Lyrics of a Conflict Song: Creating of the Stereotypes

  eastern quarterly, a jounal published by manipur research forum ( delhi) vol 7, issue I&II spring and monsson 2011

Lyrics of a Conflict Song: Creating of the Stereotypes 
“Manipur , a state equated in popular representation as conflict torn area has seen the manifestation in armed insurgency and HIV – AIDS. While conflict has adversely affected the social fabric, its representation has reduced the conflict into simplistic hills – valley animosity and is steeped in stereotypes”. 
Today the state of Manipur is notoriously equated with conflict. Problems that the state of merely 2.2 millions population is faced with, is far greater than what one would normally expect. Two major areas in which conflicts get manifested are armed insurgency and HIV–AIDS. There are other related areas of conflict like ethnic tension, religious animosity, hills-valley divide, rural-urban divide, etc. All these have in fact wracked the social fabric of the place and its people.
But more worrisome trend amidst these forms of conflict is the way these conflicts have been represented by people who are crafted with the art of representation, be it writing of novels, scholarly books, print and electronic media, films and photographs. Several stereotypes of the state, and also many other states of the region, have been projected in the recent past. The documentary film titled Manipur Song by a well-known film maker, Pankaj Butalia, is one such representation that depicts the region and the people in a bad taste. The film was telecast on August 15, 2010 coinciding with India’s independence day by NDTV Profit, a Delhi based national television which focus on business and market. Certainly sensationalization beomes the mantra of such production houses and film makers, for that will bring greater market avenues.
Butalia’s film picturizes armed conflict, drug abuse and prostitution in a most blatant and sterotyped form that is completely devoid of any effort to capture the nuanced human conditions shaped by a violent culture of conflict. There is no denying the fact that Manipur today is one of the most violent states in the world. With a data of 369 insurgency related fatalities in 2009, the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) in its assessment year 2010, stated that Manipur is the most violent state in India followed by Assam with 344 fatalities. But role of a film maker is little more than merely presenting the facts. There is much to be read about the intentions and politics behind making of such films.
Next comes the HIVAIDS “epidemic,” a term used by UNAIDS. Manipur has a record of being the highest percentage of adult HIV prevalence state in India according to the 1998–2006 estimate of National Aids Control Organization (NACO), where Manipur shows 1.67 per cent, while the country’s overall estimate is 0.36 per cent. The HIV–AIDS data and statistics are self explanatory in itself. Subsequently, Manipur was the first state in India to have a State AIDS Policy; the Manipur government adopted the State AIDS Policy on 3rd October, 1996. Later the Manipur State AIDS Control Society (MACS) was formed and registered in March, 1998. According to the society’s recorded data from 1986 till August, 2010, there are a total of 4589 AIDS cases, where 3316 are males and 1273 are females, with record of 645 deaths due to AIDS. It says Manipur contributes nearly 8 per cent of  India’s total HIV positive cases.
With such a back ground that is alarming, many from within and outside the state have studied this land and its people with a sense of “excitement.” But few try to understand the pain and sufferings that the common people in the region have survived decades of suppression and violence. While a study on aspects of conflict is likely to open the “pandora’s box,” that is still a welcome step compared to those narratives that remain in the peripheral level and merely sensationalizes. Pankaj Butalia’s Manipur Song is one such case in point.
The year 1947 has become more or less a land mark in the history of Manipur and Northeast India at large. The end of the colonial rule becomes a point of contention for the people of the region on evolving new political processes. It brought tremendous changes in terms of socio political life of the people. Manipur have had the experience of resistance movements – of armed non state groups and pressure groups with several claims starting from sovereignty, self determination, autonomous administration, to recognition for schedule tribe status (ST), etc. As stated above, besides the conflicts of state versus non state, numerous inter and intra communal strifes have also been witnessed. In the face of all these, there is also a perception by a large section of the people in Manipur (also of the Northeast) that they do not (think to) belong to India. Though such a perception is often seen as state of emotion, this certainly forms a strong case for opposition against the “forced annexation” into India. Indeed Manipur and communities of the Northeast India actually comprise of independent and distinctive cultural identities. Oral histories, folk tales passed on from one generation to another narrate stories of past glory, self sufficiency, abundance of natural resources, self governance, distinctive culture and tradition. This distinctiveness of a different entity called “Manipur” or the “Northeast India at large,” fairly different from the mainland India. 
Subsequently as much as Northeasterners do not feel a sense of belongingness, the geophysique further alienate the region creating a psychological distance. This differences also generate indifferences by the “mainlanders,” while people inhabiting this region feels “foreign” to the mainland India. These factors of “difference and indifference” manifest in various forms, kinds and magnitude. While on one hand, people of the Northeast feels discriminated and alienated for being different, manifest in the form of violent resistance and demands for self determination, on the other hand, mainlanders’ indifference towards the region manifest in the form of misperception, judgmental opinion, attitude and treatment particularly towards the women folk of this region.    
Manipur Song began with an introductory note on the political history of Manipur. The introduction narrates that the appropriation (merger) of Manipur into the Indian Union after the British left India in 1947 leading to insurgency movement in Manipur, which was quite understandably anti-Indian. The introduction rightly notes Manipur’s sovereignty and its existence as an independent kingdom. Simultaneously it goes into picturing the Laiharaoba dance and a traditional Meitei marriage procession, showcasing Manipur’s socio culture and tradition that is different from mainland India’s.
This is followed by a generalised introduction stating that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, was introduced in the region because of the insurgency movement in Manipur, further mentioning that over 20 such insurgent groups operate in the state. The introduction also underlines the conflict between these insurgent groups, underdevelopment, drugs, HIVAIDS, stating that there are many irreconcilable problems. The introduction while underlining Manipur’s different socio cultural and practices, noting its rich culture, gives a generalised and negated version over the issue and problems facing the state. It remains to be understood what irreconcilable problems the film maker tries to tell about and why was it irreconcilable. This negative outlook sends a de-motivating message for those who live their life with hope and for those who believe that reconciliation is one possible solution for conflict.
The narration says that the film maker travels from Delhi, the national capital, in 2004, being provoked by certain incidents. This was followed by video footage of the nude protest, police firings, angry youth out in the streets with slogans. The narration does not give any background information as to what it is all about, why those incidents took place. It was left to the viewers to try to grapple with the footage. As a viewer, a Manipuri residing in Delhi, I assume that what provoked the film maker would be the heighten protest in aftermath of the alledged rape and killing of Th. Manorama Devi in July 2004, more so the infamous “nude protest” as the narration gives much emphasis over it stating that it had caught national media attention. As for those who does not know much about Manipur, or mainland Indians at large, it would appear just a groups of angry young people, police firing protesters who defy the law or heartening nude protest of elderly women. The pictures do not leave otherwise the desired impact, definitely not to the mainland Indians. Or one wonders if the film maker intentionally wants opacity to remain.
The documentary was segregated into episodic parts; viz. Violence: the backyard of nationalism, The diaspora as periphery, Living on the edge, and On the notion of collateral. The first and foremost episode began with nationalism and separatist story. First beginning with the United National Liberation Front, a Meitei group, describe as a political movement and are fighting to regain self determination from the India state, its Chairman Sana Yaima giving an interview to the camera. On continuation the film narrated that the other millitant groups  who were categorically tribal groups “dislike” the Meitei group – viz. the Nagas, Kukis and the Zomis. As per the description in the film, these Meitei groups are exclusively supposed to be the people who inhabiting the then sovereign Manipur kingdom and subsequently the territorial boundary of todays’ Manipur state. The background narrative also states that these militant insurgent groups are fighting among themselves in a structured hierarchal order of Meitei militants fighting the “Indian State” for self determination, were in turn “fought” by the next larger group, the Nagas, who in turn is targetted by the Kukis, who are then targetted to by the Zomis. A chain of resistance by the smaller group upon the immediate bigger group is what is being shown. The chain goes to include the Paites, other sub group of the Zomi. This is rather simplistic and an over generalised statement. The film maker’s perceived notion that the smaller groups or the other communities inhabiting the “Meitei land” have no political standing are highly bias at several levels of the articulation. It shows lack of proper understanding of the complexity of identity claims and armed resistance movement associated with the same. All the armed militants or insurgents groups mentioned by Butalia have their own political ideologies and should be clubbed under a larger basket of the “non state.” In spite of the fact that inter – intra community rivalry may emerge in course of their political struggles, which is not so strange considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups and their aspirations, yet these should not be the “background introduction” of the “non state” movements which is primarily a political struggle, at least theoretically and ideologically.
This episode also tells about how youths are lured into the life of militants or militancy. This is a typical narrative of the statist discourse. There is nothing new in this representation, thus showing a case of old wine in new bottle. This episode also shows the “romantic” daily lives of the young militants. But the real life is quite different from the reel life, another form of stereotype representation. To this extent it shows some parallel with Bollywood films. While living underground in jungles with a gun is never a peaceful life, only a Bollywood film throws some excitement into the audience. Not only the militants suffer hardship, even their family members do face hardship in everyday life.
Another level of suffering is the sense of fear and tormant faced by the former (surrendered in fewcases) militants, their wives, and widows of the militants killed. They face discrimination at different levels. The fake encounter killing of Sanjit , a surrendered militant, at Imphal’s B.T. Road in July 2009 tell us that a militant is always a militant, an identity of no return. Emergence of organizations like Extrajudicial Execution Victims Association Manipur (EEVAM), Manipuri Women Gun Survivor Network, etc. say a lot about the life faced by the people associate with the movement. There is nothing extraordinarily exciting about their so called “romantic life.” This is yet again an attempt (perhaps deliberate) to reduce the entire politics of armed struggle into triviality of romance. Similar is the case where representation of child soldiers is made as victims. This in a way is to deny them as political actors.[i]
An interview of a “meira paibi” activist, Ima[ii] Taruni, was shown synchronised with several footages of violent incidents and protests, well crafted to delegitimise the movements. Ima Taruni speaks about one such incident before the camera where hundreds of women came out for a protest rally. This is followed by pictures of the incident she was supposedly speaking about. There was no background narration. The Ima said “at Thangmeiband THAU ground, we took out a protest rally… the police fired at us... many were killed…. Many injured... we ran helter skelter… many people jump into the river…. There were chaos and commotion… chappal (slippers) and clothes were scattered everywhere....” In the subtitle transcribed in English were these lines “… women left their clothes. They lost control of what they were wearing.” Connect this narrative with Kangla nude protest. The film maker seems to be delibeately planting this idea to the viewers that  Manipuri women have very little sense of dressing, as if dresses are easily thrown out or pulled out in an incident. So, protesting without clothes is an extension of their “casualness” about their dress. The film has done violence on sexuality of women by this projection of a stereotype image about Manipuri women. The meira paibis (torch bearers) women’s groups, widely acclaimed for their courage and roles in socio-political lives, were not even asked to give their opinion or views, but only recollections of an event like a protest or a violent incident. The film maker does all the interpretation. This is yet again a violence to the political sensibility of these women activists, giving the impression as if they are incapable of thinking and organising praxis.  
The issue of migation is also touched upon by the film maker. Migration of youth leaving home states, or for that matter home country, for greener pastures is nothing new. Migration from rural to urban centres (towns and city) is an all India phenomenon. Migration also takes place in non-conflict zones as well. For instance, migration of people from Bihar and Utter Pradesh to Mumbai is a case in point. In fact, migrations from non-conflict zones would be at times higher than migrations from conflict zones. This is an universal phenomenon. So migration of youths from a conflict zone like Manipur for higher studies and employment should not be seen only due to the push factor, but there are pull factors like job oportunities, wider facilities. Today migration from rural India to urban India is taking place cutting across region, ethnicity and violence. Migration phenomenon should be studied much more seriously.
A student supposedly studying in Delhi gave analysis of conflict, its impact and explanations of daily struggle in a metro city that does not welcome her. Her analysis and explanations appear to be based on the video footage from the same documentary film Manipur song, with some of the same words and phrases from the film. She is also shown to watch the same footages. The choice of charcter as respondent is pathetic.
An episode on the life of an ex militant turned drug users is shown to explain connection of militancy to drugs. This is but badly done. Though the interviews of the male addicts are shown under a “capacity building” workshop of an NGO, the focus is on family stories, their ignorance of joining miltancy, and hopelessness that led to drug abuse. This is a neat but poor script narating interconnection between militany and druge abuse – all that the film says is that militants engage with druge smuggling and in turn are victims themselves. Though there might be greater connection between the two, militant organizations’ drug trading has to do largely with procuring money to buy arms. And there are much larger issues involved in drug use and HIVAIDS, the case of broken family, social unrest, and role of family. Factors behind everything connected to drug abuse cannot be zeroed down to armed militancy. That is too simplistic a story.  
The episodes also tell the story of women commercial sex workers (CSW) cum drugs users living in shabby shelters in Imphal town ( the state capital) . While there is no officially notified “red light” areas in Manipur, nor CSW a visible population, the tailor made self confessional “bare show” of the life of sex workers and demonstration of their skills in drug use was strikingly odd. Suggestively, the names of the selected CSW women who confessed were called “lalli and heting” these names were not suffixed with “name changed” in the subtitle. Even if the names were changed, why not a Sunita or a Priyanka?
The incorrect translation of some of their dialogue do indicate the film maker’s presumption of what a CSW should be feeling or narrate before the camera. One of them said in native language “… when I look back, I feel nostalgic, or rather so to say… let down.” This is translated as “I now regret all that I have done in all my life.” This shows lack of sincerity and moral concern.
In as much prostitution is considered the oldest profession in the world, though forced into the trade, CSW does not necessarily regret their lives. Munni, CSW from Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata in her interview with United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) when  asked whether she would like to leave the brothel, she said “… ‘Ma’ will never let me go and she is good to me and this is my home. She has promised to send me to Mumbai someday. I am here of my own will. Even if I leave this place where will I go? I have a secret lover and he used to be one of my regular customers. He is a taxi driver and we are planning to marry.”[iii]
A comparative look at the two episodes shows a gendered segregated treatment by the film maker. The militant turned drug addicts, all of them men, were at a rehabilitation camp, receiving treatment and training. While the women CSW comprised only of their personal or past lives, origin and background, dependency on drugs and their daily struggles. One of the men drug addict, identified as Kalachand, even went to the extent of pushing his mother to tell before the camera that without knowing the consequences she had paved the way for  his sons’ addiction. Wife of one of the ex militant turned drug addict was also made to “talk” about the HIVAIDS “status” of her addict husband.
The two episode interviews appeared more like a “confession” and a scripted dialogue. The male drug users spoke on issues they faced, first as militants then as surrendered militants and eventually as drug addict. The women sex workers cum drug addicts spoke before the camera about their life history, sex and drugs. They even demonstrated for the viewers on “intravenous drug use!”
The HIVAIDS scenario in Manipur is certainly disturbing. But it is simplistic and abrupt to just conclude a narrative with the story of a drug addict, commercial sex worker and story of HIV children. Jackindia,[iv] an organization working on HIVAIDS publishes that AIDS was first diagnosed in the United States in early ’80s,  but many still look to Africa for its origin, blaming African monkeys and African sexual behaviours. As per research the High Risk Group comprises of tribals, truck drivers and sex workers. As such Africa and India were labelled as the epicentre of AIDS and the world’s AIDS capital respectively. The publication also quoted the identification of High Risk Group in Kerala in 1996 by the  British Overseas Development Administration, now DfiD listing tribals, street children and sex workers.
Interestingly, Jackindia further states that in Kerala there were no street children per se and that sex workers were not a visible group. It also says that this process of identification of High Risk group is a creation of new untouchables. The publication strongly brings out the linkages of the statistics, research, health policies, intervention strategy of HIVAIDS and concludes that the whole business was a new mechanism of colonization. The dirty and ugly looking drug addicts or women sex workers are not mere collateral victims of conflict but are probable agencies of the new mechanism for colonization. Rather than sensitization or awareness, stories of children (all of them girls) who were staying at Sneha Bhawan would generate the formation of future generation of “untouchables.”
UNAIDS and NACO had listed three most important legal entities in regard to HIV scenario: (i) Right to Informed Consent/Privacy –  a legal and ethical concept related to access and use of data/personal information; (ii) Right to Confidentiality – right to protection and unauthorized use of data; and (iii) Right against Discrimination – regarding fundamental rights and entitlements.
In a discussion on films and film making, award winning filmmaker Sunzu Bachaspatimayum told this writer “… if you are showing CSW or HIV persons, HIV children, traffic victims, you need to have a signed consent from the person.” Explaining further the making of his national award winning film Shingnaba,  a film on HIVAIDS, Bachaspatimayum further said “… in one of the scene where the HIV person was to be shown with his girlfriend, the girlfriend agreed to come before the camera, but I shot her below the neck till the feet without showing her face. Again after the filming I showed her how it would look like. Later she asked me to delete her part from the film; so I deleted it.” Even in cases of informed consent he said “we blur it.” On receiving a national award for his film AFSPA 1958, Bachaspatimayum had reportedly said  that “for a non feature film or a documentary it requires in-depth understanding as well as sensitivity of the issue by the film maker.”[v]
Beside the bad boys, the dirty and ugly looking drug users, and shameless sex workers, presentation of Irom Sharmila was ironic. In the whole episode on “The passion of Sharmila,” the contents were only of emotions and personal moments. Sharmila’s role in the film looked scripted for the “crying scene.” A woman read her poem and cried. Sharmila herself was at the end in tears. Compare this with Gandhi and his determined and hardened soul. Often described as the icon of democracy and non-violence, Irom Sharmila was on the contrary asked to speak on “humanity, emotions, dreams,” none of her political thoughts came into the scene. This looks like a subtle and well crafted design of showing softer side ( rather the “feminine”) of Sharmila, a lady in tears. This in a way mallows down, if not delegitimise, fourteen years long fast for repeal of AFSPA and her political struggle of non-violence.
Stating that the government is taking no initiative for dialogue with Sharmila while many violent resistant movements are invited for “peace talks,” Civic Chandran, who scripted a one act play Meira Paibi, questioned, “… is it because Sharmila is an ordinary woman and from Northeast? Or is non-violence unromantic?”[vi]
The Manipur Song as a whole seems to be trying to sensitize “mainland India” on the whole range of issues that engulf Manipur. For a distant spectator, the 60 minute documentary appears to be mere collection of incidents, social evils, the “bad” and the “ugly.” Presentation of women particularly scenes in the “Notion of collateral” makes an uncomfortable viewing, provoking viewers to question ethical and sensitive dimensions. The introduction rightly states that “the nature of the conflict is so complex that it is difficult to portray a clear cause and effect relatonship.” Neither a clear message for the audience nor an insightful analysis of the issues in question, one wonders whose interest the film is going to serve. The episodes lack interconnections and linkages. The documentary film affirms mainland India’s patriarchal indifference to the stories of the margins. 
Notes & References

[i]  This is from Meha Dixit’s writing “Dirty looking stones,” Hard News, September 2010.
[ii] The term “Ima” meaning “mother” is usually used to address the women activists with a sense of respect.
[iii] Sonagachi, the largest legal red light district in Kolkata shot to fame after a documentary Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids won the Academy Award in 2004. Source: UNODC website,
accessed during September 2010.
[iv] See Jackindia, “HIV–AIDS Industry,” 2002.
[v]  As stated in The Sangai Express, March 19, 2010.
[vi] The questions were raised by Civic Chandran at a performance of the play Meira Paibi based on the life of Sharmila in Delhi in May 2010. For details see, The North East Sun, June 16–30, 2010.

Saving Manipur's Heritage

THE Sangai, a rare endangered species found only in Manipur’s Loktak Lake, is on the verge of extinction. According to Dr Syed Ainul Hussain of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, there are now less than 100 (2006-08 census) left. What has threatened their survival is the thinning of phumdi, a wet mass of vegetation that floats in the lake and serves as their natural habitat.

This species was believed to have been extinct until, in 1975, about 14 Sangais were spotted on the lake’s southern fringe. Since then the area is known as the Keibul Lamjao National Park.

Despite this, the Sangais’ existence is being threatened by the lake’s development projects. In 2009. the WII planned to create a separate habitat for the species and the executive summary report of the “recovery plan for Sangai (Rucervus eldii eldii)  proposed reducing mortality and strengthening of the habitat. The other plan was to relocate them and set up a breeding ground”. In collaboration with the state forest department, the WII identified forest reserves at Langol, Sambei, Heingang, Pumlenpat, Thongam Mondum hilllock, Thoubal Ikoppat, Kaihlam wildlife sanctuary and Yangouchaobo. But only five of these were surveyed.

The institute’s rapid assessment of the proposed reintroduction sites did not rule out that these sites were free from human encroachment, resource exploitation, forest degradation due to fishing, farming, hunting and tourism. Besides the cost (estimated at Rs 2.77 crore) the institute also underlined that the process would invite further socio-political conflicts in the already existing situation in the state. 

Dr Hussain says Kaihlam in the south hill district of Churachandpur, with its thinner population, will make an ideal home for Sangais but acquiring this will be a big problem vis-a-vis the land holding pattern in the tribal areas. Thousands of people live on floating phumdis at the lake. In  2011,  hundreds of them were evicted under the Manipur Loktak Lake Protection Act, 2006, the basic objective being to ensure proper administration, control, protection, improvement, conservation and development of the lake’s natural environment.

A publication, “India: No place to go for forcibly evicted lake dwellers” on 25 November 2011 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a branch of the UN refugee agency, noted that “whatsoever was the aim of the authority for environmental protection, the reasons for eviction, including efforts to drive insurgents out of the area, the deterioration of the ecosystem of the Loktak Lake has mostly been the result not of human settlement, but of hydrological changes introduced by the Ithai Dam, commissioned in 1983. The lake has also been reported to be polluted by urban waste coming from the rivers that pass through Manipur. An estimated 4.9 million tonnes of solid waste and 2,121 cubic metres of sewage flow into the lake every year”.

India’s Wildlife Institute also has raised concern over the impact of development. Dr Hussain told this writer that following the construction of the Ithai Barrage the overflow of water into the Loktak Lake further aggravated the change in the water regime. Thus, the phumdis that settle in the lean season are today floating permanently, resulting in a decrease of thickness. Degradation of the natural resource of the Loktak Lake has, therefore, threatened the existence of not only Sangais but also several other species of birds, fish and most of all human inhabitants.  Relocation of animals or cleansing human settlements in the lake and its adjoining areas to improve its output is viable in the initial stages but in long run there arises the question of sustainability.

In this process of rebuilding lives and rehabilitating people (in terms of compensation) and relocating animal species that inhabit the ancestral Loktak lake and its surrounding areas, Manipur will need to rewrite its history and reconstruct or recreate a new “second” heritage -- perhaps devoid of originality and essence.

The statesman , July 22, 2012

at home in God's own Country: kerala

Coming down from the capital heat Delhi to Kerala- ‘God’s own country’ on Monday, June 25 was refreshing. As the Taxi took me along the countryside to Fort Cochin I could feel the wet greens and the smell of the Arabian Sea. In fact a different kind of a feeling as a person who grew up in the hills of Manipur.

Joining a group of twenty one social workers and media activist for a meeting on Peace Building in India we were put up at Gama Heritage residency. A calm neighborhood, more of a residential colony with hang-out joints nearby along the sea beach. We have friends from Germany who travelled across the globe, telling stories of Peace Builders around the World with use of media and information technology.

My young friends (they were just out of college) from Kerala asked me “where are you from?” Initially I thought whether I should say Delhi, presuming that they would have no clue about Manipur. But my curiosity to know their reaction took the better of me and I replied “I am from Manipur”. I was totally surprised by their response. Excited, they said “wow, we know Sharmila!”. They told me about the activities they organized in solidarity to Sharmila in their college. For these young girls Irom Sharmila, was an Icon. One of them even went on to asked me “ have you met Sharmila in person ?”, “is your home near to Sharmila’s home?”.

A friend’s friend, Radhika, legal expert and writer, whom I spoke to over the phone for some leads on trafficking, progress on to a discussion about Irom Sharmila. Though we could not catch up our two day consecutive talk was all about Sharmila, AFSPA, and Manipur. She bluntly commented “look at Anna Hazare, and the response!” She asked “why is the government silent over Sharmila?” I replied “maybe, because Sharmila is an ordinary women from Manipur!”

Initially I thought, since most of the people I met or interacted are from the social sector obviously they are aware of Manipur and its associated problems. But to my surprise, every stores, shops, that I went, they would casually inquire where are you from? But no remarks or naïve / silly questions. More interesting were the auto rickshaw drivers. They would say Madam where are you from? When I replied “Manipur” then they would exclaim “Oh beautiful place”! One evening as I took an Auto the driver said “Oh Manipur, that’s India”.!

None of the people I come across, when I told them I come from Manipur never asked me a second question, where is Manipur? Nor do they gave me an odd look (staring at the other like an alien), which is very common in other Mainland Indian states, most specifically Delhi.

On the next day of my arrival in Fort Cochin, looking for an internet café, I casually inquire at the Seashore Residency a hotel cum travel guide, the manager told me he can provide the connection to my laptop, and that he would charge Rs 50 for any extend of hours. This arrangement was convenient.
Manager Markos was very informative and update. Once the formalities of introduction, he kept me engaged with discussion on Manipur and north east at large. The current presidential polls being the headlines, our discussion was about PA Sangma. Markos asked “will NE (political parties) support Sangma?” “What is your take on a NE contesting the highest office?” My reply was that most NE states are congress or its alliances and the disadvantage for Sangma is that he is unfortunately supported by BJP – not a very popular party in NE.

George, a friend of Markos too joined in. He told me that PA Sangma had also visited Kerala during his tenure in the Lok Sabha. And that Sangma is not a new face in Kerala. George, a Keralite, who works in Oman (Middle East) talked about border trade and business in Northeast India. He told us that the Government of Oman and Government Of India are in a process of a joint collaboration to set up a agriculture field in Nagaland (land will be leased out to Oman government for rice cultivation). George said “CM of Nagaland came to Oman as representative of India to discuss about the project”

During my five days stay in Fort Cochin I came to Markos’ place frequently. One fine evening, Markos said “I hear the news that a dress code is announced for women in Manipur” (news report, June 26, Manipur student leaders prescribe girl students should wear the traditional ankle-length ‘phanek’ (wraparound skirt)). Bit surprise I thought, this guy is really up-to-date. I told him I do hear about it but not in detail. He wanted to know more, “does the girls in Manipur wear uniforms in schools?” do they wear skirts? What is the length of the skirt? what length is allowed? “I couldnt respond much. After some time he asked “is Manipur such a backward state?” ..I was taken aback “huh, it is some sort of talibanization…or probably talibanization influence” I mumbled. He didn’t asked further.

Saturday morning, as I walked along the beach, mesmerized in the activities of the early birds, fishermen, tourist and locals, one gentleman in his late 50s came up to me and said “hello, I saw you for the last few days coming out for morning walk, where are you from?” I said casually “Delhi” he persisted, finally I answered “from Manipur” Then he brighten up. Manipur? he repeated. Then he began talking about AFSPA, sharmila, his concern of problems in the state, blockade, bandhs, hartals. We talk of humanity, values and many other thing. A local businessman, how does he knows so much about Manipur? He told me that he read about Manipur in the newspapers. After a long conversation the gentleman invited me for a morning cup of tea at his house. I promised him “I will come tomorrow”. I never did.

The next day, Sunday morning I took a taxi and left for Cochin airport. The driver obviously asked Madam where are you from? I am from Manipur. He replied “oh Manipur, beautiful place, I have been there once on a tour”.

Along the road, he explained things I was glancing from the rear window of his car.. “This is Ernakulam market”… “main shopping area”… “this are children on their way back from their Sunday school in the Church”...

On my journey back to Delhi, my mind drifted back to the old gentleman whom I had promised to have a homemade cup of tea. I felt bad that I had not kept my promise, while I could have some time in the morning before I left at 10 am. I didn’t even asked his name and more about his “joint family” he fondly talked about. I remember Markos, and thought what would have been the headlines in The Sangai Express, Manipur today. I wondered what would be Marcos and his friend George’s take on the presidential polls ?.

I thought of Radhika and the girls in the Peace Building meeting, their warm sisterly bonding with me. With admiration I remember my school teachers, and many other Keralites in the missionary schools who came all way from Kerala to teach in the far flung villages in Manipur.

Unfortunately, I realized only after I left Kerala that I had not reciprocated the people I personally interacted in trying to know more about their opinion, thoughts, more about the people and the state of Kerala.

The Sangai Express , July 9, 2012. sunday articles