MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: THE NORTHEAST

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when someone asks you about the state you belong to? And what is the first thing you say? Do you always have a straight answer? Or does it differ from time to time depending on the situation in your state? What do you say when all you can think of are unpleasant stories but can’t also deny the fact that it is also a wonderful place?

For me, this conflict has always existed as long as I can remember. I belong to a state called Manipur which is inside a “region” in India. The region consists of 8 states, is commonly referred to as the “Land of Seven Sisters (and a brother)” and collectively identified as “The Northeast”. This blog entry is about the conflict I faced when I asked myself the same question I asked at the start.

The midpoint conference of this year’s AIF Clinton fellowship happened a couple of weeks ago at a magnificent hill station in Ooty in Tamil Nadu. Among many other things in the conference including meeting India’s prominent journalists and thinkers, thematic group presentations by fellows, sessions, activities and team exercises, there was one slot called the Nerd Nite. At Nerd Nite, some of the fellows took sessions on Indian history, data analysis, qualitative research, funding proposals and Northeast India.

Benita (co-fellow) and I took the session on Northeast India. Benita is an Indian American whose parents are from Assam (another state in the Northeast). We decided to take the session as this region of the country is “relatively considered to be under the radar” from mainstream media and because many didn’t know much about it including myself.

Whenever I think of the Northeast, the first that comes to my mind is a map. I don’t exactly know how all the other states look like and sometimes I get confused which is located where in the region but I can always remember all the names of the states and what the Northeast as a whole, looks like on a map. I also don’t know much about the socioeconomic condition, geographical, cultural and demography of each and every state in the region. What I do know is that the region is known for its “beautiful landscapes; cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity; and for people having physical features very similar to ‘Chinese or Nepali’.”

 

 2000px-India-locator-map-NE.svg               Modi-cites-Sikkim-example

Now, I never thought or even had the slightest intention of presenting anything other than my fellowship project at midpoint. I didn’t even fill the ‘proposal’ form sent to us before midpoint, which, if anyone wanted to present anything in their field of interest or profession, had to submit. Then one day, Benita made a request I couldn’t, for the all right reasons, decline. She was going to take a session on Northeast India and asked me if I could collaborate with her. Being someone from the Northeast as well, I thought it would be odd not to.

And so it was decided. The session on Northeast India was finally included in the Nerd Nite agenda. We were going to start by giving a brief overview of the Northeast and then talk about our respective states. Now, since I am a very smart and diligent person (I am not), I took upon myself to make three videos – two on Northeast and one on Manipur – at the same time when I was writing the mid-term evaluation report for the organisation I was placed with. Bad move. So now I had to juggle between data analysis and compilation (qualitative), selecting and downloading videos, designing reporting framework, editing and framing the videos and what not. It was only a matter of time before I realised I couldn’t do both at the same time. I had to make a choice and decided to finish writing the report before anything else. By the time I was done with the report, I had only a couple of days to finish the videos until I leave for Ooty.

 

 

Another popular aspect concerning the Northeast is the conflict in the region. The term ‘Northeast conflict’, has become a commonly used phrase in debates and discussions in the country when it comes to issues as such as human rights violations; abuse of power by armed forces; insurgency and militancy; and deplorable conditions of law and order in the region. The fact of the matter is that most states in the region are affected by some form of conflict. The types of conflict ranges from separatist movements, incessant demand for greater autonomy to inter community, communal and inter-ethnic conflicts. From the outside, it is as if the region is a red zone area considered dangerous, alien and to a certain degree “primitive” in some parts (as compared to levels of development in other parts of India).

On top of all these is the much debated and still considered as the main reason of unrest in the region, the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), of 1958. The AFSPA was implemented in the region in 1972 to allow deployment of the army to counter armed separatists movements and has been in place for the last five decades (with the exception of Mizoram).

AFSPA grants the army, central police forces, and state police personnel “special powers” including the right to shoot to kill, to raid houses, and destroy any property that is “likely” to be used by insurgents, and to arrest without warrant even on “reasonable suspicion” a person who has committed or even “about to commit a cognizable offence.” Furthermore, the Act provides them immunity from prosecution.

According to a news report, the rate of civilian deaths in militancy-related incidents have risen to 150% from 2013 to 2014. In all, 1,648 civilians have been killed between 2007 and 2014, or 17 every month.

 

MANIPUR

Coming to my state, Manipur, no doubt it is a beautiful place. I remember waking up one early dawn when I was still a kid and watching the sky with my grandparents. I remember looking at the Milky Way stretched across the horizon above in colours I never expected to see in the sky. All the colourful ceremonies of different communities, food, festivals and breathtaking scenery and landscapes I have been a part of and travelled to, I remember all of it.

loktak-view
Loktak Lake – the largest freshwater lake in the region.

 

I also remember my father running from both insurgents and police alike for reasons I could never comprehend, being kidnapped for ransom, taken for questioning by the police on suspicion of being associated with insurgent groups and getting unpleasant, threatening calls from strangers. I remember the night a newly married telecom officer posted in the Manipur who lived just two floors above us getting shot in head for not accepting “demands”. I remember the bloodstains on the backseat of our car which was used to carry him to the hospital. I remember schools being shut down for months because of strikes, people standing in mile-long queues just to get gas and basic essential needs and paying exorbitant prices for it, curfews, echoes of gunfire every now and then, fake encounters, communal tensions, deadly riots, blockades and boycotts, people getting killed and dying on the streets, bomb blasts, rampant corruption, poor treatment of migrants… I can keep on going. However, I don’t mean to scare you. It’s a reality and people have learnt to live with it. It has become a way of life. That doesn’t mean I don’t want the situation to get better. I definitely do but the definition of “normal” is totally different from what it usually is.

I am a Manipuri. I cheer for my state. I also jeer at my state. Nevertheless, I pledge my allegiance to where I am from and belong to. If there was a football match between my village and another village, I’d cheer for my village. If it was with another state, I’d cheer for my state and so on. I am proud to be a part of a culture so rich and diverse; to belong to a place described as another “Switzerland” or a “jewel”. However, there’s nothing to be proud of to be from a place where people live in constant fear – of being kidnapped, threatened, bombed, beaten to death for being from somewhere else, arrested, raped, killed, shot, encountered, missing, forced to lie and what not. For many, surviving is just as same as living; the separation cease to exist. These are the reasons why I jeer at my state.

manipur-curfew-strike
Students protesting on the streets during a curfew

 

So when someone who knows little or have never even heard of the Northeast or Manipur asks how it is, there’s always a moment of pause before I answer. Where do I start? What impression should I leave the person with when I’m done answering? I want to say all the good things but if I leave out the fact that people have been suffering there for decades for whatever reasons it may be, more than lying to the person asking I’d be lying to myself. With this in mind, I was trying to figure out how I can balance these factors and somehow leave a bittersweet impression towards my co-fellows when I show them the videos at Nerd Nite. However, time was a luxury I couldn’t afford…

I knew it was impossible to edit three videos with what I had in mind in just two days. There is so much to tell and show. It involved too much work and I needed a break from all the typing and sitting in front of the screen all day. If completing the videos was a mission, it was an impossible one. The fact that there wasn’t going to be any reliable Wi-Fi nor cell service at the midpoint venue wasn’t very encouraging either. So I downloaded a ton of videos from the internet when I still had connectivity so that even when I am in Ooty, I had the resources to work with.

I pulled two consecutive all-nighters and finished the first two videos. The third and the longest video, which was on my own state, was nowhere near finished. In fact, I had only started working on it when we left for Ooty.

In Ooty, even though I had the raw videos, there was no time to work on it as the midpoint schedule was packed to the max. The day Nerd Nite was scheduled finally arrived and I haven’t touched a single thing on the last video ever since I arrived at Ooty. The Nite was going to start after dinner and here I was – running, hooping and fumbling on obstacle courses as part of team building exercises organised by the resort staff.

By heaven’s grace or whatever you called it, the rest of the evening opened up. We were free for a few hours until dinner. I took my laptop, went the resort lobby where there was WiFi (didn’t use it though), sat at a corner and worked on the last video for more than three hours straight. I finished the last video just in time to attend some of the sessions before ours. In the end, I made all three videos though I had to compromise on a lot of things. In the end, the mission was completed. I am not sure if I accomplished what I had in mind though.

I could have shown a lot more about my state. I also can’t shake off the feeling I haven’t done justice in the portrayal of the Manipur conflict by making it seem like the conflict is only because of the AFSPA. Had I more time, I would have tried to present a more balanced perspective.

 

After working as a producer having researched and documented several visual contents and making short documentaries, Kuljan enrolled in a Master's course in Conflict Analysis and Peace Building at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The course both inspired and showed him a bridge between international relations and humanitarian development. He focused on International Humanitarian Law and Humanitarian Protection, which deals with human rights, international law, armed conflicts and refugees.

Kuljan then joined ActionAid India as a volunteer and worked on various campaigns such as 'Beti Zindabad' which aims to make gender equality a lived reality in India, 'Blood Bricks' which highlights and seeks to address the harsh realities of bonded labour. The knowledge hubs in ActionAid India also exposed him to several other issues such as child labour, education, livelihoods etc. Recently, he worked on a campaign called 'People's Vision of the City' with a knowledge activist hub called 'Citizens Rights Collective' (CiRiC). The campaign aims to bring in citizens to plan and design socially just, equitable and environmentally sustainable cities.

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