Beginning from November 4, every afternoon, tribal youths from Manipur who are residing in the national capital, Delhi gathered at Jantar Mantar. The youths, numbering around a hundred are holding a peaceful demonstration along with a symbolic coffin of the nine “martyrs”.
The said nine dead bodies are still lying in the hospital morgue in Churachandpur, Manipur. The nine people, including an eleven-year-old school boy, succumb to injuries when security forces fired upon the public, as protest erupted after the passing of the three controversial bills in the State Assembly on August 31. The violent protest that ensued for about 3 days saw the residence of 6 tribal legislators including a parliamentarian burnt by the protesters, beside destruction of vehicles and other government buildings.
Protest demand for withdrawal of the said three bills has entered more than 60 days. The bills include; The Protection of Manipur People’s Bill 2015; The Manipur Shops and Establishment (2nd Amendment)Bill 2015; and The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment ) Bill 2015.
While continuous public protests, rallies, sit-in demonstration against the said bills are held in Lamka, the headquarter town of Churachandpur district, support and solidarity came from all the other tribal districts in Manipur; Chandel, Senapati, Tamenlong, Ukhrul. Public protests too were held in New Delhi.
The tribal hill areas in Manipur have been, for long, witness to several unrest, from violent militant movements to statehood demands, more autonomy for tribal areas and other developmental grievances including students’ demand for better education system and tribal scholarships.
Ironically, the tribals in Manipur never took out rally or other forms of protest in the state capital, Imphal. Most of the protest, if not all, was either in the form of bandhs in the hill areas and national highways or economic blockade. This time too in the current protest against the three bills, dharnas and rallies concentrated in the epicenter in Lamka, Churachandpur district, with solidarity and support in other four tribal districts. But no forms of protest were seen in the capital Imphal that has witnessed numerous public protests by valley based organizations. Much as it is an issue that concern tribals and tribal areas, the protest too was directed on the tribal legislators alone. There are 20 tribal MLAs out of the total 60.
Hesitantly, Sam Ngaihte, one of the demonstrators at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi said that holding a protest against the three Bills in Imphal “may create communal tension”. Ngaihte agrees that the grievance is against the state Government, “but there is possibility of the protest taking a different turn,” he said cautiously.
A member of the Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi, Lapakchui Siro, candidly said that one of the reasons for the tribals not holding rally or protest in the state capital is the fear of police retaliation, which he said is obvious. “There is no guarantee for the security of tribal protesters in the state capital,” he said. Recalling several instances, Siro further mentioned that any matter concerning the tribal hill areas none of the valley based CSOs or Human Rights organization have spoken out. Even as protest against the three bills continues in Churachandpur and other tribal areas, Siro says, “Valley-based CSOs in collusion with the State government have the audacity to request the President to give his assent to the three bills”. He asked, “In such a situation, how can you expect the tribals to hold a rally or a protest in Imphal?”
In the present demand for withdrawal of the three bills, the Delhi-based Manipur Tribal Forum have been spearheading the protest in the capital. Citing article 371 (C), Romeo Hmar, Convener of the forum, reasoned that the President must and should intervene, as far as the tribal areas in Manipur is concerned. He said that as per the stated article under the Indian Constitution, through the Governor, the President should take the final call in matters concerning the administration of tribal areas in Manipur. This, he said, is the reason why Tribals called upon the President and the Union Government, which he said is legitimate, constitutional and mandatory. As such, the Tribals has been coming out in the capital to pressure the center.
The Tribal Forum is a conglomeration of various individuals and student based organization. The forum presently has a support of over 24 Delhi-based, Manipur tribal student organizations. The Forum is demanding for political solution, a separate administration for the Tribals in the hills of Manipur.
Each day, Tribe based student organizations took turns to mobilize demonstrators. The event would saw the youths with songs, deliberations, interactions and would end with a prayer and candle light for the dead persons. The key student bodies includes, The Naga Student Union, Hmar Student Association, The Zomi Student Federation, Siamsinpawlpi , Zillai, Gangte Student Association and others. Tribe based welfare associations and philanthropic organizations also took part in the demonstration.
Memorandums after memorandums have been submitted to the centre government and concern ministries. Until now, there is no concrete step or move to take up the matter by the center, but the youth demonstrators were unlikely to give up. Convener of the Tribal Forum, Romeo Hmar, asserted, “Until the Center listens we are not calling off the protest demonstration.” The Forum convener though is open for dialogue. In fact, he stated that the Tribal Forum had been suggesting that a dialogue be initiated with the Tribal leaders, the Center Government and the State Government, a ‘Tripartite talk’ which he said the Manipur Government had refused.
As it stands, the youths are adamant, and are asserting their stand for a “separate administration” for the tribal hill areas. The patience though seems to thin out as Hmar puts it “we can’t say how long this peaceful demonstration will continue”. Speaking of how the tribal hill areas have been neglected, undeveloped for years and that demand and voices are not being heard, he said “As of now, we are taking out democratic forms of protest, but we are ready for any other forms, if required,” said Hmar indicating that the youths may resort to take other means. This is not unlikely, if the impasse continues.
A 52-minute documentary film Phum Shang by Haobam Paban Kumar, touchingly captures people being uprooted from their “way of life” in Loktak Lake and its adjoining areas in south west, Manipur. The film is nominated for Leipzig Ring Award 2015 and is currently in competition at the 34th Jean Rouch International Film Festival in Paris, India Week- Hamburg, and 10th Film South Asia in Nepal, among others.
Phum Shang, literally meaning Phum – Floating Bio Mass and Shang – Hut /Inn received the Cinema of Resistance Award at the 9th SIGNS Film Festival Kerala 2015 and First Bala Kailasam Memorial Award 2015 in Chennai, The Silver Lotus for the Best Investigative Film at the 62nd National Film Awards 2014.
The film, set in picturesque Loktak Lake , an unique freshwater water body, tells the tale of the traditional fishing community inhabiting the lake and has lived for centuries on the floating Phumdis ( bio mass). The lake and its natural resources were their main source of sustenance and life.
Of late, this idyllic lake, known world-wide for its captivating beauty, scientific and environmental significance and the pride of the state of Manipur is no longer what it appears to the outside world, the tourist or the researchers. Most importantly to its own inhabitants, the lake dwellers for whom it is not only a mere livelihood but identity, tradition and most of all their way of life weaved around this very lake. Many of Manipur’s folk-lores , tales, history revolves and evolved around this lake.
A senior journalist, Salam Rajesh, an environmentalist who has written extensively on environment and has been observing developments in the state closely, takes you to the lake where he often visits for his research. But sadly he could not find his acquaintance and those similar faces whom he often had conversations and chats, when he came back for this film (Phum Shang) in 2011.
As he manages to meet some of the fishermen in the lake, the journalist came to realized that his “friends and their families” were among those who had left the area and had settled somewhere in the nearby hamlets and villages. Those he met here in the lake presently as shown in the documentary film were those who were fortunately left by the “Machine” – The huge hydraulic excavator that came along with Officials for eviction. Though devastated some of them re-built temporary make shift huts and asserted they are not going to leave the Phumdis.
Until the commissioning of the Loktak Project in 1983, the lake dwellers had a life of their own, non interference and un-interrupted. From morning till dusk, they would go out and fish and brought their catch to the city market. This is their everyday life.
From mid 2006 on-wards, this daily chores was interrupted by what this simple fishermen/women called “The Machine” – that would frequently come towards their huts to crush them down. The Lake dwellers also had to frequently encounter unwelcomed visitors whom they simply termed “They”– the officials who would come and order them to leave their huts. Many of the huts and settlements were raged down and burnt into ashes, which was also shown in the film.
Phum Shang also documents and captures how the fishermen and women resisted the eviction drive. Fiercely protective of their dwelling huts and the lake, these fishing communities were up in arms against the ‘Machine’ and “Them”. Their anger, fears and apprehensions were captured in the film, presenting the plights of the Loktak Lake dwellers, their stands, genuine grievances and arguments in their own words.
Not merely a documentary of people living in the periphery, Phum – Shang also brings out the complex web of development vis a vis mega projects, urbanization and its impacts. The film also captures how ‘development’ has been perceived by the state ( or few in the establishments) and how people in the periphery were at the receiving end of policies and development projects.
Phum Shang is a classic case of impact of mega development in Manipur, across India and elsewhere. The story provides a case in point of how mega projects have displaced thousands and uprooted them from their livelihood, identity and dignity. The larger context of the degrading environment and eco system was also captured in the film. Meanwhile, several fowls and other animals have also have been reported to have disappeared from the Lake. Moreover, Loktak Lake is the only natural habitat of Sangai (rucervus eldii eldii ) the endemic, rare and endangered deer species which is on the verged of extinction.
While many of the Phum dwellers in Loktak Lake have escaped for fear of their lives after their house were pulled down, burnt or destroyed, many families still stay put and are adamant. That they would not leave their huts nor the lake, which are not only a home or a livelihood but a tradition and belief too.
Many a times the Machine would come aggressively right into their huts, many a times the lake dwellers could wade off the ‘Big thing’. As it stands, presently the lake is seemingly quiet and silent, but everyone including the viewers of Phum Shang knows “they” will come back any time with the “machine”.
Uncertainty, uneasiness looms large over the idyllic Loktak Lake ; shown quite evidently in Phum Shang.The film brings the viewer into a deeper questioning of development paradigm and perspectives.
Even as the natural resources, the bio diversity and eco system of the of / in Loktak is fast degrading, and the blame being place upon the natural inhabitants. The question, as the Phum Shang shows the Dwellers asking “ are we, who has been living in this lake for centuries, encroachers of Loktak Lake , as per the Loktak Protection Act 2006 “? Are these fishing community too on their way to disappear from the lake ?
As the Phum dwellers takes the matter to the court it only remain to seen on how the law will take its course in this complex case. Many questions linger and perhaps many will remain un-answered.
The 1st Bala Kailasam Memorial Award has rightly awarded Phum Shang for innovative use of media towards social cause. Beside film lovers, it is a must see for concern citizens, researchers and most importantly policy framers and the state agencies.
Haobam Paban Kumar studied filmmaking at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute Kolkata. His films that have made to festivals international events and have won several recognitions including the FIPRESCI prize at Mumbai International Film Festival 2006. He was one of the six emerging talents to represent India at Cannes film Festival 2011 supported by National Film Development Corporation India. Haobam stays in Manipur and makes film about Manipur. The Northeast Today - TNT 4 November 2015 -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------