I don’t usually weep on reading an article, but when I read Shoma Chaudhury’s piece on Irom Sharmila in this week’s Tehelka, there was no option. She has been fasting in peaceful protest against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for the past 10 years… 10 years! Not 21 days, not 1 year… Andhra Pradesh is to be splintered by the merest hint of a hunger strike by Telengana Rashtra Samiti chief K.Chandrashekar Rao, and We the People don’t see fit to pay heed to a single woman’s 10 year long heroic resistance? Don’t see fit to pressurize our government to revoke a cruel, bestial and surely illegal Act? To hear her words - “it is my bounden duty” - is to hold a mirror to self and ask, “What do I really believe in? What will I willingly die for?”
I had the privilege of working on a Manipur based theatre project a few years ago. No state has moved me as much. Even before I reached Imphal, I was already half way in love. A state so steeped in art that every village will rig a stage and put up it’s own plays, where women look like delicate flowers clad in petals of pink and white, where Krishna makes his presence felt in the eyes of young men, where thang-ta is equally dance and lethal war-fare. I traveled in the districts of Bishnupur and Churachandpur and was fed and treated with sweetness and warmth by people who retain their humanity against the sort of odds that would defeat lesser souls. In the Ima Keithel or Women’s Market in Imphal, women laughed as I tried to haggle over a Meitei mekhla. My friend Sarat C. (who brings me rice wine in Bisleri bottles) took me to Ratan Thiyam’s exquisite Chorus Repertory Theatre just outside Imphal, where I watched Nine Hills and a Valley. I sat with Dr.Lokendra Arambam for hours, talking about literature, theatre and the history of Manipur. June 10th 2009 was the 9th anniversary of the gunning down of his brother, the UNLF leader, Arambam Samarendra. Apparently people distributed papers on his views on Manipuri literature and sang his song Chaikhre Ngashi. I was to meet Kanhailal and Sabitri. 60 plus year old Sabitri who, prescient, Cassandra-like, performed Draupadi in the nude a few months before that greatest act of protest at Kangla Palace…but time simply ran out.
To take such a people and do this to them…
Manipur has been at the epicentre of the Golden Triangle for 40 years. Sitting in community centres listening as old men shared their memories of armed jeeps coming in from erstwhile Burma, carrying drug lords and selling them pure heroin. I met a family with three generations of intra-venous drug users – grandfather, son and grandson. Except now pure heroin is a prohibitively expensive drug and sixteen year old boys and sometimes girls will shoot cheap non-injectibles such as Proxyvon for an approximate high. Subsequently they develop huge abscesses on their legs. Their hands and arms, they tattoo with needles and poster colours to hide the tracks. The Meira Peibi, Mothers of the Lost Son, to save their boys from the twin threats of insurgency and addiction, will shoot at their legs in abject desperation. I met a boy whose legs were riddled with shotgun powder. To prevent the spread of infection, activists have set up needle drop-off points and the message is “Do not Share Needles”. Not “Do Not use Drugs”, for they know the futility of this; “Do Not Share Needles.”
What is the word for the decimation of a people? Genocide?
Manipur has been under siege by the Indian state for nigh on 60 years. Even before AFSPA, there was the controversial 1949 Merger of Manipur with India agreement. Even before independence and the annexation of Manipur, the so-called Indian mainland had this feeling that it must crush the northeast, imagined as the Other, into submission. How else can one explain a Naga girl dragged through Imphal and gang raped in a church by Indian soldiers? In the year 194-? She didn’t die, imagine that. She lived quietly into old age and only recently told her story to a nephew who had it published. I wish I could remember the details of this; the woman, the date, the book.
An independent kingdom and a proud people have been systematically brutalized, sought to be crushed. And we are surprised that the attacks are still met with resistance?
Imphal is full of cycle rikshaws and all the cycle rikshaw drivers wear masks, like Zorro, scarves tied across the lower half of their faces – to hide themselves. Yes, they wear masks so they will not be recognised by their mothers and cousins. So they can hide the ignominy of being middle class and unemployed. Where are the jobs? Outside of government service and insurgency, where is the work? At a meeting on HIV prevention, I asked my Manipuri colleagues “What is the industry in Manipur?” This was met by silence and later a young boy said “I don’t know about industry and all that. I just know we are good people…and there is nothing for us to do anymore. I am a peer counselor to fellow IDU’s. At least it’s work”
I met one of the Meira Peibi who participated in the July 15th 2004 protest. She was a jovial grandmother who, like the others, was pushed so far over the edge by the years of rape and murder that yet another rape and murder, that of Thangjam Manorama proved too much. Along with 11 other Imas or mothers, she stripped her clothes off and stood before Kangla Palace screaming “Indian Army, rape us”.
I have nothing to offer other than my memories of Manipur. And one last visual: From Nine Hills and a Valley – a chorus of women draped in white with babies on their backs, mouths stretched open, twisting in silent agony.
Sharmila’s mother hasn’t met her since she began her fast for fear that she will weaken her resolve. Do read about what is actually happening in the North-East and be informed. Don’t let Irom Sharmila fast alone. Don’t let her fast be in vain.