By Chitra Ahanthem
There’s been a long gap with FOOTNOTES: one week saw me headed to Moreh for a documentation of how children in the state are affected by armed conflict while the remaining two Sundays went into a total power black out phase. But so much happened in between the three Sundays that one can only try and bring in some bits and pieces in this column today.
First though, the Moreh experience: the journey till the border town was a marked contrast to earlier trips. This was mainly due to the absence of various well meaning people who would take “tax” starting from Bongjang till the Moreh “Welcome” gate. The roads leading to the town were much better or in the process of getting better and there was even a small internet café in the town area. But there was one area that has stayed the same through all this time: the total disrespectful and uncivil attitude of the army personnel at Bongjang post.
For all the road hoardings of “Friends of the people of the North East” (which, incidentally changed from its “Friends of the hill people” which was much criticized) and the various Press Relations (PR) initiatives taken out by the Assam Riffles, certain elements still go out of its way to intimidate people in whichever way they can. The behaviour of personnel of the 42 Assam Riffles at Bongjang post was a perfect example of a needless exercise of showing just who was boss. They made everyone alight down from their vehicles to check vehicles and their contents (which is standard procedure). But instead of making the people stay near the vehicles or in the spacious community ground just opposite to the security post, they made every single passenger walk for about half a kilometer. When I asked which security procedure it was and whether there was any specific reason for asking passengers to walk ahead of their post instead of staying near the vehicle, they waved their guns casually and said, “Chalne ke liye bola tha, toh challo” (we asked you to walk, so walk). I could have shown my press card and argued with their person in charge. But I chose not to do anything: not because I was afraid or did not want to raise a scene but because I wanted to see for myself how the dynamics went. Talking to other passengers walking on the stretch of road and some van drivers I was told that even in rainy season, the security personnel would insist on people walking in the rain!
Rather than invest in spending money on road side hoardings that proclaim friendship, one can suggest a better people effective measure for the Assam Riffles: Please make lessons in manners and courtesy mandatory. Secondly, spend a bit on making a sitting or waiting shed so passengers can sit while their vehicles and belongings are being checked. But this is not to say every other check post was the same, just that this one was in total contrast to what the Assam Riffles claim. This experience rankled to the extent that the friendly attitude yet going about their duty at the same time that happened in other check points later could not make up for it. The same kind of behaviour happened on the return journey too: there were no issues at other security check posts of the Assam Riffles, only the too ready to be bristled attitude at Bongjan post.
April 2, 2011 would see India winning the world cup but that day was quite memorable in a different perspective altogether. Two Assistant Sub-Inspectors (who were definitely younger than me) came over to my house asking about a complaint that I had lodged with the National Committee for Protection of Child Rights. An earlier piece of FOOTNOTES was devoted to how some people in Moirang were about to hold a “Manipur Barbie Queen contest” for girls below 12 years. When there were no reactions forthcoming from the State Social Welfare Department or even the vocal NGOs working for Child rights, I had sent in a photograph of the advertisement for the “contest” to the National Commission by e-mail. They responded by e-mail saying they had received the complaint and would look into it. About 15 days later, a registered letter came in saying that investigations were being done but there was no further information till the two ASIs came to meet me. It turned out that the National Commission had written to the Deputy Commissioner of Imphal West, which was then taken up by the Police Department. They took details of the contest from the photograph of the advertisement and went off saying they would keep me informed.
I still do not know whether the contest was held or where the investigations are headed. But the reactions of some people around me to my complaint are worth sharing with my readers: they told me, “Why bother with this? If you say a beauty contest is wrong and violates child rights, what about the “Chitrahaar” dance and competition?” This actually tells a lot on our reactions to what happens around us: our tendency to split hair and judge which incident or thing is more serious than the other. It no longer becomes a “what I see now is wrong, let me do something about it” but “why bother with this wrong since there are other wrongs happening?”
End-point:But the answer to the earlier question is that “Chitrahaar” competitions are much into the realm of entertainment on the lines of talent while a beauty contest is a much scrutinized process of judging a child’s beauty (however does one begin to judge a child’s beauty? What vital statistics would be the standard critera? er?). And a beauty contest for girls under12 with Barbie, the anorexic model as brand ambassador? Certainly not right at all! Certainly not right when there are countless children whose lives have been changed by the cycle of violence around them.