Sunday, June 2, 2013

A stranger in the mist

The policewoman at the airport security check scans me with her beeper and asks where I was from. I looked surprised at the question given that anyone catching a flight to Imphal goes there because of one reason only – they belong there some way or the other. I, on the other hand, am one unique tourist, foreigner and outsider who doesn’t need an inner line permit.

Boys at dusk near Loktak lake, the largest and perhaps, the most beautiful lake I've ever seen anywhere in India.

It has been 6 years since I was last here, long enough to make me feel guilty about being so distant from my roots. However, as soon as I left the premises of the airport eager to see the changes in the capital city of Manipur, I felt like I hadn’t missed much in the last half decade. Barring billboards featuring a formerly unacknowledged sporting legend, the place hadn’t changed from its local ima (run by women) markets, plentiful kirana shops and the omnipresence of armed security forces posted at different city centers.

I carry the identity of an outsider everywhere I go – whether it is in the capital of the country, which groomed me to the harsh realities of the big bad world of adulthood in 11 years or the IT capital where I moved for greener grasses and a more metropolitan culture. I, often, am asked about either the troubled insurgent political situation of my home state and my stand on AFSPA and Irom Sharmila’s struggle or the souvenir I can bring back for cultural enthrallment and the exotic locales that remain unexploited in the little state, often submerged in the singularly misleading identity of the ‘seven sisters’ or the North East. But what do I really know about my state except for the few towns and villages where different variations of my extended family and tribal community live? Home for me had only thus far been the meaningless charade of meeting relatives who spoke in an alien language and failingly attempted to familiarize me with their way of life each time I visited.

I put my foot down this time, telling my mother I was grown up enough to choose how I spend my limited paid leave. She humored my appeal to be treated like an adult and neatly sifted through the pages of Air India in-flight magazine to design an itinerary for my trip. My parents don’t exactly fit like puzzle pieces in their home state anymore despite having grown up here and having links to the community in each town and city that my dad was posted to while serving in the Indian Army. The Army takes you places, exposes you to diversity and development and mainstreams you into the great Indian aspiration of earning a 6 figure salary in a prominent metropolitan with an annual vacation abroad. This while people in Manipur still struggle with power and water supply, unprecedented curfews in the city every alternate week and the looming threat of insurgent terrorism or exploitation at the hands of those pledged to protect them, both the militant groups and the Army.

As I travelled past the old familiar towns and districts, I noticed the many billboards of the Indian Army, many of which boasted of their welfare work for the local communities. Much has been written about the inhuman atrocities committed by armed forces personnel under direct and urgent instructions to weed out militants with unparalleled power and immunity in their line of work. I sat and drank tea at an Assam Rifles base perched atop a hillock at Loktak lake, the largest freshwater lake in the entire North East, that was formerly occupied by militant forces. The hospitable commanding officer, who has extensively been part of many operations in the state, talks about the many areas his dispatch had conquered from the militants. It would have been contentious to ask about the details of these operations in my circumstances as a guest (and him knowing that I work as an online journalist) so I refrained for the better wisdom of knowing he would hardly reveal anything worth a quote.

I’ve always wondered about the diplomatic positions of people who grow up outside of their homes that are declared unfit for peace. I’ve always been somewhat in the grey about the challenges Manipur has faced, especially when AFSPA has been the most notable one in the last decade or so. Vicariously knowing the realities through close cousins and relatives at home, I’ve rarely heard of incidents relating to any harassment by armed forces personnel themselves, however.

On the other hand, an uncle’s car being “borrowed” at gunpoint by militants and people being routinely subjected to extortions when they open up a new shop or built a new house is commonplace, at least in Churachandpur district of Manipur. What I most closely and disturbingly know about is how militants disturbed the peace in my own extended family some years back when my grandfather (who is no more with us) was taken by militants and my uncle was subjected to such torture, that he hasn’t mentally recovered from it till today.

The violation and loss of those who suffered in the hands of the Army must not be dismissed away as collateral damage. But to my mind, AFSPA has been a convenient scapegoat for the Central Government to focus mainstream media’s attention away from the many inconsistencies in the system – whether it is the widespread corruption, project development lags and a dysfunctional tourism to pin point only a few in a list of problems piling up. The presence of AFSPA does make life uncertain in Manipur but its full departure will not restore the state back to its normalcy, forget glory. Not when a rising number of militant groups are all independently asking for a separate state when, much like Maoist groups, are just asking for attention to their problems long tucked away from the nation’s bigger challenges – corruption in T20 and naked mannequins, to name just a few of the gripping ones.

People in Manipur have more than accepted corruption, not just for better standards of life, but the only way to survive. A handful make it to the cream of the Government services (and are lauded to infinity), most others bribe their way into positions at district councils while a few others venture out to work in various sectors ranging from hospitality and BPO to academia, journalism and even entrepreneurship in rising metropolitans. But the degree of resilience is a lot to ask from everyone to either have the resources or assert their identity in mainstream societies. Instead, a place in a militant group aiming at a revolutionary coup, that coercively commands respect among the commoners, becomes all too lucrative a career option for the youth in the absence of a career day at school or college.

Sex, drugs and rock and roll is how Manipur's glaring issues of HIV rates, western idealism and misguided youth is often romanticized. 

AFSPA is yet another shame of an excuse by the Government to justify its lack of concern for a region that largely comes under the scheduled tribes and castes. Yet it isn’t the cause of all things wrong in the society and system today in Manipur. If anything that must be blamed, it is the Government that cares more towards maintaining its status quo authority through more than a decade than delivering any of its promises for systemic improvements. When you don’t have the necessities of water and electricity and are neglected and treated like a stranger in your own land, you will feel like shooting somebody…anybody!  

Maybe we need to start questioning the ‘divide and rule’ governance of the various sects and tribes that has been costing the people of Manipur since the ethnic conflicts in the 90’s aside from the collateral damage conducted by external forces.

A torrential hailstorm, that occurred a month back, wiped out houses and uprooted trees in many districts of the state. The losses people suffered and the status of Government compensation is not the kind of news that would interest mainstream media or Abhay Deol.  Why? Because Manipur's problems would become akin to any other state, like Bihar, when it is Indian media’s very own Congo war. 

Manipur trends only because of AFSPA because its real problems are not news worthy or social media virality. 

Disclaimer: This is an overdue post of my homecoming in Manipur (April 2013) and must warn that my analysis of the socio-political situation is still pretty much from the perspective of a native outsider looking in. 

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