by Vivek Singh
The chants quickly moved from “Ibobi down down” to “Fuck you Ibobi” “Sakthu(Meitei for Fuck you) Ibobi”, as a large, 10,000 strong crowd, marched on August 30 through the remote town of Lamka in southern Manipur, India. When elders from the community objected to the harshness of the slogans, they subsided but only for a while. The young had started to drown out the voice of the old. The ten kilometre protest march stretched through the gently sloping pastoral hills of Churachandpur. Over the last year, the peace here has often been disrupted after nine young protesters died in violence and police action on 31 August and 1 September 2015.
The observance of “Tribal Unity Day” in what had been a markedly unique movement had started a few days earlier. Since 26 August, life in Lamka as it’s called traditionally, had been crippled by shutdowns, rallies and silent marches, but on the night of 29 August outside the police station where four young men had been brutally shot down by Manipur Police on September 1 2015, a young smartly dressed Pastor, Benson Khuptong walked into the middle of a large crowd that had gathered. Earlier, people had lit candles around pastels with photographs of the dead. The sermon, delivered in Paite (a popular dialect spoken by a large section of townsfolk), was long and delivered in long drawn sentences. He was praying for the fallen.
It was now almost a year since nine young men had been killed in Churachandpur. Khuptong has a habit of showing up in some of the more terse situations here, like in February when he eased tensions between two opposing sections of the town divided along ethnic lines after underground groups (UGs) here announced that they would try to bury the dead.
The men who had been shot dead, have remained in a ramshackle morgue at Churachandpur district hospital since the incidents on 31 August and 1 September, 2015. Khuptong later translated the sermon he had delivered, “Today, as we smell the blood of the martyrs that is carried by this wind, I pray that God continues to carry the smell of this blood across the hills and the valleys and the mountains, so that we will have unity, brotherhood and forgiveness. “Woes to those”, he added, “Who make a game(sic) on the blood of the martyrs, who betray our people, who with their deceit, make a woman a widow, a father without a son and parents without hope.”
A can of red spray paint can be a powerful weapon in Churachandpur. Shortly after the Pastor’s address, young volunteers dressed in black, their faces covered by black cloth, some just in their teens went about town in open pick up trucks, stopping at locations to spray paint, red fallen figures of the dead onto the street mobilising the the locals in the process, who gathered and prayed around and lit candles on and around the figures. The most figures painted by the volunteers were right outside the police station, where policemen lurked in the shadows of a decaying fortress that resembles the state in these parts, trying to stay away, avoiding any confrontation. Most of the young people who are part of the ongoing movement in Lamka claim “the deceitful government of Manipur and its pro-meitei policies”, are responsible for what happened a year ago when enraged youngsters came out on the streets to burn their legislators’ homes. A public boycott of the MLAs has since been enforced.
Peace and Hope are elusive commodities in Ccpur which has witnessed protracted periods of conflict in the past. For instance the memories of the 1997–98 civil war between the Zomis and the Kukis , as it is commonly referred to here, are still fresh. According to some figures, in under a year of fighting, more than 900 people died that year after Zomi armed groups fought pitched battles against their Kuki counterparts. Many years and a peace accord later, it still doesn’t take much to disrupt the fragile peace. The state of Manipur remains one of the most violent states in the country fraught with politically motivated killings, a robust underground insurgency, that since 1992, has claimed 6000 lives. Under Okram Ibobi Singh’s reign here since 2002, when he first took over as the Chief Minister of the state, more than 3000 people have died her in violent incidents and counting. The situation is bleak. State elections to the legislature are to be held in early 2017, “It’s going to be a bloodbath” said an Army Officer posted in Churachandpur. The Armed Groups in the hills who have been under a Suspension of Operations(SOO) agreement with the Indian Government since 2007, have generally held sway over the elections in the hills of Manipur, to the point of deciding who gets elected. That might be changing since last year, ever since the formation of the Joint Action Committee against Anti Tribal Bills(JAC-AATB). The JAC’s movement is spearheaded by young men and women cutting across ethnic lines. The clout of the Under Ground Groups seems to be fading. People are tired of the Politician-UG nexus and have reacted violently, for instance, when a large group of women forcefully entered the house of the present Zomi Revolutionary Army President’s in September 2015 and burnt it down. Explosions from gas cylinders and vehicles gas tanks could be heard all over town. That really cut through the power that the Under Ground Groups yielded before was the popular opinion on the street this monsoon season.
T Vunglallian, a mild mannered man, in his mid sixties, who set up the famous “Foundation School” in Churachandpur in the 1980’s, has observed the developments here for decades. He announced at a recent conference organised to discuss recent developments, ” this is a young movement, and we must hand it over to the young, everybody above 30 has been corrupted by the system and will never speak for justice and the truth.” His point is validated by most people this reporter spoke with, from the church leaders to young folks who are now part of a social reform movement headed by the church called “Tuailai 1434 Pro” , Tulai means young in Paitie and Pro stands for both “in favour of” and the “Proverbs” book from the Holy Bible. The verse reads “Righteousness exalts a Nation but sin condemns any people” . The movement has seen great support from the young in Churachandpur, who think that it’s their time to take this movement forward and do the right thing and not be disrupted by the bureaucracy of the old and the scheming like its happened in the past.” The deep rooted mistrust against the more dominant Meitei community that inhabits the power yielding Imphal valley and has held sway over the state’s political and cultural institution for decades is everywhere.
Veven, a young 28 year old“ Masters in Divinity” student at Grace Bible College is angered and pained by the current impasse, she likened the situation to “living in a state of constant nightmare.” She also said, “whenever she is in Imphal, people address her as a sister because she looks like a Meitei, till she opens her mouth, then, there’s always a demand for money to get just about anything done.”
Robert V. Zamminthang was a theology student at the college where Veven studies theology, when he was shot in the head by the police and died, perhaps the reason why the first line of protesters who led a march of more than 10,000 people to Pumbuk, where a memorial honouring the dead has stood for a year were all students at the Grace Bible College.
Earlier in the day the protesters had started gathering at Churachandpur College. The final destination of the march is a short walk from the Police station from where a crumbling road snakes up to the memorial for the “martyrs”; the station’s cracking and unkempt boundary walls are covered in posters and banners condemning police action and criticising the government at the state and its association with active militant groups commonly called VBIGs or Valley Based insurgent groups and asking for separation from the state. A prominent poster declared ”Mother India Please Save the Tribals from the Shackles of Corcom.”
Interestingly when representatives of a Joint Action Committee (JAC) from Churachandpur that had been formed in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the bills had met with Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh on December 29, 2015, he told them that the bills were passed under pressure from CorCom, a conglomeration of proscribed militant groups operating out of Myanmar that includes the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), its Progressive faction (PREPAK-Pro), Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF — the political wing of the People’s Liberation Army — PLA), United National Liberation Front (UNLF), all fighting against the Indian state in Manipur.
Along the way, the crowd stopped at specific locations where the killings happened a year back and proceeded to shout slogans to the sounds of traditional gongs and drums. Women, men and the elderly painted their faces in black war paint. As they marched down Tedim Road that cuts through the town towards the police station where a large contingent of heavily armed police contingent waited, anticipating trouble from the feverishly young protesters, the air was tense and the crowd angry. Along the way well armed security forces peeped through the large crowd of onlookers that had gathered, for potential trouble. But, young volunteers safely led the huge crowd away without any incident. The policemen retired back to their barracks.
That same night women, men and young tribals of Lamka first launched flying lanterns into the darkness that seems to envelop the town every evening for a year and later led a torch-rally through the various alleyways or “Vengs” as they are called here to their respective homes.
The crowds grew larger by the day; the following morning, even more people converged, first to lay vigil and pray outside the morgue at the district hospital where the bodies of the nine have remained as a mark of protest for a year and then then heading towards Churachandpur College to end the round of demonstrations that had run the course of a week. This, even as tensions erupted on the outskirts of the town where a visiting MP from Bodoland was turned back along with a delegation of senior Naga Leaders who were on their way to the function. Trouble is never too far off in Churachandpur, a melting pot of tribes from across Manipur. An Army officer who commands a unit of Paramilitary forces overlooking Law and order in the area nonchalantly said on the night, this a complex place with simple people.
At Pearsonmun a little village in Churachandpur district, at a street corner shed, on a heavily overcast evening, Mr Kamkhenthang stood bent over by the years of hard work and the kind of trauma that comes along with the loss a child in his or her prime. Above him, a pastor’s figure loomed, his arms extended in prayer. Khamsianmuan, was only 22 years old when he was shot dead. Now his father and sister prayed for closure. A small crowd of young men and women from the village gathered to pray alongside as thunderous clouds loomed overhead. The ferocity of the rain could be heard as drops started to hit the tin roofs of the village houses through the incline of the hill as the rain quickly advanced towards the prayer meeting. Soon it was raining, picking up in pace every second. Most people scurried away but five young men stood there, soaked to their skin, they refused to move just like the town they live in, that has continued to mourn for a full year while they wait for a solution to the present situation. That, for now looks increasingly and disturbingly difficult.