TODAY -

The Iron Snake in the jungles of Manipur

Puyam Rakesh *

Imphal-Jiri-Tupul rail road worksite in Tamenglong District :: March 2014
Imphal-Jiri-Tupul rail road worksite in Tamenglong District :: March 2014 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam



The coming of railways in America and Africa led to large-scale socio-economic and political upheavals. Especially the natives were badly affected by the poisonous venom of the iron snakes. Will it be poisonous for the people of Manipur? We all need faster and smarter modes of transportation in the 21st Century to take part in the globalisation process. We do not have the privilege of living in a cocoon. Moreover, high speed internet broadband network is the need of the hour. But the Trans-Asian Highway and Trans-Asian Railway projects can also become poisonous rivers of stone and snakes of iron.

In simple words, a prophecy is a prediction of what will happen in the future. One of the Hopi prophecies is: The land will be crossed by snakes of iron. The Hopi are a Native American tribe living in the Hopi Reservation located in the north-eastern Arizona State in the United States of America (USA). This prophecy is about the railway construction that criss-cross the Northern America as a result of European expansion.

Were the iron snakes poisonous? For the Native American peoples, they were really poisonous. Similarly, there are ancient prophecies of the Maasai and Kikuyu tribes in Kenya in which railways are described as iron snakes. It was a bad omen for them. The arrival of the Europeans and the iron snakes turned their socio-political life upside down.

The stories about the American 'Wild West' are still fresh. On 10 May 1869, San Francisco and New York was connected by the transcontinental railroad built across the USA. But it became a disaster for Native American Indians as the transformation in the continent did not benefit everyone. Because of the hordes of white settlers and opportunists migrating from elsewhere, the Native American Indians were forced onto reservations constituting a small fraction of the territory of the USA. Writing about the imminent fate of the natives, Prof. Donald L. Fixico puts it as follows:

The problem emerged with the railroad bringing an increasing number of white settlers and opportunists to the West, once the homeland for both the Plains Indian and the buffalo. Incongruent sets of cultural values and polarised mindsets found the Plains Indians and white settlers at odds. Such differences between Indians and Europeans would not allow them to live together until one defeated the other.

Following the American Civil War, a war veteran named General Grenville Dodge led the armed forces against the Indians such as the Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne in Wyoming, Colorado and Western Nebraska. The railroad's encroachment on Native American land led to continued conflicts during the construction of the westward line.

Despite strong opposition to the project from several Native American tribes, the Union Pacific Company found an ally in the Pawnees, a tribe friendly to the US government. They were recruited to serve as a protection force. History has recorded several incidents including the Sand Creek Massacre and the Julesburg incident. Massacres and retaliations took place but the railway destroyed the life of the Native American Indians.

Will Imphal Valley become another Powder River Valley? In the 21st Century, we are talking about Silchar-Jiribam-Tupul railway. Some major tunnels have been inaugurated. Most importantly, the broad gauge conversion work between Lumding and Silchar has been completed. Now the Badarpur-Agartala line has been closed to convert it into broad gauge.

In the 19th Century, the Northeast Frontier Railway's metre gauge lines connecting the Brahmaputra Valley and the Barak Valley were constructed. After crossing the difficult terrain of Assam's Dima Hasao district (formerly North Cachar Hills), the broad gauge railway line from Silchar will connect the Imphal Valley sooner or later in this century.

With the help of science and technology, modes of transportation have been improved and changed manifold. The whole world is becoming a small village. The concept of 'global village' was given to birth by transport and communication services. The highways and the flight services connecting Manipur with the outside world have brought us closer to the rest of the world.

A prophetic line in the Meetei Puya says:
Lamchaota Ungaam Chellani, Meeleipak Chakchamang Khongdani.
Nowadays, a person can reach far and wide across the globe before the lunch time.

Such changes in the mode of transportation cannot leave the socio-economic and political life of the people untouched. Great changes would happen. International Airport, the Asian Highway and railway connectivity will have many surprises for the ethnic groups inhabiting the Northeast including Manipur.

How can we make the snakes non-poisonous? Do we have enough antidotes?


* Puyam Rakesh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on October 14, 2015.


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