It is not easy being a symbol. To live every day as an undead martyr is to be shackled by your every word, your every action. You are no longer human, but a symbol of hope, of struggle, a hero without human failings. You can’t love, you can’t quit, and in the case of Manipur’s Irom ‘Iron Lady’ Sharmila, you can’t eat.
Sharmila was just 28 when she refused food and water to protest against the Malom massacre of 2 November 2000. Ten civilians waiting at a bus stop in Malom, a small town in Manipur’s Imphal Valley, were shot and killed by security forces. The massacre turned her regular Thursday fast into an indefinite one, demanding the revocation of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). An Act that provides security forces with certain powers and immunities in conflict zones that go beyond the conventional tasks outlined for the army.
It has been 13 years and nine months since Sharmila tasted a single morsel of food. Held for attempting suicide, she has spent more than a decade not only battling the Manipur government, shuttling between hospital and court, but more importantly, she has been waging war with her own body — ulcers, giddiness, showers of sweat and, of course, dreams of home-cooked food. But her commitment to the cause has endured.
Her frizzy hair, the nasal tube through which she is forcibly fed thrice a day, and her smile have become symbols of her struggle. While the Central government and mainstream India have largely ignored her silent protest, there has been a growing chorus in her support. The 42-year-old has become a mascot, the proverbial ‘young virgin’ who must be sacrificed for the cause. While she remains in custody, others have found their way on to our television screens, demanding the repealing of AFSPA, sharing her story and her struggle on public platforms. Their names, her story.
Ironically, it is the Manipur government that benefits the most as the protests against the AFSPA reach fever pitch. While Sharmila’s struggle has put Manipur and the AFSPA on the map, the shrill activism and limited reporting by the mainstream media have given a one-dimensional view of the complex conflict in the state.
Manipur is always seen through the AFSPA lens, letting the state government off the hook. In reality, the state is not so different from the failed States of Africa where the government simply acts as a power broker between different power centres. While the state be dammed, personal coffers continue to grow.
Landlocked and nestled between Nagaland, Assam and Myanmar, Manipur has faced an unending cycle of militancy. More than 30 militant groups, some more active than others, call Manipur their home. While many are fighting for a sovereign State, a former Hindu kingdom “pressurised” to join India, others are fighting for the rights of their respective ethnic minorities.
The groups indulge in huge annual ‘tax’ collection — extortion to which politicians turn a blind eye — and in collusion with the bureaucracy, pocket the bulk of development funds pumped in by the Centre (close to 80 percent of the state budget). Like Africa, conflict has become a lucrative business in Manipur.
As a result, the people are caught in the middle of an active insurgency and a counter-insurgency operation often accused of harsh human rights excesses, while an inactive government looks away. Poverty, high rates of educated unemployment, absence of governance, the complete lack of development and rampant corruption have turned Manipur into a “failed state”.
Nothing backs up that statement as the drive from Moreh, a tiny town on the Manipur-Myanmar border. The town is known for the trade in everyday goods such as buckets and Chinese solar lights as well as drugs, illegal arms and smuggled teak. It also serves as an easy crossing for the eight rebel groups present there.
The roughly 100 km stretch of road takes anywhere between four to six hours to cover, not only because of the multiple checkposts where every piece of baggage is taken off and searched, but also because the road is in a pitiful condition, briefly improving as you drive through the constituency of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh.
At different points, like on any other national highway, there are toll booths. However, what makes Manipur different is the system of tax collection. On one side of the road, a booth collects toll tax on behalf of the democratically elected government, while on the other, representatives of different underground groups sit in a stall collecting their ‘taxes’. Short of giving you a receipt, their system is completely professional.
As you travel towards capital Imphal, the ‘taxes’ continue. There are a dozen underground groups and each wants a share. As do the Manipur Commandos.
‘Taxes’ are not restricted to highways. Manipur and Nagaland have their own version of TDS (tax deducted at source). Underground groups cut a certain percentage of ‘tax’ from every government employee’s salary as well as every government contract.
“The police often crack down on this tax collection. They ask the government employees where the money has gone, but in reality they don’t want an answer,” explains a young Manipuri who is studying at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “Everyone, including the police know what is going on, but they don’t do anything to stop it, some out of fear, others out of monetary incentives.”
So, in effect, a sizable percentage of the thousands of crores poured in by the Central government to ensure the development of Manipur — as the state generates almost no revenue on its own — go into funding the insurgencies fighting for a sovereign Manipur.
While it is hard to calculate exactly how much Central funds is siphoned off by the 30-plus underground groups, a story published in Tehelka (Wages of War by Jimi Dey Gabriel, 13 August 2011) provides some pointers. An official revealed that just six groups manage to collect more than 600 crore every year.
Unlike other parts of the country, Manipur does not suffer from communalism. Instead, ethnic divisions govern the state politics. The Imphal Valley, which is the state’s administrative hub, comprises just 10 percent of the state’s landmass and is home to 60 percent of the population. It is dominated by Meiteis, the traditional ruling community. The surrounding hills are populated by as many as 35 tribes and sub-tribes, the most prominent being the Nagas and Kukis. Political leaders play on the existing ethnic tensions for their narrow gains.
For example, in December 2011, just before the Assembly election, the United Naga Council (which consists of Nagas living in Manipur) called for a road blockade. Normal life was crippled in Imphal. Locals were faced with the choice of either waiting in line overnight or buying petrol in black for Rs 140 a litre.
The state government pointed fingers at the Nagas for creating the shortage and that is how the media reported it. However, speaking to TEHELKA, Indian Oil Corporation General Manager (Northeast) B Dey said that during the blockade, the State-run company was able to supply 90 percent of its regular quantity of petrol to the state (The blockade fuelled ethnic enmity, 10 December 2011).
It seems bizarre that petrol was entering the state but not reaching the petrol pumps. In fact, it was freely available in the black market. Something doesn’t quite add up. Manipur has rich natural gas and petroleum resources, but these fall under the area controlled by the Naga rebel groups who keep the state government at bay.
While the Nagas have moved away from their earlier demand of coming under a larger Naga political umbrella, they no longer want the four Naga-dominated districts — Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel — to be controlled by the Manipur government. Their main grouse is Manipur’s step-motherly treatment.
And there is no smoke without fire.
Just a couple of hours’ drive from Senapati, the headquarters of the Naga-dominated district by the same name, you are transported to another world. As you climb the hills, the tarmac gives way to a dirt track — ironically just after the local mla’s village — and the country air is filled with the pungent smell of marijuana. Here, running water, sanitation, electricity, roads and hospitals are non-existent.
“We are subsistence farmers, we eat what we grow. But I have to provide for my family,” says the young village head. “We know what we are doing is wrong, but growing drugs is the only way we can feed our families.” Pushed by the lack of economic opportunities and failed government schemes, the farmers in these hills grow both opium and marijuana.
A small village comprising five houses produces around four tonnes of marijuana every year, whereas a large village produces around 15-20 tonnes annually. High-quality marijuana costs Rs 250 per kg at source, but by the time it reaches neighbouring Nagaland, the price goes up to Rs 1,000 per kg (a profit of Rs 750 per kg), and in New Delhi, it costs Rs 100 for 20 gm or Rs 5,000 per kg.
The bulk of the profit goes to the middleman. Though it is hard to know the exact size of the business, even if just 30 percent of the nearly 1,300 villages in these districts grow an average of eight tonnes of marijuana a year, it means a total output of 3,120 tonnes. At a roughly estimated profit margin of Rs 750 per kg, this works out to an annual profit of Rs 234 crore from marijuana alone.
The downside of this booming industry is drug addiction. Manipur’s population of 2.7 million people is only 0.8 percent of the national population, but this tiny state accounts for 8 percent of the country’s HIV positive cases, with intravenous drug users making up as much as 76 percent of the cases. More than 90 percent of the victims are aged between 15 and 40 — the age group that is touted as our demographic dividend; the key to our potential superpower status. But Manipur’s youth doesn’t seem to count. They are not a part of the growth story.
In Manipur, the youth are trapped. They are stuck in the middle of a multi-sided conflict with no job opportunities other than government service, no infrastructure, no quality education and no real way out, other than to leave. Government schools are empty as teachers, who paid through their nose for their recruitment, took the jobs but refused to turn up for work. Ethnic tension constantly simmers and flareups result in blockades, which cripple the Imphal Valley (but everything is available in the black market). The choice is to live in fear or escape.
“We are trapped, we are not free to do what we want. Recently, a Manipuri actress had signed on to do a Bollywood film. However, the underground groups contacted her and gave her a choice, ‘continue with your contract or ensure the safety of your family’. She had to back out,” reveals a young Manipuri based in Imphal. “Over the years, things have sort of reached a balance. It is not possible to change the convoluted systems that are now the norm in Manipur. We are forced to leave the state in search of better opportunities.”
Therefore, there is a mass exodus. The youth are leaving their homes in search of any opportunity. A majority of the people living in the Imphal Valley leave the state to pursue higher education, while most of the hill tribes are the Northeasterners you see working in hotels, restaurants and shops in various metros. Some are even working in Israel to make ends meet.
In Manipur, wherever you turn, there is a long queue. Long lines of people can be seen at ATMs, petrol pumps, LPG agencies and government offices for jobs.
There is a need to change the conversation about Manipur. There is no doubt that the AFSPA is an issue and Sharmila has shown the way, taken a big leap, but like she herself admits, others — including the media — need to step up.
News crews and reporters from across the country flew to Imphal to cover Sharmila’s release and the subsequent rearrest. But not one stayed on to report on the state of affairs in Manipur. It is an active conflict zone where stories of murder, corruption, drug running and arms smuggling can be found in every street corner. So do tales of hope and the triumph of the human spirit.