The Manipur Tourism Festival 2010 is underway. By Manipur standards, these festivals, especially in the past few years, are extremely popular, drawing huge crowds all through their span of a week to a fortnight. For a couple of years, the festival even had food and jewellery stalls from Thailand, all of which proved to be big hits with the crowd. This year this feature is missing for whatever the reason. Still, judging by the number of visitors each day of the festival and the countenances on the faces of the visitors, the show is still a very big hit and many of the stalls, in particular those at the food court, would be doing very brisk businesses. But the irony of the situation would become obvious to any serious observer. This is a tourism festival without tourists, reducing it virtually to an in-house affair of Manipur, with each of its districts showcasing the cultures of the communities living within their boundaries, for the benefit of the other districts – as if these districts were strangers to each other all the while. The tourism festival, it may ultimately turn out, is an apt metaphor for the tourism industry that the state government visualises for itself, or should we say condemned to be content with. An industry which would depend largely, if not solely, on inter-district travels, college excursions, picnics etc.
This is not a criticism of the state government’s initiative though, for truly its initiatives are circumscribed within lines it is strictly forbidden to cross. Literally speaking, these lines come in the shape of extreme and paranoiac legislations such as the Restricted Area Permit and the Protected Area Permit, which inhibit foreign visitors entering the state considerably. In a nutshell, foreigners intending to visit Manipur and other North Eastern states would have to first get special permissions (or a second visa should we say) from the Union home ministry. These permits are also not always forthcoming as those of us in the media who know of colleagues from abroad who ended up tearing their hair in frustration and giving up on their assignments because they were unable to obtain these permits in time, can testify. Compare this to a country like Thailand where foreign visitors can acquire their visas upon arrival at the Bangkok airport.
The abiding logic behind these legislations is the mythical mischievous foreign hand which is supposed to be always looming in the horizon to instigate insurrection in the Northeast. Even if the presumption that foreigners are here to create mischief only were to be allowed to go without a protest, how can the other related presumption that the people of the Northeast are gullible and are ever willing to be spoiled by foreigners not be insulting for the North Easterner? However, leave aside the racially prejudicial elements evident in these restrictive Acts, for what is immediately relevant here is, the tourism industry in Manipur and indeed the rest of the Northeast can never be meaningful, or at least never be able to achieve its full potential as long as these Acts continue to be the instrument by which Big Brother keeps its penetrating glare on the state as well as its visitors. There have been much made out of China’s reported policy of keeping provinces such as Tibet under wraps, prohibiting foreign media from reporting the situation in it, but the question is, how much better is India’s policy towards the Northeast, defined by laws such as the PAP?
This is a plea for the Union government to reconsider the continuance of the PAP. In our opinion, this is even more insulting than the much more publicised, Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA. A policy of openness and trust must predicate any effort to bridge the psychological gulf between the Northeast and the rest of India. In this sense, the PAP inhibits not just tourists from visiting the Northeast, but also all efforts to bring the Northeast psychologically closer to the rest of India. Every action, Newton Third Law of Inertia said, has an equal and opposite reaction. What we are witnessing in this curious political situation, marked by a dismal lack of trust, may be the application of this same law in a radically different world of human psychology. Trust, as in Newton’s law of motion in space, is also very much a reciprocal affair. The Union government has steadfastly refused to repeal the AFSPA. It should at least, in a unilateral show of trust, repeal the PAP and wait to see what magic this infusion of trust can bring.