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Manipur, in the heart of darkness

Author weaves a rich tapestry of state, stitching together its historical, political, security, economic and cultural threads, bringing it to life with stories of the numerous victims of that unending conflict

Ajai Shukla 

Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur
Anubha Bhonsle

Speaking Tiger
250 pages; Rs 499

From Anubha Bhonsle, known well to Indian television news watchers as a balanced and sensitive journalist, comes this well-written description of the bleeding ulcer that is Manipur. One of India's most diverse, picturesque and strategically-vital states, New Delhi has for decades turned a blind eye to Manipur's numerous problems. In the shadow of this neglect, a contested political identity has spawned insurgencies of varied colours; a succession of rapacious state governments; and the consequent absence of normalcy and economic opportunities for the Manipuris. Except for a boxing icon like Mary Kom, or a modern-day Gandhian like Irom Sharmila, most of India knows little, and cares even less, for a warm, gentle and cultured people that yearn for peace and normalcy.

Nobody can call this book a page-turner; there are times when the narrative is so troubling that one has to steady one's nerve to proceed. Yet, this is a book that thinking Indians must read, if only to understand what a horrendous price some of our border populations continue to pay to keep the Union intact. But Ms Bhonsle's book is not all horror. She weaves a rich tapestry of that state, stitching together its historical, political, security, economic and cultural threads, bringing it to life with stories of the numerous victims of that unending conflict.

It is impossible not to be moved by stories like that of a young boy, Sinam Chandramani, who won the National Bravery Award in 1988 as a four-year-old, for saving another child from drowning. Chandramani was given the award by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and, with the nation watching, he rode an elephant down Rajpath in the Republic Day parade. But nobody watched when he was shot dead along with several other unarmed civilians in a village in Manipur called Malom, when Assam Rifles jawans opened random fire after militants wounded two soldiers with an explosive device. Poignantly symbolising New Delhi's unconcern towards Manipur, the ministry of child welfare continued for nine years after Chandramani's killing to write an annual pro-forma letter to his mother, asking how their bravery award winner was faring. Describing the scene at Malom, the village where Chandramani and his brother died, Ms Bhonsle evokes Pablo Neruda's piercing words: "And the blood of children ran through the streets without a fuss like children's blood."

The unforgivable deaths at Malom in 2000 remain a byword for security force excesses even today. The next day, it triggered the fast-unto-death of Irom Sharmila Chanu, a young Manipuri woman with a one-point demand: the repeal in Manipur of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a controversial legal provision that indemnifies security forces from prosecution after they use lethal force, even when it goes badly wrong as in Malom. Ms Sharmila, who is acclaimed as a modern-day Gandhian for her non-violent protest, remains alive only because she has been force-fed for over 15 years by the state government. It is ironic that "the government [that] had excused itself from the burden of governance", as Ms Bhonsle puts it, puts so much effort into keeping a lone protester alive.

While the author will certainly be criticised in these intolerant times for her unsparing gaze at security force excesses, she actually presents a nuanced and layered perspective of Manipur in which there are few good guys. There is admiration for the Meira Paibeis, the formidable association of Manipuri women and mothers, and for Imas, the 12 mothers who staged a shocking "naked protest" in 2004 to accuse the Assam Rifles of the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama, a young Manipuri woman detained as a suspected militant. But there is also criticism of these groups for keeping Ms Sharmila's (apparently platonic) lover, Desmond, away from her. For many of them, Mr Desmond, has been planted by agencies of the Indian state to make off with the most potent symbol of Manipuri protest. The author suggests there are racist overtones to this - Mr Desmond, a non-Manipuri, does not fulfil their ideal of a partner for Ms Sharmila.

Ms Bhonsle has taken the trouble to spend time in Manipur, allowing her to describe the slow-paced rhythms of life, the sombre twilight and the unwelcome knock on the door in the middle of the night. She says the book springs from "reflections and notes from my reportage and fieldwork" spread over nine years. This includes two hundred interviews and dozens of documents and court testimonies. In her words, "My goal has been to describe the stories and silences of people I met and spoke to truthfully and honestly." Most readers would agree that she has met that aim.

Beyond an immensely readable account of Manipur and its troubles, this is an unsparing criticism of AFSPA and the excesses that flow out of such draconian legislations. Ms Bhonsle goes back to the Lok Sabha debate when AFSPA was introduced in 1958, with Home Minister Govind Ballabh Pant saying: "This is a very simple measure… It does not create any new offences. It only provides for the protection of the army when it has to deal with hostile Nagas." Even then, farsighted parliamentarians could apprehend the danger in such a draconian legislation. Surendra Mohanty, of the Ganatantra Parishad, lamented: "[T]his parliament is giving approval to a legal monstrosity to quell another kind of monstrosity."

The AFSPA Bill, which was introduced after nine hours of bitterly polarised debate, continues to be debated as fiercely today as an international symbol of security forces excesses. Ms Bhonsle's short and informative book is an important contribution to the AFSPA debate.

First Published: Tue, January 19 2016. 21:15 IST