Posts Tagged ‘Manipur

Schoolteacher Soni Sori is a Lok Sabha candidate from Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The Aam Aadmi Party member’s campaign will be different from that of many other aspirants: she will tell her own story.

Sori has just returned to her ancestral home in Palnar village in Dantewada district after three years in jail. Accused of being a Maoist accomplice and attacking a Congress leader in 2011, she has now been acquitted in five out of seven cases registered against her and granted bail in the remaining ones.

But she has filed a case too — alleging that a senior police officer oversaw her assault while she was in police custody in 2011. The Supreme Court is yet to decide on it.

In her complaint, Sori said the police officer verbally abused her and directed policemen to torture her.

“In a conflict zone like Chhattisgarh, there is no one to hear our plea,” she says.

With armed unrest rampant in parts of the country — from Kashmir to Chhattisgarh and Manipur — human rights activists are raising the issue of sexual violence by security forces against citizens. There are also numerous cases of sexual assault by armed men who have the government’s backing. In Chhattisgarh for instance, members of Salwa Judum, a civil militia group formed in 2005, face 99 charges of rape.

Tribal activists such as Sori often face the brunt of such attacks. In the Jadingi village of Odisha’s Gajapati district, Arati Majhi, 21, was marked as a Naxalite and allegedly raped by the police in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the activists have been urging India to sign a Declaration of Commitment to end Sexual Violence in Conflict. In September 2013, 122 nations endorsed the declaration that was tabled by the UK in the 68th UN General Assembly.

The declaration says that sexual violence in conflict areas must not be viewed as a lesser crime. It also calls for comprehensive, improved and timely medical and psychosocial care for survivors and funding for sexual violence prevention.

“Most victims never see justice for what they have endured nor receive the necessary assistance and support,” it says.

Former cop K.P.S. Gill, who fought terrorism in Punjab, agrees that sexual violence against women and children is common in every conflict zone. “India too has seen it for years. Our government authorities do make investigations about such violence but no comprehensive plan has been worked out to tackle it,” says Gill, president, Institute for Conflict Management, Delhi, a non-profit outfit which analyses internal security in South Asia.

Some experts fear that India will not back the declaration. The government, they believe, shies away from backing such a document as it would put the State under the international scanner, especially in places such as Kashmir where the problem goes beyond its borders.

“Even after alleging that the violence in Kashmir is instigated by neighbouring Pakistan, India doesn’t recognise Kashmir as an international armed conflict because that would mean allowing international investigations into the violence,” says Khurram Parvez, programme co-ordinator, Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society.

“Endorsing it would mean India is open to international scrutiny, and it would never be acceptable to the government,” echoes Colin Gonsalves of Human Rights Law Network, a Delhi-based lawyers’ collective that fought Sori’s case in the Supreme Court.

But as more and more cases get exposed, the demand for steps to protect women is also on the rise. “Majhi and Sori belong to that unarmed population which is caught in the crossfire of Maoists and State forces… Such a declaration is an instrument for the people to take their fight forward,” advocate Shalini Gera, who fought Sori’s case at the Dantewada court, argues.

But far from supporting the declaration, the activists point out that the government has laws such as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which give immunity to security forces, even when they commit sexual violence.

The human rights activists stress that steps have to be taken urgently, arguing that sexual violence against women is an old and continuing problem.

In 1991, security forces allegedly raped over 100 women over one night in Kunan-Poshpora in J&K’s Kupwara district. In 1992, soldiers in Shopian in Pulwama district were accused of gang raping at least six women. In Manipur, Thangjam Manorama Devi, 34, was allegedly raped by soldiers of Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, in 2004.

“During conflict, women are particularly vulnerable to sexual attack by both State and non-State actors,” Human Rights Watch spokesperson Meenakshi Ganguly says.

Not everybody agrees that endorsing such a document is the answer to the problem. Supreme Court advocate K.T.S. Tulsi believes that it undermines India’s democratic process. “Endorsing it could subject us to trial in international tribunals, which is not right for our democracy,” he argues.

Tulsi also believes that India has enough safeguards to tackle such issues. “Our courts have taken suo motu cognisance of many such crimes in conflict areas. Our Constitution has the provision of giving fair trials to everyone,” he says.

But the activists argue that such declarations lead to the forming of effective domestic laws.

“International laws always help in the formation of domestic laws,” People’s Union for Civil Liberties general-secretary Kavita Srivastava maintains. “After India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1993, we got the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.”

But there is a feeling that unless the government wants change, joining such global efforts will not yield results. “India signed the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1997 but it has not ratified it. The Prevention of Torture Bill that is related to the convention too is pending before Parliament,” Parvez says. “India signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2007 but it has not ratified it. Such half-hearted initiatives serve no purpose,” he adds.

Sori, for one, will be happy if the declaration leads to action. Because, she stresses, it’s not just her case that needs to be redressed. During her time in jail, she met many other women who had been sexually tortured in jail or custody. “It’s the fight of several others like me,” she adds.

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)

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.

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.

Salom Lokeshwari with her son,

 Hoikhovok Serto who is yet to get compensation despite bribing officials

Jinhu Hoikhothim is depending on her pet pig to help bring up her children;