TODAY -

My Manipur : A tryst with ground reality

Dr A Bimol Akoijam *



I was "home" on a short visit recently. For more than three decades now, I have been out of my native place but still I call it "home". And each time as I leave the place for Delhi, I bid family members and friends adieu by saying, chatlukhige, a Manipuri expression that alludes to a thought that one would come back.

Seasonal rain had cleansed the place, accentuating the lush green of its valleys and undulating hills, and amidst the clouds, one could also see clear pockets of the blue sky. The vista was an uncanny reminder of the sobriquet of the place, the "little paradise". Uncanny, because that invocation of a heavenly abode ushered in this sense of a "paradise lost" as well. As the plane hovered above the fertile valley, preparing for landing, I could sense that uncanniness as I saw water bodies below, which reminded me of those truncated, if not disappeared, areas of the wetland systems that dotted the place in the past.

Flash floods, breached embankments and water-loggings complemented the narrow streets and lanes and those blocked or disappeared drainage systems in Imphal, the capital of my native state. Perhaps, it is a familiar spectacle of the under-developed or developing countries. It's just that some amongst those happened to epitomize that condition more glaringly than some others do. And the capital city of my Manipur is perhaps one of those epitomes.

A walk along the ground reality :

As I walked slowly to avoid pockets of muddy water and dirt on the road right at the centre of the capital city of Imphal (B. T. Road), it began to drizzle once again. All kinds of vehicles and streams of pedestrians compete for space right under the B. T. Road flyover, a structure many had flaunted not only as a sign of "modernity", "development" and "progress" but also a means to resolve traffic congestion.

Seeing the traffic bottleneck in front of the historic Kangla Fort (western gate), the beelines of three wheelers, parked police vehicles, pedestrians competing with all sorts of vehicles for space, bizarre traffic that cut each other right under the flyover brought back a bitter sweet memory of a failed attempt: Years ago, as the area where the flyover was to be built began to be fenced off, I had sought to mobilize opinions against the construction of this flyover.

I had insisted then that this flyover was a wrong solution for the traffic congestion, besides being an affront to a precious heritage site, something that we could transform into some sort of a city centre with modern amenities with its historical imprints.

I still remember that evening in one of those "home visits" when that failed effort began to take shape. I had invited a prominent public intellectual, a respected editor of a newspaper and a professor from Manipur University to discuss the issue over dinner at my place. Following that meeting, a series of writings on newspapers and conversation with people started. Even though there were voices, rather feeble ones, against the then planned flyover, abuses and troll that followed those writings had perhaps ensured that we could see the present maddening spectacle at BT Road today.

On my right, I saw the damaged twin-buildings of Ima Keithel being renovated. Compared to the flyover that pierces through the Ima Keithel before it drops near Shahid Minar, which carry Kangla Sha awkwardly mimicking the three- headed lion, these market structures are relatively new. Yet, these structures built in a seismically active zone could not withstand an earthquake that jolted the place a couple of years back. These damaged structures seemed to gaze back at me with an eerie reminder: those (unregulated?) mushrooming private buildings and those narrow lanes that marked many leikais.

God forbid, if an earthquake of a greater intensity ever strikes, what would happen to those buildings and what effects those narrow lanes would have on any rescue effort. Disturbing thoughts indeed, nonetheless as I walked towards Cheirap Court to buy stamp papers, I thought to myself, perhaps people might have got used to the ways of the ground reality for such passing thoughts to bother them anymore.

And as I reached Cheirap Court on the Uripok side, I too soon discovered another taste of ground reality: I had to pay Rs 60 for a 20-rupee stamp paper, that too, right at a place where justice is being delivered. I must say, quite a poetic justice to an exiled soul for his ignorance of the ground reality! Later on, I came to know from a friend that it's a normal thing in my Manipur.

Incidentally, I had visited a shop at Munirka in South Delhi some months back to buy two stamp papers of the same denomination. I had given Rs 50 and the shopkeeper did return Rs 10. But that was Delhi; and this was my home, my Manipur.

Irony of lawless society :

That right at a place where justice is being delivered, I had to buy those stamp papers by paying three times more than what it actually cost reminded me of what many had commented in local newspapers in my Manipur: lawlessness, everybody taking laws into their own hands. Incidentally, I had the privilege of being invited to deliver a lecture to the esteemed members of the law-enforcing agencies, bar members and honourable judges of the Manipur High Court as it celebrated its first anniversary.

My lecture I was asked to deliver was on Mob justice and media trial. One of the key issues that I had addressed in that lecture was the relationship between erosion of legitimate (state and governmental) institutions and emergence of the culture mob violence and kangaroo courts. When the state itself undermines itself (AFSPA as a "lawless law" being one crucial example), the danger of private parties usurping public authority became more pronounced.

As I walked back towards Kangjeibung to pick up the car, I could only smile with a tinge of irony as I thought of Shri Vishwajit Rane, a Congressman, who after winning the last assembly election resigned from the Congress and assembly as well, and later on inducted into the cabinet of the BJP-led government there. That is what is expected of lawfulness and constitutional morality.

But even some of the educated people in Manipur did tell me that there's no such thing as ethical politics and constitutional morality. Perhaps, they are right in some sense as we have a BJP-led government in my Manipur which has the support of some of the members of the opposition party (Congress). In fact, one is a cabinet minister!

This might come as a bizarre, and perhaps impossible thing (given the law) to many, especially those from outside my Manipur. I won't blame them for this is a ground reality that even some Manipuris could miss if s/he happened to have stayed away from Manipur for too long.

Patriotic ironies :

Indeed, to term the above reality "bizarre" is perhaps what anthropologists called an "etic" viewpoint, a view by people outside a given culture. For those who are from within the culture, in their "emic" sense, it could hardly create any jarring effect. Call it the benefit of being in frequent touch with my home, I could share two from the present moment.

For instance, in the ongoing controversy over the Khongjom Day observation, it seems to make perfect sense amongst many Manipuris to say that a military commander (Paona) charged towards enemy camp and in the process he was killed by the enemy but he did not die in the battlefield! This has been reported year after year in major newspapers in my Manipur, and no one seemed to find it "bizarre". And by saying that the war of 1891 happened because of the two camps (or disunity) amongst the princes, Khongjom Lan is being commemorated on two different days by two camps!

And in a state known for apparently a strong "people's movement" against AFSPA, it could still have a government led by a party which did not make any commitment on AFSPA in its election manifesto. And yet, some, including a celebrated activist on local TV recently, opined that the 60 MLAs must pass a resolution to remove the Disturbed Area Act (DAA) so that AFSPA would "automatically" go.

Incidentally, a recent editorial in a highly respected newspaper writes, "government in Manipur has extended the Disturbed Area Act for another six months paving the way for the extension of the...AFSPA"! Far from being bizarre, these observations seem to make perfect sense in my Manipur.

And as I left my Manipur for Delhi, I couldn't help but ask myself: will it sound bizarre if one were to reiterate that AFSPA does not depend upon DAA (any one of those) or that "memorialization" has more to do with "(collective) memory" rather than "history" per se, and thusly "Khongjom Day" cannot be held prisoner to a contestation in historiography?

As I ponder over this question, I remember the newspaper report (filed by a senior journalist from Manipur) in The Telegraph which spoke of a "thunderous applause" given by those who gathered in the hall when a former governor promised the winners of an essay competition on culture to have tea with him. And that the clapping that roared spontaneously spoke of the ground reality as much as some offended sensibility of a few in my Manipur.


* Dr A Bimol Akoijam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The author teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
This article was posted on June 18, 2017.


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