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 HIV–AIDS “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, HIV–AIDS, 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 HIV–AIDS, 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 HIV–AIDS “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 HIV–AIDS 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 HIV–AIDS 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 HIV–AIDS 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 HIV–AIDS, 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.