Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016
Understanding Complex Dimensions of Manipur
Saturday 24 September 2016, by
Mother, Where’s My Country? Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur by Anubha Bhosle; 2016; New Delhi: Speaking Tiger; pp. 250; Price: Rs 499.
Of late two very consequential developments captured the headlines of newspapers with one thing in common—the State of Manipur. In a recent judgment on a plea by hundreds of families in the North-Eastern State of Manipur for a probe by a Special Investigation Team into 1528 cases of alleged fake encounters involving the Army and the police, the Supreme Court questioned the immunity enjoyed by the security personnel under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) against criminal action for acts committed in disturbed areas. The Supreme Court said, it does not matter whether the victim was a common person or a militant or a terrorist, nor does it matter whether the aggressor was a common person or the state. The law is the same for both and is equally applicable to both. This is the requirement of a democracy and the requirement of preservation of the rule of law and the preservation of individual liberties. The Supreme Court further said that indefinite deployment of armed forces in the name of restoring normalcy under the AFSPA would mock at our democratic process, apart from symbolising a failure of the civil administration and the armed forces. It is high time that concerted and sincere efforts are continuously made by the four stakeholders— civil society in Manipur, the insurgents, the State of Manipur and the Government of India —to find a lasting and peaceful solution to the festering problem, with a little consideration from all quarters. It is never too late to bring peace and harmony in society.
Exactly a month after this judment, Irom Chanu Sharmila, known as the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’, ended her epic fast since 2000 against the AFSPA on August 9 and was also granted bail in an attempt-to-suicide case. As Irom Sharmila left the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences hospital in Imphal where she was force-fed through the nose for 16 years, she had also announced her decision to contest the Manipur Assembly polls as an independent candidate. This marked a historic transformation of Irom Shamila from an icon of protest in the conflict-ridden State into a political leader.
The book under review is a poignant story of Manipur written by journalist Anubha Bhosle who has won prestigious recognition for her work like the Fullbright, Humphrey Fellowship 2015, Chameli Devi Award, 2014, Ramnath Goenka Award, 2012 and Jefferson Fellowship, 2008.
The book draws from two hundred inter-views, documents, reports and court testimony to highlight the plight of a society devastated by violence of a faction-ridden insurgency, armed forces and the police. But at the same time it is a story of Irom Sharmila who was fighting a lonely battle in Manipur till very recently through her fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) (the book was published prior to Irom Sharmila ending her fast). It is also a stirring tale of rape and torture survivors, soldiers, leaders on both sides, common masses, children dealing with terror, political indifference, curfews and economic blockades.
Anubha Bhosle went undercover to meet Irom Sharmila. Since then Anubha visited Manipur often to interrogate life in the conflict zone where ‘there is neither war nor peace’ but people die along with a long history of anguish and grit at the same time.
The book is divided into 15 chapters dealing with heart-wrenching tales apart from an Introduction and an Epilogue. The work is based on the author’s reflections and notes from her reports and field work. She tries to explore the notion that exists among people regarding the AFSPA and the role of a faction-ridden insurgency, life that runs parallel to and in the shadow of blockades, political apathy and education in the shadow of guns.
The author recognised that not everything originated from the AFSPA. The Manipur State has seen many insurgencies. She argues that there have been failures, abuse and neglect. She interviews both soldiers and rebels to under-stand the nature of security and need for special powers. The actual violence may not be of a high degree but severe resentment and mistrust existed. She writes: ‘not all revolutionary causes have turned out to be just, no matter how legitimate the beginnings may have been. Not all peacekeeping has led to truce.’ (pp. xi)
The first chapter begins with the chilling tale of ghastly and terrible acts of violence against women. She further highlights that many under-ground groups exist in Manipur. They are insurgent groups fighting the state, targeting civilian citizens with guns and demand notes. Rebels are fighting with the Army, empowered with the AFSPA which gives the armed forces power to arrest and shoot a citizen on mere suspicion and to search a property without a warrant. The armed forces are protected from trial and punishment without the sanction of the Central Government. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s the Army and police operations, ambushes, rebels asking for shelter, security forces’ search-and-combing operations were common. She remarks: ‘violence was generally expected here and accepted as almost inevitable.’ (p. 5)
The book deals with across-the-state stories of soldiers, women and common people. She has also dealt with issues of governance in Manipur. An example is that of electricity which is a luxury in the State as Manipur barely has four hours of electricity a day.
She provides a detailed list of underground groups operating in the State with indistinct motives. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, fortytwo underground groups which function in the State, including banned, active and partially dormant insurgent groups, were identified. Some groups are also part of peace-keeping talks with the Government of India. She further highlights how a large part of Manipur territory is run by insurgent groups with an elaborate network of cadres, recruits and informers running a parallel economy based on extortion.
This reality is narrated by the author in an easy-to-comprehend lucid language in a story- telling way. Another bone-chilling story is that of a mother who lost her two young sons in one go providing graphic details of her plight and brutality. The book highlights many lives cut short by insurgency or counter-insurgency operations by the armed forces.
A major part of the book is devoted to Irom Sharmila, her life, routine, force-feeding which she has accepted as being given. The chapter, ‘An Alien in the Capital’, is devoted to Irom Sharmila’s admittance in a Delhi hospital in November 2006. The government has used force-feeding as a viable medical procedure to sidestep her protest and determination.
Chapter five titled, ‘The Blood of your Sons is Splattered in your Fields Today’, begins with a background to Irom Chanu Sharmila’s fasting. She began fasting in November 2000 after the Malom attack. Obviously at that time people did not expect it to last for so many years which highlight the resolve of her epic protest. At that time she was one of the youngest members of the Human Rights Alert team.
In Chapter six, ‘Circle of Solitude’, the author also draws Sharmila’s similarity with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the author quotes from Suu Kyi’s address of 2012 at Teen Murti highlighting the life of house arrest and solitude: ‘...to mull over the meaning of a word, to build a whole philosophy on the interpretation of a poem, these are past-times in which prisoners, particularly prisoners of conscience, engage not just to fill empty hours but from a need to understand better, and not perhaps to justify, the actions and decisions that have led them away from the normal society of other human beings.’ (p. 86) At the same time the author highlights Irom’s solitude where the world has left her alone with fewer people turning up. She might be keen to reconnect with others but the world has left her alone.
The Indian state was engaged in suppressing the insurgency with either the Army fighting the various rebel groups or attempting to enter into negotiations or agreements with them. Initially peace-making was in the Army’s sole control. Later on it became a tripartite exercise among the Centre, State and the insurgents. But peace-keeping is largely a bureaucratic exercise.
A whole chapter is devoted to ‘Escape to Delhi’ where the author narrates how Sharmila, a Gandhian follower on fast for so many years, a prisoner on charges of attempted suicide, escaped to Delhi in 2006 much to the embarrassment of the Central and State governments and how she was confined to a Delhi hospital ward.
‘Everything here is a Roll of Dice’ is a narrative of how things are not what they seem from outside. For example, Anubha stressed how blockades in Manipur are not actually related to revolution, resistance or ideology but are ways of blackmail.
The writer also discusses extra-judicial killings. The Justice Hegde Commission submitted its report to the Supreme Court on March 30, 2013. All six cases that the Commission investigated were declared fake encounters. The author provides the inside story of Manipur and gives a deep insight into the life of the insurgency-ridden State. The book ends with an epilogue highlighting how the status quo has been maintained in Manipur and the Justice Jeevan Reddy Commission’s recommen-dation that the Act be repealed has been rejected with Irom Sharmila continuing her fast.
Today Irom Sharmila may have ended her 16-year-old fast but she is determined to play a crucial role in the State’s politics as she plans to continue her fight against the AFSPA, while pursuing more interaction with the people of Manipur. It is time we take a leaf out of the Supreme Court judgement and all the stake-holders’ work for amity and progress in the State. The book is a heart-rending tale written in a journalistic style. It would be of interest to scholars, students and any person keen to know more about life in Manipur.
Dr Bharti Chhibber is an Assistant Professor, University of Delhi. She can contacted at e-mail: