Shootings on the street. Drugs. State failure. Extortion. Unemployment. Samrat Chakrabarti maps the bleak vision of young Manipuris. And their uncertain expressions.
Photographs by Tarun Sehrawat
IT’S PAST 8 on an early winter night in Imphal. On a vacant lot, the size of a children’s playground, in the midst of a modest neighbourhood, is the hot-spot of a Monday night’s offering to this city’s nightlife. Blocking the little brown lanes of coagulated mud leading up to the neighbourhood, are scooters and motorcycles from a different age — when a two-wheeler was marketed as a family investment and not an object of lust. A local television news anchor, looking out of place in a dapper sky blue suit, makes announcements to a crowd of 500-odd people, from a well-lit, carpeted stage.
The audience watch him in two sections — on the left, a large mass of young men, some sporting elaborate tattoos on biceps barely contained in tight T-shirts while on the far right and far outnumbered, an island of composed elders seated on steel chairs with polite interest. ‘Tribute to Mono’ reads the backdrop and another one says, “If you don’t want to quit drugs that’s your business. If you do, it’s ours,” with a helpline number listed beneath. A bass player in dark aviators comes on stage and thumps the opening lines of Born to be Wild and a collective roar goes out into the night. Welcome to a rock concert in Manipur.
Tucked away, in the palm of India’s outstretched hand in the Northeast, with Myanmar to its east, stands the little state of Manipur. In the corner section of the national consciousness where its name resides, in the vague blob thats labelled ‘the Northeast’, its memory is dusted out on occasions of high sporting achievement or when celebrating India’s cultural diversity. Most recently, we were appraised of its existence when Irom Sharmila’s story was retold anew; a single individual’s protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) by not eating a morsel of food, now for a decade and counting. For the most part though, Manipur, along with its people, stays forgotten and undisturbed by the mainland’s curiosity. It’s too far, too dangerous for travel and at any rate, the map and the people get a little fuzzy in memory beyond Assam.
But Manipur hasn’t forgotten India. How can it ? When so much of what goes on there, its past, future and its debilitating present, centres around the idea of India? Of being tied to it? The mainland even at a distance does not face a reciprocal amnesia. It exercises a daily force that can’t be set aside. It’s a force that powers both the hopes and the pain of being a Manipuri.
Notice the statistical curiosity in this Monday night crowd, or indeed the whole of Manipur. There are gaps in the age groups. The 20-30-year-olds are absent and the 40-45-year-olds are missing. The latter lost to HIV and AIDS, and the other, its youth, sent away for a fair shot at life. In college-heavy cities around the country, they come, to ‘India proper’ as it were, and discover that a true learning happens outside the classroom. Nobody knows where Manipur is. Most people think you are from Nepal, and getting a local accommodation can be a trying experience as you navigate through the humiliating set of prejudices people have about you based solely on the shape of your eyes. Grown up on the same oaths in the morning assembly as that of millions of Indian children, oaths of loyalty to India — the land of the various, what is it like to reach there and find that you are an alien? What is it like in the conflict zone that is home? If we remembered to ask them, what would the youth of Manipur say?
‘For every Manipuri who visits the mainland, there is always a tense moment when one spots even a traffic policeman’
Abow Rajkumar FILMMAKER
BACK AT the Monday night concert, the musicians on stage, play with a certain pizzaz and easy arrogance that a musician acquires in his playing when the gap between what he thinks and what he plays diminishes. This garden-variety band playing in the middle of nowhere, far away from the supposed rock capital of Bengaluru, is better than many you have spent a Friday night to see. But in Manipur, this is no surprise. Here, you will hear a lottery ticket-seller playing Mrs Robinson on his loudspeaker to attract customers. In Manipur, rock music is a bit of a religion.
Watching them with the indulgent air of a professional looking upon well-meaning amateurs, is Shaibalini Chongtham, 27, better known as Tukun from the thrash metal band Kanglasha. She and her partner Mantosh Thockchom, 34, also Kanglasha’s lead-guitarist, are late for the concert. They needed fuel for their Maruti 800, which, in Imphal, meant locating small nondescript shops that sell petrol in discarded Pepsi bottles costing between Rs. 80 and Rs. 120 a litre. Petrol stations stay open for two days, sometimes three, in a week. For the mandatory three-litres-at-a-time, you spend half-a-day in a line a few kilometres long. So, in Manipur, you buy petrol like soft drinks from the black market.
A trained advocate, Tukun’s singing has in degrees and over the years, progressed all the way from the mellifluous Rabindra sangeet to the hard-edged ways of thrash metal — an extreme genre of heavy metal rock that requires of the singer lowpitched growls layered over a jagged, fast and a complexly structured soundscape, expressing above all, a deeply-felt anger and disappointment. “There is no future here,” says Tukun. “That’s why people go away and don’t come back. What would they come back for? Forget career, we cannot move outside after 7 pm. The young have fear in their hearts. It’s not easy being young in Manipur.”
The youth in Manipur have a problem with time. Firstly, there is too much of it. Pradip Phanjoubam, 53, editor of the English daily Imphal Free Press, says, “According to official government data, the unemployment in Manipur is pegged at around 7 lakh. The population is around 24 lakh. That’s about 34 percent of the population.” But that can’t be right. No society can function on such high levels of unemployment. “What affects the data is that Manipuris don’t consider themselves employed unless it’s a government job,” he says.
The difference in pay between the public and private sector is an artefact from the 1970s . Under the Sixth Pay Commission, a Grade IV employee, say a peon, earns between Rs.15,000 and Rs. 20,000 a month. “This is more than what a newspaper editor gets,” says Pradip. This is a place where middle-class households run on Rs. 4,000 a month. The rush for a government job is so intense that, like any essential commodity in Manipur, it runs to the diktat of a black market. The going rate, according to Pradip, is Rs. 3 lakh for a peon’s job. But vacancies are rare. The only arm of government that continuously grows is the police and in a seller’s market of a parallel economy, the asking rates soar. Today, it stands in the range of Rs. 18-20 lakh for a sub-inspector’s job. “Farmers sell their lands to get a job like that. Once you are in, you are good for a couple of generations as you can channel the entry of your kids and grandkids.”
Additional time is freed up by the education system that rarely functions uninterrupted. Following the 23 July fake encounter exposé by TEHELKA, the student unions decreed that ‘the right to live is more important than the right to education’. And so, the schools stayed shut. For six months. This is routine.
‘There is no guarantee we will live tomorrow. The people who protect us think we are dangerous’
Punit Sharma, 28 UNEMPLOYED
SO PARENTS send their kids away. In the 1990s, it was the creamy layer, but today it’s normative for everyone. As soon as the children finish Class XII, they are packed off to the mainland. Never mind which college. What happens to kids who stay back and pursue the academic route? Prof Debananda Ningthoujam of Manipur University says of the M.Sc graduates, “A miniscule portion makes it to better research institutions on merit, a slightly larger number takes up teaching in third-grade colleges, earning little above subsistence. The others, it’s difficult to tell.” Not much is known about the rest. Many like Tukun mention the young cycle rickshaw drivers who cover the lower half of their faces in Imphal. “They don’t want to be identified by friends and neighbours,” she says. Some of them are holders of a master’s degree.
Add to this the constant fear one lives under. When a police job can set you back by 20 lakh, extortion becomes one of the ways to break even. Abow Rajkumar, 32, says, “For every Manipuri who visits the mainland, there is always a tense moment when one spots authority — even a traffic policeman.” A rite of passage in Manipur is the invasive body search that can happen impromptu at a checkpost. “It’s very tense because you know that suddenly for no reason, it can go very very bad. It’s a kind of trauma to hear the lock and load of a gun if they don’t like an answer or if you’ve looked them the wrong way. It stays with you after.”
Manipur is today in the grips of an extremely complicated constellation of power resulting out of the innumerable armed groups operating out of there. Manipur is actually a microcosm of India in being home to a wide variety of distinct ethnic identities, each with its own culture, language and social mores. Five of the state’s nine districts lie in the hills and rest in the valley. The valley is home to the Meiteis, the dominant ethnic grouping who are also Vaishnavites, while the hills are home to 29 tribes belonging to two broad groupings — the Nagamese and the Kukis who are largely Christians.
The armed struggle in Manipur to secede from India and towards self-determination has decayed into a plethora of groups, breakaway factions and sub-factions, each claiming to represent a people, a tribe or a clan. They exploit historic faultlines that have existed between the groups to stay in business — prominent being those between Meiteis and the Nagamese. At last count, there were some 34 groups in Manipur variously aligned and in opposition to each other and the Indian State. The revolution that was to bring self-determination and nationhood has disintegrated largely into smaller mobs each in opposition to the other. And the need for survival has brought about a system that is in essence a nexus between the state government and the underground.
A journalist on condition of anonymity says it is impossible to be an MLA or even a panchayat leader, without the backing of an underground group. In such a situation, where the armed groups and political power are joined at the hip, and where 34 groups are trying to survive in an environment of limited resources, extortion becomes the de facto business model and a way of life. And the most harassed are the youth.
Tukun’s partner Mantosh relates an incident that occured the night before the Monday night concert. “I was stopped by two commandos outside the ATM. They asked me to show my licence. When I opened my wallet, they spotted the cash and the harassment started. I had Rs 15,000 that I had just withdrawn but they refused to believe me that it was from the ATM. They said I was lying, that I had been gambling. They searched my pockets. The other guy reached for his revolver because he thought I’d looked him the wrong way. ” Tukun adds, “They followed us afterwards, stopped our car and started to harass us again. If our neighbour hadn’t been walking where they stopped our car, we would have lost that money.”
And it’s not just the police. “Our parents don’t allow us to leave Imphal. Just about anybody, whether they belong to an armed outfit or not, routinely extort money from couples. You have no choice but to pay up. It’s too risky to challenge them,” says Tukun. Extortion is an important revenue stream in Manipur whether you are a policeman or an armed insurgent.
The political turmoil of the place first makes its appearance in a person’s life in Manipur during the teenage years. The first rebellion is always against the rolling list of restrictions imposed by parents — on movement, on friends, on choices. These diktats mostly stem out of a concern for safety, but are more restrictive and, in the absence of any outlet, harsher. The frustration begins at home. ‘Emo’, short for emotive or emotional, is a teenage angst philosophy finding traction around the world and Manipur is receiving it second-hand.
FOLLOWING AN underground diktat in 2000, banning all Hindi films and music, Korean television came to occupy the vacuum left in popular entertainment. Korean soap operas are an addiction here. There are even fan clubs to popular Korean film stars with 18-year-olds sporting Korean mohawks and kids with a functional knowledge of Korean. They identify with the culture of a similar looking people. Emo is big in Southeast Asia, particularly Japan and Korea. The central tenet seems to be to take the ironic position of embracing ones self-loathing, insecurities and, ultimately, pain, fuelled by a world that refuses to understand you.
‘Fear, apprehension and a deep-rooted suspicion of everyone, including your family, have led to psychosomatic disorders’
Bimol Akoijom PSYCHOLOGIST
ATEENAGER’S LIFE condition in Manipur takes a wider meaning as a window into the razzmatazz of a global consumer culture resounds harshly with the conditions around. The music that defines this group, emo-core, also defines the fashion and attitude. It is drawn from the punk and goth subcultures of a previous generation. Black nail polish, black clothing and excessive application of kajal. There is a debate now if emo should be discouraged. Much of the concern centres around a proclivity among some emos to cut themselves as a physical expression of their philosophy, embracing pain. Since Manipur is receiving emo second-hand, it’s not clear how entrenched it truly is or to what extent, but Bimol Akoijom, associate professor, School of Social Sciences, JNU, believes the Korean craze points to something deeper. “There is now a longing that this generation feels, fuelled by a sense of disenchantment with both India and the revivalist style liberation movement. Korean culture has the right elements — the longing for a westernised, consumeristic, industrial ethos; an oriental longing based on looks and cultural similarities and finally an Indian style melodramatic aesthetic which is also that of the Manipuris.”
In time, when one begins to understand the complex reality of Manipur, the angst takes on the colour of despondency, fear and cynicism. Chaoba Thiyam, 34, a struggling independent filmmaker tried to capture this fear psychosis through his documentary short The Eye of an I. The 15-minute film has no dialogues and uses jarring sounds, visual atonality and unsettling montages to depict a deep paranoia. The source of the paranoia is never revealed, and its resolution not found, but you get a feeling that the fear is ambient. “You know there is something seriously wrong, but you can’t do a thing to change it. That’s where the anguish comes from, alongside a fear psychosis that controls you,” says Thiyam. The number one killer in Manipur, if one is to go by the medical records kept at its best government hospital RIMS, is hypertension, even among the young. “These are the psychosomatic disorders that come from unreleased, pent up anxiety — fear, apprehension and a deeprooted suspicion of everyone including your family,” says Bimol. “You get wound up pretty easily here. The constant suspicion makes you feel guilty even if you have done nothing wrong,” says Abow.
So that’s the problem with time; too much of it, not much one can do with it, most of it lived in fear and caught in a time warp outside 21st century India; of the 9 percent GDP growth fame, friend of Barack Obama’s and slated to create 50,000 jobs in the US, but not, in Manipur. So what do you do if you cannot escape the place? To many, the answer is Spasmo Proxyvon (SP). SP is a mild opiate analgesic commonly given to women for back pain during pregnancy. In Manipur today, SP is for this generation what heroin was for another.
Back in the early 1980s, the gateway to the world lay to the east, on the border with Myanmar. Second-hand copies of The Rolling Stonemagazine, a few VHS tapes of bootlegged concert videos and pirated audio cassettes with covers of famous rock classics, performed by nameless Southeast Asian musicians, started the rock music revolution in Manipur. Independently, around that time, also began Manipur’s tragic problem with drugs.
Chingsubam Bangkim, 42, a one-time heroin addict, is today the secretary of the Social Awareness Service Organization (SASO) — an NGO at the forefront of fighting the drugs and HIV epidemic in Manipur. “When I was in school, rock music became popular. We grew long hair, wore torn jeans. Through rock magazines, we learnt that some rock stars died of overdose. When rock started spreading, heroin became accessible. Between 1983 and 94, you could buy heroin for 5 in the local paan shop,” he says, adding, “On the way to school, we would stop by a paan shop, buy 5-10 worth of heroin, bunk class, go to a cemetery and chase it among friends. I had no idea about drugs, how to use it. I was in Class VIII then.”
‘In Class VIII, we’d buy heroin from a paan shop on the way to school and chase it in a cemetery’
C Bangkim, SECRETARY, SOCIAL AWARENESS SERVICE ORGANISATION
SUCH WAS the lack of awareness that heroin was considered by many to be a happy substitute for alcohol. “Back then, alcohol was a big social problem. Heroin was seen as a good substitute because someone on heroin would come home, sit quietly and wouldn’t trouble anyone. It was common to see uncles and nephews shooting heroin together.”
Philip Laishram, 41, ART (Anti Retroviral Therapy) counsellor at RIMS hospital, adds, “You have to understand what happened to our generation. Apart from peer pressure and easy access to drugs and violence, it was also anxiety. During our time, when we came back educated from Delhi in 1994-95, there was a blanket ban on jobs. We came back with our master degrees and aspirations and found a freeze on government jobs for eight to 12 years! Imagine what that was like. It isn’t just the insurgency.”
In 1989-90, the cases of HIV infections among those injecting heroin rose from 0 to 90 percent because of needle sharing. In one year. This was the lost generation of Manipur. The missing 40-45-year-olds. Many friends of Bangkim are no longer around. The drug culture is strong even now. NGO workers often find an uncle and nephew shooting drugs together. While heroin is still widely available at 100 a ‘piece’ (30 gm), the new converts are all turning to SP. The most vulnerable age for drug addiction is between 14 and 17. Perhaps the most surprising aspect, and at sharp variance with drug usage elsewhere in India, is that drug users are more likely in Manipur to be welleducated, young and among those living with families.
But drugs aren’t for everyone. On top of a hill, among busts in stone of past Meitei heroes from a bygone cultural past, Dipen Meitei, 32, herds together his fellow believers on a crisp clear morning. Assembled is a sleepy group of teenagers and young men in their early 20s. Nearby is their equipment — snazzy skates, skateboards with graffiti and low cycles with tall, wide handlebars that can rotate 360 degrees — known as BMX bikes. These are the X-gamers of Manipur. In the Manipur of the 1980s came bootlegged copies of BMX-Bandit, an Australian children’s adventure film starring a young Nicole Kidman. The movie, about a bunch of kids on BMX bikes who outwit bank robbers, was a huge hit in Manipur and thus began the BMX revolution. Over the years, as Xgames gained popularity in Singapore and Thailand, Manipur too followed suit. Today, it is one of the few active centres of the sport in India. Last year, at the annual tourism festival in Imphal, they constructed a ramp and got riders down from Thailand to demonstrate the sport. “Our dream is to become competitive internationally. We’ve come this far without any support. We don’t have enough bikes, but we try to make our own from discarded ones,” says Dipen who’s dedicated the past 12 years of his life to his passion. The kids learn new tricks from Dipen and come up with their own as they scout YouTube for the latest stunts being invented by other kids from Rhode Island to Bangkok. X-games is an example of how quickly international youth culture trends are adopted by Manipur. And an example also of the kind of hold sports has on Manipur. During the football World Cup this year, there was a screen put up at every single neighbourhood. From day one, every single day’s action was a community event. Every second person mentions Manipur’s sports with unmistakable pride. Sports is also the one positive thing that gains them attention in the national media.
But with all the palpable angst and a deep association with a musical genre that has been at the heart of the protest movements the world over, shouldn’t one find the beginnings of counterculture and engagement with issues among the young? If there is one thing the rock music community of India has to answer for, it’s the sheer irrelevance of their music to what’s happening around them. In the same two decades as the ones in which Indian rock has flourished, the country has dealt with globalisation, inequity on a never before scale, the rise of Naxalism and the erosion of its central idea as a nation — that of belonging to everyone regardless of what you believe and where you come from. And yet, rock has been purely an aesthetic response, contained largely to an English-speaking upper class. In Manipur, given its popularity, the diversity in socio-economic participation in the genre and that political violence is a fact of life, shouldn’t one expect something different here?
Says Tukun of her band, “Kanglasha is a mythic monster in our culture. Like a Leviathan that rises to crush evil. It’s a powerful Manipuri symbol and goes with our hard music and message.” Message like in the song Pakhangba. The name refers to a mythological Manipuri king under whom the kingdom lived out a golden period of prosperity and peace. The song calls out for Pakhangba, the witty king, why he stays away at this time of need, but rendered in an accusatory tone of a thrash metal extreme. Other examples include progressive metal band Cleave’s Dusk or Dawn, which says Manipur is caught in a twilight where it’s difficult to say if what follows will be dawn of a beginning or the dusk of an end; and Seven Years of Devastation recalls the genocide of the 1880s, when a pogrom against the Manipuris was initiated by the Burmese, to make comparisons with the present.
‘What we are facing in Manipur today can only be fought with heart. No mind. Only heart’
Rewben Mashangwa FOLK MUSIC ICON
THERE IS, however, something naïve about the engagement. The songs are generic cries for help, not a protest rooted in specifics. No satire, no mockery, just a ‘we-are-angry-with-this-world’ narrative. But the speaking of truth and registering of purposeful protest is a complex thing in Manipur with no guarantees that you’d live to do an encore.
In this regard, particularly ironic is the position of a documentary filmmaker. Says Oinam Doren, 32, an independent filmmaker, “You cannot say anything against the underground. You’ll be shot the next day or threatened. That’s why 99 percent films from a conflict zone like Manipur are on art and culture. The spurt in documentary films here has nothing to do with the conflict or counterculture.” So, like Amarjeet, 32, when you make a film on the protests that suspended normal life for six months in Manipur, following the TEHELKA exposé, you deliberately stay clear of giving an opinion on the subject. Because a true discussion has to address local politicians and the underground armed insurgents — both entities, economic and political bedfellows. The protests that broke out in Manipur after July 23 — the subject of Amarjeet’s film — came from these same nexus of forces operating in Manipur. So to simply show the events at the level of documentation is not enough. There is an all important context that is crucial. without that context, without a take, there is no documentation of truth, even a partial one. But to tell the truth is to risk your life and that of your family.
The morning following the screening of his film 23rd July at a film festival in Imphal, Amarjeet was called in for a meeting by one of the armed groups. He doesn’t name the group, but recalls being asked to leave a copy of the film for review. The same thing happens in music. A source close to Lokesh Heishnam of the famous Eastern Dark, well-known meiteilon rock band from the 1990s, known for its politically charged lyrics, says that as recently this February, the underground would demand copies of his lyrics so that it could be vetted and passed. The protest space in Manipur is co-opted and the lack of freedom suffocates any true counterculture in its bud, whether it’s music, films or civil society. As a social entrepreneur says on condition of anonymity, the only way to do good and not become a part of the problem in Manipur is to stay off the grid, below the radar. Rewben Mashangwa, 49, son of a carpenter and father of the Naga-folk blues, spent the past 20 years of his life travelling, playing and keeping alive the songs of the Thangkul Nagas. “What we are facing in Manipur,” he says, “can only be fought with heart. Not mind. Only heart.”
It’s past 11 pm now and the Monday night concert is going strong. It’s an hour past the allowed deadline but the police haven’t intervened tonight. The young man at the food stall has sold most of his homecooked pork and the woman running the kirana store is running out of cigarettes. An eight-year-old straddles her father’s shoulder, eyes wide and mouth gaping as she is introduced toPurple Haze. She does not know it yet, but in a few years, she will have to choose between home and happiness.
When Arundhati Roy spoke of azadi for Kashmir, there were many who cringed at the idea. The widows peak of Kashmir has been the starting point in countless map-drawing exercises in geography classes. The Northeast is a part of India, we say. What we need to decide is whether it’s just a buffer zone so that we have advance warning when the Chinese invade, or if, in fact, as children in Manipur are taught in school, an inestimable part of the idea on which this nation was created.