(A delegation led by former MP from Karbi Anglong, Dr. Jayanta Rongpi, CPI(ML) PB Member and Assam State Secretary Rubul Sharma and AISA President Kavita Krishnan visited Manipur from October 6-8. We carry a report of the visit, prepared by Kavita Krishnan.)
A team of representatives from AISA, AIPWA as well as various cultural groups and mass organizations had planned to visit Manipur. Due to the bandh called by the Apunba Lup (United Front leading the Manipur struggle), the visit was postponed until October 4. But the blasts in various parts of the North East and their aftermath, created a very tense situation, and bandhs called by various groups in Nagaland and Karbi Anglong made it impossible to travel by road. Finally, only three of us could make it to Manipur by air.
What follows is a sort of logbook with the impressions of our visit.
We arrived in Imphal at 2 in the afternoon. We found that others besides us were visiting Manipur – for a different purpose, though. In the same flight, we could see the godman Sri Sri Ravishankar, who preaches the ‘Art of Living’. At Imphal airport, Ravishankar was received by a team of Assam Rifles personnel (who seem to be stationed in every airport of the North East); we later learnt that his meeting was attended by no less than the Chief Minister Ibobi Singh who asked him to help calm the ‘unrest’ in the state. We felt like asking him how he planned to teach the Art of Living while enjoying the hospitality of those who specialized in the ‘art of killing and raping’!
At the airport we were greeted by CPI(ML) comrades AK Luwang, RK Premabati Devi and others, as well as some representatives of the Apunba Lup.
With no time to catch our breath, we were immediately plunged into the tragedy of Manipur today: we went straight from the airport to the home of Pebam Chittaranjan who sacrificed his life as a ‘human torch’. His home, in West Imphal, is a small one, with a traditional wooden weaving loom in the porch. His uncle, and then his father, came out to greet us. His father took us into the tiny living room, dominated by a very lifelike charcoal sketch of Chittaranjan. He told us about what the people of Manipur suffer under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. With tears in his eyes, he told us that his son had chosen to die, declaring that death was better than a living death, which was the daily reality of the common people of Manipur under this Act. As he gave Comrade Jayanta Rongpi a copy of a booklet about the AFSPA, and his son’s dying declaration, we looked around the room. On the shelf were the usual paraphernalia of middle class homes – trophies of the academic and sports achievements of Chittaranjan and his elder brother Subhash. But there was also something different: on the mantelpiece was a yellowing paper, with an excellent handmade sketch of Lenin. Above the sketch were printed the words ‘Manipur Central Jail 1990’. Chittaranjan’s father told us it was sketched by Subhash when he was jailed in 1990. In front of Chittaranjan’s portrait were his belongings: his belt, a pair of spectacles – and books including a copy of George Thomson’s little book on Marxism. We learnt that Chittaranjan had been an advisor to the Manipur Students’ Federation (MSF).
Chittaranjan’s mother also met us, and his younger sister. His uncle led us to the traditional cremation ground near the family home, to pay homage to Chittaranjan’s grave. He told us that Chittaranjan’s remains were not returned to the family, but were instead forcefully cremated elsewhere by the Army. At this spot, however, people had held a ‘Royal’ cremation ceremony along with a ‘spear-salutation’, (traditionally reserved for those of the royal family), in which he was accorded the title “Athoba” (Warrior). We recalled the graphic image of Chittaranjan signing his declaration and setting himself on fire. He truly became a ‘human torch’, which fed the fires of the mass protest against AFSPA – and indeed was a warrior of the battle for democracy and justice.
We then moved towards East Imphal, to the home of Thangjam Manorama Devi, whose rape and murder sparked off the mass movement in Manipur. On the way, we noted the ubiquitous presence of the Army in the markets and public places. In the pouring rain, we approached Manorama’s home.
Facing the road was a shed with the photographs of the movement’s martyrs Manorama, Chittaranjan and Memita (killed by tear gas shelling during the movement), and ten women of all ages sitting quietly on a mat. We learnt that they were local women, who had held a relay hunger strike and a permanent vigil at the site ever since Manorama’s body was found. A photograph of Manorama smiling, surrounded with greenery and flowers, had beside it one of her dead body lying splayed out in the wild grassy hillside with the boots of policemen visible. The contrast of life and death, of her gentle smile with the brutality she faced in death, was unbearably poignant. The house, surrounded by hills, was quiet and serene, with a neat front yard and well-tended plants, but it had an unmistakable air of mourning. We sat on a mat on the mud floor in the front porch, until someone brought Manorama’s mother out to meet us. She was in deep depression, not responding to our words or gestures, or even meeting our eyes. Manorama’s younger brother Balindra came out to speak to us. Balindra told us he was a BA student in a local college, and that Manorama too was a graduate. He said that Manorama had been tortured in front of their eyes in the same porch, and that the Assam Rifles men had forced Manorama and her mother to sign the arrest memo, saying the Army had not misbehaved with womenfolk or damaged property. He showed us Manorama’s signature on the arrest memo, which said that no arms or other items had been seized from her person at the time of her arrest. He then showed us the seizure list, where Manorama’s signature had been forged, which said that a radio transmitter and a handmade bomb had been found on her. He said his sister’s body had been found at the foot of hills some distance from the home.
We could imagine the terror this family must have felt, when the Assam Rifles burst in on their home with threats and abuses, and jeeringly dragged their girl away in the dead of the night. Balindra said that the Army continued to intimidate their family, trying to force them to stop seeking justice for Manorama.
We then moved towards Pastor Jamkholet Khongsai’s home – a fair distance away, beyond the hills. The pastor was killed by the Assam Rifles a few days after Manorama. We got to a marketplace quite close to his village. Night falls sooner in the east, and although it was barely 6 pm, it was rapidly becoming dark. The people at the market told us that it would be very difficult to find one’s way to the remote village in the dark and bad weather. So, reluctantly, we had to turn back after having made it so close to his village. But the people at the market said no other party had so far come to pay homage to this martyr, and promised us they would convey our respects to his family. As we drove back, we passed Manorama’s home again; in the dark, we could see the women, still maintaining their silent vigil.
Drained by the visit to the martyrs’ families, we returned to Imphal, to the Manipur University Guest House, where the Manipur University Students Union was hosting us. At the guesthouse we found that students had been awaiting us since afternoon, and they had a warm reception waiting for us. The President, H. Ashirjit Luwang and General Secretary Nehnminthang Kipgen spoke, telling us of some of the initiatives taken by the MUSU against AFSPA; in particular about their efforts to forge links with people outside the State. Comrade Jayant Rongpi addressed the students, saying we had come to learn from Manipur’s brave struggle as well as to express solidarity. He called for unity of all the people of the North East against the AFSPA. Some students asked him: there were so many Left MPs in Parliament, CPI was even part of the State Government, yet why had they not spoken out unequivocally against the Act? Why, indeed, was the Act being enforced even in CPI(M)-ruled Tripura, in 27 out of 52 thanas? Clearly, these young men had the impression that the Left wielded great influence in the Central Government, and were not using their influence positively. In reply, Comrade Jayant told them about his consistent efforts to raise the issue in Parliament when he was an MP, and explained CPI(ML)’s struggle against black laws of all kinds. Many of the students had heard of some of AISA’s and CPI(ML)’s initiatives, like the move to stop Assam Rifles from playing football in 24 parganas in West Bengal, and the hunger strike in Kolkata, as well as AISA’s efforts in co-operation with the Manipur Students’ Association, Delhi. The students of MU told us that Assam Rifles had a camp, and also a firing range on their campus. A few weeks back, Manipur Police had come with the intention of raiding the hostels one night. When the students barricaded themselves behind shut doors, the police hung around for about three hours. Then, they claimed to have found weapons behind the hostel, and made that the excuse to produce a search warrant. Although exams were on, students were made to stand outside all night while each room in the hostel was raided.
The next morning, we left for the Taret Khul village, home of K Memita Chanu. Once, this village was a centre of the Communist movement led by the legendary Irawat Singh. Memita’s home seemed like a typical peasant home. On all sides were fields of Manipuri paddy and some mustard. We made our way to her house through the slush caused by the rains – it was difficult not to slip, and there were leeches. In the front porch, there were two looms, and beyond one door, we could see another loom.
Memita, born in 1982, had passes her Xth Class in 1997 with a second division, and at the time of her death she was in the second year of her graduation. As her mother, a simple peasant woman, told us about her daughter, she could not check her tears. She said, over and over, that her daughter had been a good girl, a pillar of support; she had struggled to study, and she also supported her family by weaving a rare kind of cloth that required great skill to weave. She had spontaneously joined the protest along with several other women in August, near her home. When the crackdown happened, she was hit by a rubber bullet in the back of her hip, and a tear gas shell broke inside her skirt. Police made no attempt to get medical help; and even we could see how impossible it would be for these poor people to find a way to get her to a hospital in the city. She died a couple of days later due to internal injuries caused by the tear gas explosion.
Her mother could speak no English or Hindi, but her grief was evident in every syllable of what she said. She took us inside, to show us Memita’s loom – with the half-finished cloth left untouched since her death.
We paid homage to the photographs (placed inside a small room of the house) of Memita, Manorama, Chittaranjan, and a small placard bearing the name of Pastor Khongsai. The sound of her mother’s weeping remained with us long after we left the place. Back in Imphal town, we first went to the Jail to seek permission to meet NSA prisoners, and also Irom Sharmila. We were informed that permission to meet Sharmila must now be sought from the Home Secretary, and that only close family was allowed to meet the NSA prisoners. Painted signs indicated the different timings for visitors of ordinary prisoners and NSA detainees; it seemed like ‘NSA prisoners’ was a permanent category now in Manipur Jail!
In the town, we were intrigued by the number of rickshaw-pullers who had their faces covered almost completely by towels or scarves. Was it because of the pollution, we wondered. But not all had covered their faces. We were told that the ones with faces covered were educated young men, graduates, who hid their identity because of the social stigma attached to pulling a rickshaw. Manipur has a very high degree of educated unemployment: a major cause for the resentment and frustration of Manipuri youth today.
We were also struck by the independence of women: relatively much more than mainstream Indian society anywhere else, even in major cities.
Comrade Jayanta recalled seeing girls and women in large numbers on cycles on the streets of Imphal in 1968. Even now, we could see many women on two-wheelers and cycles moving purposefully on the streets; I even saw one middle-aged woman matter-of-factly carrying a gas cylinder strapped on the carrier seat of a moped. In most of the markets, almost all of the vendors were women. Women in Manipur, and perhaps other parts of the North East too, have a relatively higher degree of economic independence, and are often closely connected with commercial enterprises. It was an insight to find that weaving the traditional cloth is not merely “handicrafts” as people tend to view it in Delhi: it has a live social function, and is still a women’s domain. In the movement, too, women are not only at the forefront, they dominate in terms of sheer numbers.
We then arrived at the RIMS Hospital, where we found that a 24-hour Helpline has been set up activists of the movement. As soon as we arrived, young boys wearing badges of the Helpline came forward to arrange for us to meet some of the injured people. We could meet four young students who had attempted self-immolation at the Chief Minister’s gate, in protest against the Act. Lalit (Nowba), a student of REC, Imphal lay with his legs swathed in bandages. He was remarkably cheerful and hopeful, telling me that he hoped we would meet again in protests in Delhi. On the bed next to his lay another student of the REC, with similar burn injuries. The REC students told us that when they were prevented from immolating themselves by the police, they were not brought immediately to the Hospital. Instead, the police brutally beat them after arresting them, and when they came to the Hospital, they had severe injuries. Sanjay, an MSc from Manipur University, spoke to us at length, asking us to ask the Central Government at Delhi, why AFSPA was being imposed on the North East when POTA was being repealed. Another student on the next bed, Gautam, was being visited by his parents, who also spoke to us. One other student, Ranjan, was so badly burnt that he had been taken to Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi.
Why were bright young boys, trained to be engineers and doctors and students of science, taking the step of self-immolation on such a large-scale? And their parents were proud of them! Clearly, the mass of Manipuri society was at the end of its tether; and was desperately determined to throw off the yoke of military repression, or else die fighting it.
In the evening, we met representatives of the Apunba Lup, who were eager to organize joint campaigns and protests outside Manipur against the AFSPA. The MUSU and AISA signed a joint statement pledging to resist the AFSPA together. The Manipur University Festival had just ended, and, not surprisingly, its cultural programmes and its souvenir were dominated by events and writings against the AFSPA. The MUSU had initiated several protests against the Act, in which most of the students had participated. Many had scars of injuries inflicted by the police. They had also taken a lead in establishing links with student Unions and groups in Delhi, as well as various democratic groups and personalities.
The next morning, despite the rain, the MUSU leaders took me to see the University campus. The Assam Rifles camp is on a hill in the campus. We went to see an ancient archaeological site which exists on the campus itself.
And, most memorably, I went to the women’s hostel, where the Warden and many of the students, who also held posts in the Union, spoke to me. Most of them had participated in the mass protests, and been severely injured. Several of them had had broken limbs, as well as other injuries. They were proud of those who had been more severely hurt, pushing them forward, saying, “She is a heroine”. And all of them were eager to go for future protests. It was truly an inspiration to see these young girls who had braved lathis, tear gas and rubber bullets in order to speak up for their rights.
Just as it was time to leave, we were told that permission had been granted to meet Sharmila. We rushed there, but were able to have only a brief conversation with her. Media were prevented from entering her hospital room, where she is a prisoner. When we entered, she was reading a small dictionary; it seems, she was preparing to be able to speak to us in English. One by one, she requested each of us, “Please, speak to me, say something.” Even after nearly 4 years of fasting, she was eager to speak to people, and passionately keen on communicating her thoughts and ideas. Tears came into her eyes as she told us that a few days back, some visitors had managed to speak to her without permission from the Government, as a result of which her doctor at the Hospital had been suspended. She asked, “India is a democracy, not a monarchy; why, then, is the Indian Government behaving in such a dictatorial way?” She wanted to know if I, a student leader, had met Manipuri students, and what I felt about the condition of Manipuri youth. Reluctantly, we had to cut the conversation short, while she was still eager to speak, because it was late for our flight.
After returning to Guwahati, we heard that the veteran anthropologist BK Roy Burman, who had been in Imphal during our visit, had been detained for hours at the start of his padyatra. Dr. Roy Burman is over 80 years old, but he still posed a “threat” in the eyes of the Army and the Governments at the State and Centre.
Later, Apunba Lup representatives who made it to Guwahati for the Citizens’ Convention organized by us against State terror, told us that the Army had begun combing operations in Manipur; a fresh phase of repression was due to begin.
The papers were full of news about the Centre’s intention to involve FBI in “tracking down” militants, and the Israeli Army for military cooperation. It makes one think: who really poses a “threat” to “national security”? Young women like Sharmila, Memita and Manorama? Young men like Chittaranjan, Sanjay, Lalit and others who are burning themselves; no one else, in a bid to demand justice? Isn’t the real threat to national security and sovereignty, not to mention democracy, being posed by black acts like the AFSPA, imperialist agencies like FBI and colonial, racist powers like Israel.
People in Manipur told us about the renowned playwright of Manipur, Kanailal, whose play Draupadi was being seen as a protest against the dishonouring of thousands of Draupadis in Manipur by the Army. It called to mind Mahasweta Devi's story "Dopdi", whose central character Dopdi Majhen, a Santhal woman, is picked up as a "naxalite" and raped by the police. Instead of being browbeaten, however, she confronts her oppressors, naked and bleeding, and challenges them to "Counter (encounter) me"; much as the Meira Paibis demanded that the Assam Rifles "Rape Us, Take Our Flesh"! The Dopdis of the tribal and landles poor, the Meira Paibis of Manipur: their challenge has put fear into the eyes of the State, even though they stand unarmed and naked. That is why they are arrested under the NSA and branded a threat to "national security".
But State terror cannot crush the defiance of these women, determined to stand up for their dignity and rights.
Against Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and State Repression with special reference to Karbi AnglongA Citizens' Convention "Against Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and State Repression with special reference to Karbi Anglong" was jointly organised by six cultural, students' and women organisations of Assam viz. Sadou Asom Jana Sanskritik Parishad, All India Students' Association (AISA), Karbi Cultural Society (KCS), Sadou Asom Pragatishil Nari Santha, KNCA and Karbi Students' Association (KSA) at Pandit Tirtha Nath Sarma Sabha Ghar (Assam Academy), Guwahati, Assam on 10th Oct, 2004. It was addressed by Com. Jayanta Rongpi, Com Rubul Sarma, Com. Kavita Krishnan, Ajit Kr. Bhuyan (Editor, Aji, an Assamese Daily), Akhil Ranjan Dutta (Lecturer, Guwahati University), local Maira Paibi leader Sarojani Devi and Guwahati Refinery Workers Union's Gen. Secy Biren Kalita. It was attended by different cross sections of the society including student, youth, women, workers and intellectuals. The convention was presided over by a presidium comprising of Harendranath Barthakur, President of Sadou Asom Jana Sanskritik Parishad, Bidyut Chakravorty, President of Assam Unit of All India Students' Association (AISA), Chandra Singh Kro, General Secretary of Karbi Cultural Society (KCS), Kanaklata Dutta, Secretary of Sadou Asom Pragatishil Nari Santha, and Sarthe Ronghi, office Secretary of Karbi Students' Association (KSA). At the beginning of the convention the house paid homage to the victims of state terrorism and bomb blasts. On behalf of the organisers, Com Loknath Goswami, General Secretary of Sadou Asom Janasanskritik Parishad delivered the keynote address. Com Kavita placed her experience of Manipur visit and Com. Rabi Kr. Phangcho placed a report of killing, torture and rape perpetrated by ‘cease-fire militants’ and the army.
Resolutions of the Citizens’ Convention