Manipur’s theatre of the absurd once again


By Pradip Phanjoubam

The United Naga Council, UNC’s ban on vehicular traffic along Manipur’s major lifelines has begun. The mood in the State, importantly in the capital, much to the consternation of many observers outside the State, is one of stoic acceptance of a periodic irritant, as if this is something written in the place’s destiny. In a way it is, given its peculiar geography. This must not however be mistaken for an attitude of resignation, for there is very much a volcano beneath the calm, quite capable of erupting with devastating violence, as the state has witnessed so many times before.

At least for the moment, a resignation does not seem to be the approach of the government either. It is seen gearing up to ensure the siege is not total, and from all appearances, it has won the support of the Central government as well. A team of senior Central government officials, including the MHA and Information Bureau, came visiting the state on the day the blockade began to take stock of the situation, and promised all necessary assistance to the State government.

This is encouraging, if not for anything else, than for the fact that this will be towards not allowing this ugly tussle and bitter venom to spread to the civil population. For if this does happen, it can be an extended nightmare for all for years and decades. The State had been on the verge of such a nightmare so many times before, but it does seem there are elements determined to push things precisely to such a limit.

Blockades and bandhs do happen frequently in the State, and this is bad enough, but this trend of indefinite blockades is a dangerous portend for all. In international law, and as so many commentators have said so many times before in very many situations all over the world, it is an act of war. We can only hope, regardless of what the provocation, public nerves do not snap on either side of the fence of the conflicting situation, and no destructive emotions explode.

But this is Manipur. The land where the abnormal can pass off with consummate ease as normal, and in the same breath and with equal unconcern, the incredible is accepted as routine. This is the picture which is unfolding before all of us again this time.

Here is an approximation of a slice of a single day in the life of Manipur as the broad pattern of morning newspaper headlines in the State would bear witness:

Irom Sharmila, is produced before the court in an exercise designed to perennially extend her detention without trial; She makes a remark laden with frustrated anxiety and sense of let down at the lack of public support; All the loud pledges of support and solidarity whenever the national media glare is on her are deafeningly silent this time; Elsewhere, a group of students at Wangoo demanding appointment of regular teachers in their school are fired upon with rubber bullets and mock bombs to disperse their rally, injuring several; An indefinite blockade of the state entered its second day, and there is no discernable outrage anywhere; Somewhere in a remote village on the Myanmar border, Army troops banish two families from their village for allegedly giving support to insurgents; In another corner of the state, women in dreary formal routine, take turns to squat daylong at designated spots with some ceremonial fruits in front of them to protest the non-implementation of the  Inner Line Permit System in the State; Many still insist this system was once in place in Manipur, though the Inner Line System was conceived and implemented in the Assam province of Bengal in 1873, by the Bengal Inner Line Regulation 1873; These same protestors would also with equal conviction continue to contend Manipur was an independent kingdom at the time and never a part of Bengal or India. Shouldn’t the self proclaimed intellectuals behind the movement for once make up their minds on the issue of whether this regulation meant for Bengal was promulgated in Manipur; Still elsewhere, grenade gifts are doled out on routine basis by extortionists as convincing messages to people from whom they seek their ‘donations’…

Picturing all these events on a single mental canvas surely would evoke surreal images such as those of the master of the genre, Salvador Dali, where madness is the defining norm, and the mind is allowed to violently yoke together radically dissimilar and unrelated ideas into a single thought, distorting reality and making the unreal real. Or perhaps the more accurate description of Manipur’s absurd theatre would be that of Lewis Carol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, with the Queen of Heart every now and then, without rhyme or reason, and at absolute random intervals, pronouncing her ridiculous and meaningless verdicts – ‘off with his head’ – at anybody in her vicinity.

In this absurd theatre that Manipur has become, people’s reactions to events are also more often than not counter intuitive. An indefinite blockade is announced, and rather than be outraged and scream blue murder, the first reaction is to wake up at unearthly hours and without a complaint and in total composure, as if this has been the routine all along, join miles long queue outside petrol pumps for their rationed quotas of 5 litres each.

Similarly, the chances on any given day are, somebody is gunned down by militants or State police, and the first demand by a quickly formed Joint Action Committee, JAC, is for suitable monitory compensation or government job for next of kin. A demand for fitting legal retribution would be only next in importance.

At least in the case of the just launched indefinite blockade, we do hope the confounding counter intuitive public response remains, and no violence breaks out on the streets. We have seen how terrifying this can be in the past. Nobody except the pathologically ill minds will crave for their repeat. The trouble is, in this absurd theatre, such psychopaths are also not in any shortfall, which is why the State is in a never ending boil.

On a more serious note, the indefinite blockade has once again awoken the State government to a reality it had, for whatever its reason, chosen to relegate into its now crowded deep freezer of public promises. In a knee jerk response after the current blockade was announced, it suddenly remembered there is another highway it can secure much more completely, the one which connects Imphal with Silchar in Assam. Why is that every time an economic blockade is announced, it finds itself caught with its pants down? The pattern has been for it to jolt itself awake once again to this reality, makes all kinds of promises that this highway would be upgraded and made heavy traffic worthy through all the seasons. Once the blockade is lifted, so would all the loud vaunts of upgrading this highway vanish into thin air. How we wish the government was able to see beyond the immediate. Had this been so, the State would be connected by many alternate highways to the world outside, thereby make even the most unscrupulous blockades much more manageable.

It is never too late. Let the government begin with the current emergency and give the project the energy and focus it deserve to develop and secure this highway once and for all. Even if there were never to be another indefinite blockade, which is unlikely knowing the ways of our firebrand street politicians, this is the highway of the future. The four-lane Silchar Expressway is nearing completion and once completed, road transportation is going to be simpler on this route. Again, if the Bangladesh-India border softens and is more formally regulated, as it would someday or the other, the Barak valley would climb in importance and so too the Imphal-Silchar highway.

It is no coincidence that even in the 19th Century, after Assam was annexed by the British in 1826 at the end of the First Anglo Burma War and the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo,  and made a province of Bengal, there was a plan to connect Assam with Myanmar by railways, so as to give the extractive industries the British opened in the region more teeth. There were several routes marked out, all of them passed through Manipur, and one of them falls along the Imphal-Silchar mountain pass (L.W. Shakespear: ‘A History of Assam Rifles’).

Whatever may be said of oppression and exploitation of British colonialism, it must be also added the British colonialists’ sense of geography, and methods of exploiting this, was nothing but sublime. Long before the idea of ‘Look East Policy’ dawned and gained currency in India in the 1990s, colonial British India was already thinking of it for its own commercial benefits. The project was abandoned because of the growing militancy of Bengal towards the latter half of the century and also the peculiar linguistic politics in Assam.

Not only the currently used Imphal-Silchar road, the government must also develop the parallel road to Jiribam and thereafter Cachar – the historic Tongjei Marin. Throughout Manipur’s history as a Paddy State (in James Scott’s language), Tongjei Marin was vital as a commercial route as well as strategically. The Dimapur highway that we are more familiar with today is a post British phenomenon, and in particular the Second World War.

It is for this reason that to the older generation literates of Manipur, including incidentally Hijam Irabot, names of places such as Chittagong, Dhaka, Sylhet etc are so familiar, many of them having done their higher studies in Chittagong and Dacca Universities. Tongjei Marin falls in senior politician and State Home Minister, Gaikhangam’s constituency, so there can be no better moment than now for this road to be given its historical due of a major renovation.

Meanwhile, let the government also in all earnest try and bring those behind the blockade to the negotiating table for an amicable resolution to the issues involved. Let there be no doubt, nobody will end up winner in this unseemly and hostile contest.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here