On Wednesday, January 6, a book on Manipur (not the Northeast, mind you), Mother, Where’s My Country? by journalist Anubha Bhonsle, had its launch ceremony at the India International Centre in New Delhi. Though you could drive to the venue only in cars with even number plates, the auditorium was jam-packed. So congested was it that many television news anchors (current and former) – minor celebrities in the inimitable South-Central Delhi ecosystem – had to stand through the event, while I sat. Also, there was no wine and cheese. Just coffee and cookies, and tea and pakodas.
On the panel discussing the book were Sanjoy Hazraika, journalist and academic, Ajai Shukla, Consulting Editor (Strategic Affairs), Business Standard and Gopal Krishna Pillai, former Union Home Secretary. Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai was the moderator.
The evening began with a strand of thought often discussed in IIC and the neighbouring IHC. After the ceremonial “unpacking” of the book, Sardesai kicked off the discussion lamenting how “everyone is becoming an author these days”. “Even Sunny Leone” Sardesai said, not once but three times, visibly exasperated by only-he-knows-what. The audience laughed awkwardly and reluctantly. Fascinatingly, Leone’s and Sardesai’s upcoming books have the same publisher, Juggernaut. Even more fascinatingly: Sardesai’s next book is apparently about the “idea of India”. Is it just me or does a book where a pornstar-turned-Bollywood-actress’ might share some insights about her life journey sound far more interesting?
After a few customary references to the “tyranny of distance” and Narendra Modi by Sardesai, the panel got around to discussing that question no one seems to quite have the answer for: what has gone so horribly wrong with Manipur? Is it a case of an absentee state or an oppressive state? Or both? Pillai, who one would assume was there to present the state’s side of the story, said the political apathy was a result of the state not being electorally important. “Also, there’s an acute lack of understanding of the history of the state. Manipur was an old kingdom and to suddenly undermine all of that history was never going to work out,” said Pillai.
Shukla, who has served in the forces in Manipur in his previous avatar, began with a story about how there was no book about the state he could refer to when posted there as a young Captain and thanked the Anubha Bhonsle for having written one. Shukla contended that at the heart of the problem was the Indian state’s failure to recognise that borders are important. “The British understood the importance of borders, unlike the Indian government.” Shukla said that the highly-contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Acts (AFSPA) could go if “New Delhi really sets its head down”. “We’ve solved more complex problems,” he said. Speaking about the Army operating without AFSPA in Manipur, Shukla, quoting personal experience, said it was definitely possible. “Can the Army work without APSFA? It surely can. Should it? That’s a political call.”
The AFSPA – and this is a fairly simple law to understand – grants the Army 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” on “reasonable suspicion” a person who has committed or even “about to commit a cognisable offence. The AFSPA lets even a non-commissioned officer “shoot to kill” based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so to “maintain the public order”.
Hazarika, a longtime detractor of the AFSPA and who has to his credit some of the most insightful journalistic work on the Northeast, minced no words in asserting that this law had no place in a democracy. Responding to a question by Sardesai on whether a sense of “victimhood” among people in Manipur was aggravating the situation, Hazarika said people were trying to engage – and there, was amidst all the gloom, still hope.
Pillai, predictably, was circumspect in taking a position. “I think it is important to understand that the situation on the ground is still quite volatile. The Army’s line is that if you want us to operate, we need some sort of protection,” he said.
The author, Bhonsle, said that the only guiding light while writing the book was the “truth”. “It is not anti-national to question the Army.” So, does she think AFSPA has any place in a democracy? “I think AFSPA is one of the most draconian laws. I have tried not to be judgmental in the book.” Bhonsle, however, maintained that the realities are far more complex – and there’s more to the Manipur’s problems than just AFSPA.
Why is Manipur what it is today? “I think there is a great ethnic divide and a general apathy. Someone in Manipur once told me that concerns from the mainland come in EMIs.”
Editor of the Imphal Free Press Pradip Phanjoubam (don’t understand why he wasn’t on the panel or moderating it for that matter, since he is a voice from the state and still lives there) affirmed that there is hope but it would take time for things to get any better. “I think people have to understand the past is the past – not saying one should forget the past – but we as a community should start working towards a better future. Is there any halfway with the AFSPA? Like, say, not repealing it but lifting it? “No, there isn’t. It just has to go. “Does the Indian Army carry the AFSPA along with it when it goes on peacekeeping missions to other countries ridden with conflict?” He was the only one who put a substantial part of the burden of returning to normalcy on the people of Manipur and not only the central government or Army.
Hazarika, who was part of the Justice Jeeven Reddy Committee that recommended the repealing of the AFSPA in 2005, recounted a story: It was late in the day. The committee had had a long day, when two women stepped in, one young woman and another much older. They told us about how a young man from their family had gone out fishing to never come back. We recorded all the details and thanked them. The two women were on their way back when the old woman suddenly turned back. “No mother should ever go through what I have gone through,” she thundered, jolting us all.
If the state can ensure that, hope will return to Manipur’s lush green plains and blue hills. Hope, after all, can set most things right.