Call it a charade, or call it something else, a spectacle has been on over the past couple of years which keeps catching the eye. Every now and then, groups of twenty to twenty-five young boys and girls from Manipur, in their late teens or early twenties, are taken on a Bharatdarshan. The sponsors of the programme are the Indian army. The youngsters visit the metropolitan centres; they are comfortably billeted, taken round to standard tourist spots in luxury cars, lectured to by local army bosses, and, finally, presented to the media. At media briefings, an army officer makes an introductory speech, dilating on the theme of how impressed the Manipur youth have been with the sights and scenes they have visited and, generally, with the marvellous economic progress that has occurred in the country. One or two from amongst the youngsters are persuaded to speak to the media. No fear, they do not deviate from the line of platitude the army authorities have set for them: they are happy beyond measure at being provided this opportunity to witness at first hand the strides this great country has made and is making; they have every hope, once Manipur falls in line and marches with the rest of India, milk and honey would start flowing in their state too.
The army knows what it is up to: such indoctrination programmes, it believes, will both reduce the extent of resentment against our troops amongst the people of Manipur and help the cause of national integration. It would, however, be interesting to launch a case study to find out what happens to these boys and girls once they return to Imphal. Are they so much won over to the ‘national’ ethos that they turn into India-zealots and begin campaigning on behalf of the Indian army' Do they sing hosanna to, for example, the Assam Rifles and try to convince their parents, siblings, other relatives and friends that the ground reality they experience every day is an illusion, the Indian army contingents are actually no deus ex machina for torture and atrocities, but emissaries of love and goodwill'
No, the army top brass and their advisers are deluding themselves. Pleasure trips organized for stray groups of Manipuri youth have not led to any positive change in the situation in Manipur. The entire population continues to be sullen and uncooperative. The state remains a cauldron. The Indian army continues to be treated as a symbol of tyranny and bestial behaviour. Given the rampage the Assam Rifles and its cohorts have indulged in for years on end in Imphal and around, Manipuris, one is afraid, have every reason to stick to this assessment.
Nearly half a century has elapsed since the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was put in the statute. The Act, once it is applied to any part of the country, makes the army the sole arbiter of life and limb of the people in that part; that is precisely the fate that has overtaken Manipur — and, many would add, the entire North-east.
It is a frightfully sad, sordid story. Manipur, on the remotest fringe of Aryavarta, was, through long eras, an independent kingdom. Despite the partly Mongol ethnicity of the people there, their links with India have been a continuum from the Mahabharata days. The spread of the Krishna cult, half a millennium ago, further strengthened these emotional bonds, which were not at all disturbed by the interlude of British rule. A qualitative shift in the relationship has taken place only following India’s independence, more particularly, in the course of the past two decades. Intra-tribal strifes provided a pretext for New Delhi’s intervention into the affairs of the state. Soon, it was the overarching regime of the AFSPA. The zeal with which the Act has been applied has not reduced tribal turbulence. Instead, it has given free rein to elements like the Assam Rifles to ride roughshod over Manipuri sensitivities. In the name of maintaining law and order, army personnel have been on the rampage, with arbitrary arrests and killings as their stock-in-trade. Hamlets have been either looted or burnt down, women violated at will, and sporadic killings deemed common entertainment for those who were supposed to ensure law and order.
Things reached a fever pitch with the rape and murder of a young damsel, Manorama Devi, in late 2000. Manipur has been in a state of total alienation since. There was the grisly sequel of the Mothers of Manipur marching on the streets of Imphal, with not a stitch of clothing on their bodies, only a long banner draped across, expressing abhorrence at the pillage and rapacity indulged in by army personnel. The excesses of the army have transformed the mood of this otherwise gentle community into one of revolutionary frenzy. The AFSPA grants laissez-passer to troops to pick any citizen merely on the ground of an imagined suspicion and torture and kill him or her without being held accountable for the crime. As early as 1983, sensing the revulsion of the entire North-east against the Act, a conference of national opposition parties, meeting in Srinagar, had demanded its repeal. The central focus of the on-going agitation rocking Manipur is on the same demand. In the aftermath of the Manorama Devi episode, New Delhi had set up a commission to review the matter. The commission, presided over by a retired Supreme Court justice, was emphatic in its view that the Act must go. To no avail. The issue of national security has apparently come to receive such overwhelming weightage with the decision-makers that the recommendation of such a prestigious commission has been put on the back-burner. Manipur, the argument keeps being mounted, has porous borders with several foreign countries and is an easy hunting ground for foreign agents; the democratic rights which the nation’s Constitution grants to the rest of the country must, therefore, be denied to the people of Manipur.
This is simply not on as far as the Manipuris are concerned. The intensity of their anger and discontent is exemplified by the truly extraordinary protest fast undertaken by another young woman from Imphal, Irom Sharmila. She has been on hungerstrike for nearly five years now, demanding the repeal of the hated AFSPA and the removal of army presence from the state. She has been refusing to take not just food, but water too. She would be occasionally arrested, taken to hospital, fed forcefully through the nose. But as soon as she would be released, she would resume her hungerstrike, to be arrested again, force-fed and released, and the drama would resume. Last month, she outwitted the police at Imphal, flew to New Delhi and resumed her hungerstrike at the Jantar Mantar in the hope that her presence in the heart of the nation’s capital would rouse the conscience of the ruling politicians.
She was wrong. The powers-that-be in New Delhi have other priorities, such as sealing or non-sealing of traders’ shops and arranging Z-category security for the grandchildren of former prime ministers. Few, very few, had time for her. Few, very few, showed the courtesy to listen to her. The forces of law and order were as prompt as they have been all these years in Imphal. New Delhi is the capital of a civilized nation; nobody is going to be allowed here to refuse food and water at such a glaringly public place as Jantar Mantar. She was duly picked up and removed to hospital, which was followed by the ritual of force-feeding. She is reportedly still in a New Delhi hospital.
This woman, for long years without food and nourishment, is now reduced to a skeleton, her voice is a hoarse whisper, only the spirit refuses to die. So what, the authorities would not relent; they would not mind transforming Manipur into another Kashmir either, the AFSPA must, however, stay. The regime of state terror will therefore be elongated. Bharatdarshans, organized by the Indian army for handpicked Manipuri youths, will conceivably be increased in frequency. That, according to some circles, will be a fair deal.