that it’s the militant groups that have been pushing political parties to implement the ILPS in Manipur. In fact, this time too militants have set a December 31 deadline for the “outsiders” to leave.

Though the BEFR was never in place in Manipur, a different permit system for outsiders was, and it was abolished only on November 18, 1950. “That’s the reason we want to keep this as the cut-off date to decide the domicile status of the people. All those who entered the state after this date would require an ILP. They would have no right to purchase land or property in the state,” says Meetei. What’s more, land and property owned by people who came in after the proposed cut-off date would have to be handed over to the state.

However, some say this is an illogical demand. “Unfortunately, this anti-outsider sentiment is politically motivated. This is harming the image of Manipuris outside the state,” says Amar Yumnam, who teaches at Manipur University.

Social scientists too argue that the ILPS is out of place in a globalised world. “Many Manipuris are moving out of the state in search of work. It is infantile to close Manipur’s door to residents of other states,” says Bhagat Oinam, associate professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Oinam, however, believes that there should be some restrictions on people from other states wanting to buy land there.

Ironically, Manipur’s move comes at a time when states where the ILPS is in force are having second thoughts about continuing with it. “We don’t have the mechanism to keep a check on every migrant. Even though outsiders enter the state with an ILP, it is not always possible to know if they are overstaying,” says Nagaland chief secretary Lalthara. Another senior Nagaland government official admits that many benami (illegal) properties have also been bought by “outsiders”, which proves that the ILPS has not had much effect.

But in Manipur there is now a groundswell of sentiment in favour of the ILPS and few are willing to listen to the other side of the argument. “Only the ILPS can ensure that we are not swamped by outsiders,” asserts Manipur People’s Party leader Okram Joy Singh.

No wonder settlers like Ramji are afraid.

Anniversaries are always special. They hold great significance in one’s life. For scribes like us, it is crucial to remember anniversaries but we remember occurrence of events of a different kind. For example, we revisit the anniversary of IC 814 hijack or Gujarat riots or 26/11 attacks in order to ingeminate  stories of the victims and help them get justice.

Of late, a section of the media has added another date to this list, which is November 4.Twelve years back, on this day, Manipur’s Irom Sharmila Chanu sat on an indefinite hunger strike demanding the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – the law in force in the north-east and Kashmir that gives sweeping powers to the Army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. In 2010, Sharmila’s silent protest completed a decade. Curious to know what makes the Iron Lady of Manipur, as she is popularly known, this resilient, I had sought an appointment with her. Permission, however, was not easily granted. The request moved from one sarkari office to the other for nearly two months. Finally, I was allowed to meet her on December 20, 2010. Knowing well that even celebrated writer and activist Mahasweta Devi was denied permission, I considered myself lucky.

Before I met her, I had sketched an image of Sharmila in my mind by reading various newspaper reports that featured her struggle, her pain and her plight. They had made her look gloomy and exhausted. But my perception changed the moment I got the first glimpse of her when I lifted the green curtains of the ward for under-trials needing medical attention at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital. She looked frail but cheerful and welcomed me with a wide smile as I walked into the room. Her freshly washed hair smelled of a familiar brand of shampoo. The shiny wet curls of her hair were carelessly playing on her forehead. She looked calm and unencumbered, the fairness of her skin heightened by the pink top that she was wearing.

Strange though but of all things, we started talking about food. “As a child, I loved eating. After finishing my own meal, I used to eat off others’ plates. My mother often scolded me for this. It is an irony that my struggle is related to food – though it’s about not eating,” Sharmila had said. She spoke haltingly in English. Her voice was frail.

Born on March 14, 1972 in Kongpal Kongham Leikei in the east of Imphal, Sharmila loved eating freshly plucked raw vegetables – peas, cabbage and red spinach. Her other love was pastries.

In fact, a night before she started her fast, she bought two packets of pastries and cakes from a local bakery. “ I ate all of them to fill my stomach, and vowed that it is my last day of eating. I totally surrendered myself to God,” she recalled. Her fast was triggered by the Malom massacre of November 2, 2000, in which 10 people were killed by security forces on the outskirts of the capital Imphal. She consciously chose to fast because all other forms of protest such as demonstrations or strike would harm others unlike fasting that could harm only her, and not anyone else.

A day after she began fasting, the cops had charged her with the attempt to suicide under section 309 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and had put her in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail. Two and a half months later, she was shifted to the hospital, where she has been nose-fed thrice every day – at 10am, 2pm and 9 pm- since then.“I don’t feel hungry. The liquid diet keeps my stomach full,” she had said. The plastic tube through which she is fed was hanging close to her neck, but that has become a part of her body in these many years.

In 2004, Human Rights Alert (HRA), a collective of lawyers moved the Supreme Court (SC) to remove the charges against her as her intentions were not commit suicide. The SC had then asked them to file the case in Gauhati High Court in Manipur, which a year later ordered her release. But then the court was silent on whether such charges should be removed or not. Later, in 2006, Irom Sharmila’s supporters brought her to Delhi to pressurise the Centre to repeal AFSPA but it was all in vain. After being moved from one government hospital to another for six months, she was later forced to go back to Imphal.Every year, she is released for a day in March only to be arrested the next day and sent back to the hospital.

The youngest of nine siblings, Sharmila grew up a lonely child. She raised chicken, sold their eggs and donated the money to a local blind school. Never academically inclined, Sharmila joined a vocational course for shorthand, typing and journalism after school. Before she went on a hunger strike, Sharmila also wrote columns in a local newspaper and worked in a non-governmental organisation. She had often joined demonstrations when protests spilled out on the streets, mostly revolving around army actions against civilians.She was close to her brother, Irom Singhajit, nearest to her in age. With their parents busy running their grocery shop when she was a child, it was Singhajit who took care of her. Their mother’s breast milk had dried up when Sharmila was born, so Singhajit would take his little sister to other mothers in the neighbourhood who breastfed her. In exchange, he did their household work.

Even today, Singhajit is by her side. He left his job as an agricultural officer in an NGO to garner support for his sister’s struggle. “He is like a guardian to me,” she told me. Sharmila, who is now seen as a symbol of resistance in India, stressed that she inherited her willpower from her grandmother, Irom Tonsija Devi. Tonsija Devi, who died in 2007, was a part of the 1939 Nupi Lan movementa war women waged against the export of rice by the king, Maharaja Churachand, and the British government. “My grandmother was illiterate but she had great knowledge of politics and economics,” Sharmila had said,sitting on the bed in her hospital room.

Her room was full of gifts– a wind chime, presented by a filmmaker who directed a short film on her, a red and white Assamese gamcha, a gift from a photographer, and a statue of Meera Bai, given to her by another nurse, were a few among them. She said that most of her time was spent in doing yoga and writing poetry. Two years back, Zubaan had published 12 of her poems in a volume called ‘Fragrance of Peace’. Books were lying heaped on an iron cot in the room. I had spotted a Khushwant Singh, a Kahlil Gibran and a Chetan Bhagat in the pile of books. “Most of these books have been gifted to me by my lover,” she said shyly.

This was the first I had heard of a man in her life as before this, I had never heard or read any reference to her love relationship. Initially I hesitated to ask more but Sharmila was clearly keen to talk about him. “His name is Desmond Coutinho,” she  said. A Britisher based in Kerala, he got to know about Sharmila after he read ‘Burning Bright’,  a 2009 book on the Manipuri struggle written by Deepti Priya Mehrotra. “He wrote me a letter after he read the book. We have been exchanging letters since then,” she  said smilingly.

Pointing her long skinny fingers at the plants – Chinese evergreen and ponytail, surrounding her bed, she had told me,“These are my friends. I water them, and tell them about my feelings for him.”

Minutes later, she had asked me if I could call him. I was a bit confused about what to say at the moment but couldn’t refuse her. I rang up a number that she remembered by heart. As I got to talk to Coutinho, Sharmila, like a teenager in love, had asked me to tell him that she loved him.  Coutinho expressed similar emotions for her and said, “Please tell her that I want to come and see her, but I am yet to get the permission.”

In another few minutes, we hung up. And then I  suddenly noticed Sharmila, her smiling face turning pale. She immediately covered her face with a book. I noticed tears in her eyes. “I miss him. I want them to grant him permission soon,” she told me. Two years later, the permission has not yet been granted.  But Coutinho had met her in the court in March last year while Sharmila was being produced before the judiciary – an annual ritual before she gets released for a day. However, Sharmila’s supporters beat him up because they do not approve of the idea of Sharmila having a romantic relationship with a Briton.

Despite such hurdles, their love for each other hasn’t faded away. “I fully intend to return to Manipur to marry Sharmila and I will live and die for her. I do not see any other end for us,” Desmond told me in a recent conversation. He had gifted her a wooden statue of the two legendary lovers, Krishna and Radha.“He says that he’s Lord Krishna, and I am his Radha,” Sharmila said. As a young woman, she used to ride a bike and had never behaved in a “stereotyped” manner in her younger days, her mother told me. But now, she has started talking of desires that any woman of “marriageable” age would do. “I want to get married. I want to be free,” she told me. “But,” she  stressed, “after my demand is met.”

Looking at the apathy of the Indian government towards people of north-east, it is anyone’s guess that her demand will not be met anytime soon.In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had assured that the central government would consider their demand”sympathetically.” Following which, a five-member committee under the Chairmanship of Justice BP Jeevan Reddy was formed which stated that this draconian Act should be repealed and the same should be replaced by a more humane Act.”

But the strong Army lobby will never let it happen. According to the Army,  replacement of AFSPA or any dilution could hamper its operational capabilities to effectively deal with militancy and insurgency.

But Sharmila’s mother Shakhi Devi has not lost hope yet. Every evening, she religiously holds the radio set closer to her ears only to hear some news on AFSPA and on Sharmila’s release. When I had met Shakhi Devi, she told me that she had heard on radio that the Centre plans to amend the Act but she wanted the government to scrap it. “Only if the law is scrapped, Sharmila will stop fasting. And I will get to see my daughter eating,” the ailing mother had said sitting in the courtyard of her house.

In these 12 years, the mother and daughter have met only once. Shakhi Devi had kept herself away for she feared that she may end up eroding Sharmila’s determination if they meet. Two years ago, when Shakhi Devi was admitted to the same hospital after an asthma attack, Sharmila had visited her at midnight. Shakhi Devi told Sharmila that she would live to see her eat one day – and they hugged each other and cried.

Even as the government cares very little about Sharmila but a section of civil society has recognised her sacrifice by giving her a few awards.But Sharmila said that these awards would merely help people across the world know about her, nothing beyond that. “I accept the respect that I get from people across the world but these awards don’t serve the purpose.How do they help repeal AFSPA?.”

In fact, last month, she refused to accept the “Activist India Nation 2012” award instituted by Kerala-based Kovilan Trust  According to Singhajit, who was invited in Calcutta to receive the award on her behalf, said that Sharmila had said no to any more awards till her demand is met.

A face of strong determination, Sharmila was born on a stormy night. Singhajit says that there will be another storm the day she would be released.“It will be her rebirth that day,” he said.

Till then, we would continue to revisit her and reiterate her demand only to remind the government that the struggle of Irom Sharmila shouldn’t go waste. It is about time that the government should understand that she is representing the people of our own country who live in trauma everyday because of the high-handedness of the armed forces in the name of security.

Insurgency-related incidents have left many women widowed in Manipur.

When men in her neighbourhood return home every evening after work, four-year-old Alice often asks a question. When will my father come, she wants to know from her mother, Irengbam Nalini. “I have no answer,” Nalini says, before breaking down.Nalini still remembers that Saturday afternoon two years ago as if it was just the other day. Preparations were on in full swing for a cousin’s wedding in her house in Singjamei Chingamakha Chongtham Leikai in east Imphal in Manipur. Her husband, Choingtham Hem Singh, a government officer, had gone to Paona Bazaar, the busy market hub in Imphal, to buy a wedding gift. The gift was never bought. The shop that he entered was blown up, allegedly by an underground group of militants.

“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Nalini.

When you travel in and around Imphal, you come across many women who have been widowed in troubled Manipur. They are called gun widows — for they lost their husbands in either militant attacks or at the hands of security forces. According to data jointly provided by the ministry of home affairs and the South Asia Terrorism Portal, an independent agency, 369 people were killed in insurgency-related incidents last year. The incidents widowed some 300 women.

Farhana Bibi, 46, is a gun widow too. Her husband, Mohammed Islamuddin, a former proctor of Manipur University, was killed by three unidentified gunmen in the university last May. “I have no idea who killed him. Newspaper reports said the militant outfit Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup took responsibility for his killing. According to some other reports, the Muslim underground outfit People’s United Liberation Front accused the Indian Reserve Battalion of killing him. The case is with the Central Bureau of Investigation now, and we have not been informed about any development in the investigation so far,” says Bibi.

Clearly, the victims of violence in Manipur are not just people who are killed. The deaths leave behind women who are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Last year was particularly bloody in Manipur. Nine civilians were killed by unidentified insurgents inside the Keibul Lamjao national park in Khordak Awang Leikai in Bishnupur district on May 11. Exactly a month later, four men were killed when unidentified insurgents opened fire in the Central Agriculture University at Iroisemba in west Imphal. And these were just two of the many violent incidents.

What upsets the widows is the fact that even months after the deaths of their husbands, they have no answers about the killings.

Shobha Rani still doesn’t know why her 39-year-old husband, R.K. Sanajaoba Singh, had to die. He was allegedly killed by the Manipur police at Waheng Leikai, barely 500 metres from their home at Sagolband in west Imphal, six years ago. The case is pending at the Gauhati High Court — the highest judiciary body for the state.

“It is not difficult to investigate the case and punish the killer. But who will do it? The government is not keen to end the violence in the state, and therefore we continue to suffer,” says a tormented Rani. Even her powerful political connections — she is a close relative of former Manipur chief minister R.K. Joychandra — have not helped her.

But she is luckier than many others, for Rani did receive an ex-gratia payment of Rs 1 lakh from the state government. Women such as N. Mori Devi, whose contractor husband was abducted and killed by alleged militants four years ago, are still to get any compensation.

“Every time I visit government officers, they ask for a bribe. I do not have any savings and there is no one to support me financially. Where do I get the money from,” asks Mori Devi, who runs a tea kiosk on the highway at Kakching in Thoubal district, 70 kilometres from Imphal, to support her two children — a 12-year-old boy and a six-year-old daughter.

Corruption is a scourge that many gun widows complain about. Hoikhovok Serto of Phunchoingjang village in Churachandpur district has paid every rupee that she had saved over the last 14 years to government officers as bribes in the hope that she’d be financially compensated for her husband’s death.

“I even sold the two acres of land that I owned,” she says. “I was promised a job for one of my eight children — but we have got nothing so far,” laments Serto whose husband, a village sarpanch, was shot dead, allegedly by members of the Assam Rifles, who mistook him for a militant.

Though the Union ministry of women and child development runs shelter homes for widows across the state, help has not reached them all. Jinhu Hoikhothim, 32, widow of a social worker, has been staying in a rehabilitation home built by a local voluntary group for victims of the Kuki tribe in Chandel district. She has never been to a government shelter.

She collects fuel wood from the forest and sells them to support her three children. But the Rs 300 that she earns every month barely provides them with one square meal a day. She pins all her hopes on a pig that she is raising. “I hope to receive at least Rs 10,000 when I sell it. I will use this money to send my children to school,” says Hoikhothim. Her husband was allegedly killed by members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muviah) group after he refused to pay the Rs 2,000 they had demanded from him.

That the government has no answers about the killings troubles the widows. Salom Lokeshwari, 26, has no idea who gunned down her husband, Ajit, a driver, two years ago. “Some people said he was gunned down by the Assam Rifles while others said he was killed by militants. His death remains a mystery to us,” she says.

Yet, while the reasons differ and the women themselves come from different strata of Manipuri society, they have one thing in common — their never-ending grief and suffering. “Death seems to be the unbiased leveller for these perturbed widows. From educated to illiterate, from rich to poor, from Kuki to Metei — the struggle for survival for these victims is the same,” says Reena Murum, a local activist at the non governmental organisation, Manipuri Women Gun Survivors Network.

Not surprisingly, for many who witnessed the ongoing violence for the past few decades, this is a life they had often anticipated for themselves. “Looking at the crisis in Manipur, my husband and I often discussed how we should save every rupee for our two children as life here is too unpredictable. I knew sooner or later destiny would force me to join the thousands of widows of conflict in the state,” says Lokeshwari, as she cuddles her two-year-old son in the courtyard of her house in Thanga village in Bishnupur district.

Yet, amidst the agony, many women are moving on with their lives. “I have become stronger now. I don’t have any fears. Now, my only dream is a better future for my child,” says Rani.

After all, you can’t kill dreams.

The Story was published in The Telegraph:

Urikhinbam Devita Devi is home after a week-long shoot in Tripura. But the Manipuri superstar can’t put her feet up yet. She has to get up at the crack of dawn for another bout of filming at Kakching, 60 kilometres from Imphal. Devita, 25, is racing against time to finish work on her second home production — Gobrindage Sarikmakhal (Sound of Bells).

There is a reason Devita would rather make her own films than work in others’ productions. “I want to make meaningful cinema with women-centric roles,” says Devita who shot into fame as an actor in the 2008 film Lakhipurgee Lakhipyari(Lakhipyari of Lakhipur).

Like Devita, more and more Manipuri women are producing films. The Manipuri film industry — locally known as Mollywood — has so far been dominated by men. But in recent times, women have been seeking a toehold — and they are doing so by becoming producers.

“In most of our films, the protagonist is a man,” says Devita. As a film producer, she feels she can change that. Her 2008 hit Echan, produced by her banner, Ibhudhou Thangjing Film Productions, also had a woman lead.

More than 20 of the 65 producers registered with the All Manipur Video Film Makers and Producers Association (AMVFMPA) — a federation of filmmakers — are women. And most of them are also successful actors.

Some of the actors believe that film production is financially more viable than acting. “New faces pop up every day and the bitter truth is that lead roles don’t come after a point of time,” says actor-producer Saikham Kamla, 24. “The best option is to become a producer to keep the cash registers ringing,” says Kamla, who formed her production house — Sai Media Productions — two years ago after starring in over 120 films in five years. Her debut production — Nagsu Mouni (You are a Woman too) collected Rs 6 lakh — almost double the sum she invested.

In some cases though, production is the way to finding fame as an actor. Marina Laihingbam was only 20 when she borrowed Rs 4 lakh from her father to produce Radha Rani, six years ago. “The film was a big hit and I earned six times the sum I had invested,” says Laihingbam, who has played the lead in eight other films she has produced so far.

Another reason women are turning producers is that it doesn’t take much to fund a film. Compared to the big brothers — Tollywood or the much bigger Bollywood — the Rs 4-crore Manipuri film industry runs on a small scale.

Local film production picked up after the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Front banned the screening of Bollywood films in 2001 by branding them “obscene”. More than 150 Manipuri films are released every year. Most are shot on digital tapes with budgets as low as Rs 3-6 lakh.

In the initial years after the ban, Manipuris focused on producing music albums. “But in 2004, a similar ban was imposed on music albums. Since then, film production has boomed,” says cinematographer L. Surjakanta. “Though a large number of movies flop, youngsters still want to try their luck as even a moderately successful film can fetch them a profit of 20 to 30 per cent. In this poverty stricken state, filmmaking has become an option for earning quick fame and easy money.”

But not everyone is in it for a quick buck. Six women producers — Saroja, Shantibala, Sunitibala, Victoria, Survi and Umarani — are funding films because they want to focus on serious issues. In 2008, they producedYenning Amadi Likla (Spring and Dew), a film that dealt with the life of a poor child and a well-to-do childless couple. “The film attempts to understand the mind of a child and underlines the importance of foster care,” says Umarani, also a social worker.

The Rs 18-lakh film was critically acclaimed but a commercial dud. “We couldn’t earn more than Rs 1.5 lakh,” sighs Saroja.

Many of the women producers deal with issues that trouble Manipuri society. Sunitibala points out that the six producers’ future projects include films on issues such as militancy, drug abuse among youngsters and AIDS.

Devita is planning a film on Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila, who has been on a fast for the past 10 years demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. But the Film Forum, a regulatory body that vets every project, has not given her permission yet for the film, she says.

Another woman producer, Bandana, complains that the state doesn’t encourage filmmakers to focus on “real” issues. “I wanted to make a film on growing prostitution in Manipur but I didn’t get permission to shoot in the red light area,” she says.

While film production has become a career for young women in a state plagued by unrest and unemployment, the government has not been of much help to the industry. The 30-year-old Manipuri film industry, which has produced such gems as Matam Gee Manipur, supports at least 10,000 families. But the film sector has been striving for a studio, film laboratory and post-production equipment. “The lack of support from the government has led to a fall in the quality of films. More than 58 cinema halls are defunct now,” says filmmaker Salam Birendra.

The women filmmakers also complain of gender bias. “In this male dominated and conservative film industry, the sudden surge of women filmmakers is not welcomed,” says Diana Potsangbam, a producer and the sole woman director in Mollywood.

“Male filmmakers used to discourage me saying that this profession was not meant for us,” says the producer of the critically acclaimed Ahing Amadi Houkhrei (Night Has Gone) and Kubiba (Blessings). “I have also received threat calls asking me to leave the industry.”

Some men, of course, are moving with the times. “Working with women producers is enriching and exciting,” says Makhonmani Mongsaba, the award-winning director of Yenning Amadi Likla. The six women producers of the film, he says, were very disciplined and focused. “Their approach towards filmmaking was personal and not commercial.”

Sociologists say it will be a while before female producers are accepted by their male counterparts as able professionals. “Even though women from all economic strata step out of their homes to earn a livelihood, there is barely any respect for them in our society. The film industry is no exception,” says N. Vijaylakshmi Brara of the Centre for Manipur Studies at Manipur University.

AMVFMPA chief Ningthouja Lancha says steps are being taken to encourage participation of women in filmmaking. “We are organising special workshops. We would also like to propose to the state government that it provide them financial aid,” he says.

For the present, the women are happy with the promises — and hope that they will lead to bigger dreams. “I want to produce a Bollywood film one day and get national recognition,” says Devita.

Bollywood had better look out. In Manipur, dreams often merge with reality.

BELLE POTENT: Devita, seen here with co-star Gokul.

Picture credit: Sonia Sarkar


Sharmila is in her hospital ward, a thin plastic tube attached to one of her nostrils. And she is talking about — of all things — food. “As a child, I loved eating. After finishing my own meal, I used to eat off others’ plates. My mother often scolded me for this,” says Irom Sharmila Chanu. “It is an irony that my struggle is related to food — though it’s about not eating.”

A little over 10 years ago Sharmila — often described as Manipur’s iron lady — vowed not to eat till the Indian government repealed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958. The law, in force in the northeast and in Jammu and Kashmir, gives sweeping powers to the army, including the right to shoot on suspicion. Sharmila hasn’t touched food since then — but is being force-fed by the government.

“I want to be free,” says Sharmila, sitting up in her bed in a ward for undertrials needing medical attention at Imphal’s Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, barely 800 metres from her house. Her mother, Irom Shakhi Devi, is at home, listening to the radio, hoping to hear news of the law being repealed.

In these 10 years, the mother and daughter have met only once. Shakhi Devi says she has kept away for she fears she may end up eroding Sharmila’s determination if they meet. Two years ago, when her mother was admitted to the same hospital after an asthma attack, Sharmila visited her at midnight. The ailing mother told Sharmila that she would live to see her eat one day — and they hugged each other and cried.

In and around Manipur, Sharmila, 38, is seen as a symbol of resistance. She has been arrested, released and rearrested but has refused to give up the fast that she took up immediately after the Malom massacre of November 2, 2000, in which 10 people were killed by security forces on the outskirts of the capital Imphal. “The night before I began to fast I bought two packets of cakes from a local bakery and ate all of them to fill my stomach. Then I vowed not to eat ever again. I surrendered myself to God.”

Before she went on a hunger strike, Sharmila, who wrote columns in a local newspaper and worked in a non governmental organisation, had often joined demonstrations when protests spilled out on the streets, mostly revolving around army actions against civilians. But the Malom massacre stirred her so much that she said she’d fast to death.

A day later, the cops charged her with attempt to suicide and put her in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail. Two and a half months later, she was shifted to the hospital, where she is nose-fed thrice every day — at 10 am, 2 pm and 9 pm.

“I don’t feel hungry. The liquid diet keeps my stomach full,” she adds. The plastic tube through which she is fed is hanging close to her neck, but doesn’t hurt her, she says. “It has become a part of my body now.”

Sharmila, who speaks haltingly in English, is in a mood to talk. The youngest of nine siblings, she says she grew up as a lonely child. She loved spending time in the kitchen garden, picking up vegetables and eating them raw. She raised chickens, sold their eggs and donated the money to a local blind school. Never academically inclined, she joined a vocational course for shorthand, typing and journalism after school.

She was close to her brother, Irom Singhajit, who was 14 years older. With their parents busy running their grocery shop, he took care of her. Their mother’s breast milk had dried up when Sharmila was born, so Singhajit would take his little sister to other mothers in the neighbourhood who breastfed her. In exchange, he did their household work.

Even today, Singhajit is by her side. He left his job as an agricultural officer at an NGO to garner support for his sister’s struggle. “He is like a guardian to me,” she says.

 Sharmila stresses that she inherited her willpower from her grandmother, Irom Tonsija Devi. Tonsija Devi, who died in 2007, was a part of the 1939 Nupi Lan movement — a war women waged against the export of rice by the then king, Maharaja Churachand, and the British government. “My grandmother was illiterate but she had great knowledge of politics and economics,” says Sharmila as she pulls a brown blanket — a gift from a nurse in the hospital — close to her.

There are several other gifts in her room — a wind chime, presented by a filmmaker who directed a short film on her, a red and white Assamesegamcha, a gift from a photographer, and a statue of Meera Bai, given to her by another nurse.

Despite her frail body, Sharmila looks cheerful. She practises yoga and spends time writing poetry. Last month. Zubaan published 12 of her poems in a volume called Fragrance of Peace.

Books lie heaped on an iron cot in the room. I’d heard that reading was her favourite pastime and ask her if she would like me to send her a book. “No. I am fed up of reading,” she replies.

I can spot a Khushwant Singh, a Khalil Gibran and a Chetan Bhagat in the pile of books. “Most of these books have been gifted to me by my lover,” she says. This is the first I’ve heard of a man in her life. I hesitate, but Sharmila is clearly keen to talk about him. A Britisher based in Kerala, he got to know about Sharmila after he read Burning Bright, a 2009 book on the Manipuri struggle written by Deepti Priya Mehrotra and published by Penguin. “He wrote me a letter after he read the book. We have been exchanging letters since then,” she says shyly.

They have not met. He is waiting for permission from the government to see her. She asks me to call him from my mobile phone and to tell him that she loves him. I do so, and he echoes her words. She won’t speak on the phone, and hides her face behind a book. Suddenly Sharmila looks like a teenager in love.

I hang up, and now Sharmila looks pale. She has covered her face with the book once again, but this time she is crying. “I miss him. I want them to grant him permission soon,” she says.

Permission, however, is not easily granted. I have had to run from pillar to post to be able to meet her. Writer and activist Mahasweta Devi has been denied permission. “They don’t let people see me, as if I am a criminal,” she says.

As I look around, a wooden statue of the two legendary lovers, Krishna and Radha, catches my attention. “These are gifts from him. He says he’s Lord Krishna, and I am his Radha,” says Sharmila, smiling and running her fingers through the curls of her hair.

Her Christmas gift from him was a Santa Claus cap and bells. The New Year gift — a calendar and a diary — is expected to arrive soon, she says. She, in turn, has written two poems for him. “But they are in Manipuri, and he cannot read them,” she rues.

These are new emotions for Sharmila, who had little interest in boys when she was growing up. But now she wants to get married. “My grandmother wanted to see me married. Even I want to get married. But only after my demand is fulfilled,” she says.

But is the government likely to withdraw the act from a state which is still battling insurgency? “I don’t want to be a martyr. I hope India will listen to my demand one day,” she says. “If the government can repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), why can’t they do so with AFSPA?” Sharmila, who was recently awarded South Korea’s Gwangju Human Rights Award and the Rabindranath Tagore Peace award by the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, asks.

The struggle promises to be a long one. I get up to leave, but Sharmila stops me, asking me to once again call her lover (How do I refer to him in my copy, I’d asked her. “Call him my lover,” she’d replied). But this time I can’t get through. My last glimpse is of a face full of disappointment. And a tube attached to the nose.

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