By Shachi Gurumayum
“Give *us* the future, we’ve had enough of your past. Give us back our country, to live in, to grow in, to love.” – Michael Collins
It started with an article I chanced upon en route from Beirut to Dubai. Hoping to keep busy on the plane, I picked up an early edition of Gulf News, dated Saturday August 20th 2011, and flicking through the pages, I was surprised to find an article entitled, “Manipur activist has been on fast for 10 years” written by Thingnam Anjulika Samom. Manipuris around the world will immediately know on whom the article was based but, for those new to this subject, the “activist” is Irom Sharmila Chanu who has been fasting, and is being force-fed by the authorities, for 10 years campaigning for the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 “which gives India’s armed forces the power to arrest, search, and destroy property without warrant as well as shoot, and even kill, on mere suspicion”. To see an article as such to be so prominently presented, perhaps catalysed by the well-covered hunger strike of Gandhian Anna Hazare, in a Dubai based newspaper surprised me but it raised a few questions; why is the Act still in place, why is it so difficult for our state government to repeal an Act that is obviously condemned en masse in Manipur, and why is Sharmila so unimportant compared to Anna? Is it because Manipuris are insignificant at only 0.2% of the Indian population, or because we are so meek and unable to raise our voice against the majority, or because our MPs do not present enough strength in the Indian parliament, or because our elected leaders are so weak and fragmented that they cannot fight for what is good for Manipur?
I do not have the answers to any of the questions above however I do have a few stories to tell of my own, stories that highlight the mindset of our fellow citizens. I had only arrived at one of India’s top colleges when one of the teachers told me in the face that “you northeast students do not work hard” – only to later find quite a few NE students in the top five to 10 of their respective classes – and over a decade later, in London, introducing myself to a key Indian manager of a UK organization, I was asked “if you guys are still creating trouble and fighting for independence” – I was dumbfounded and did not want to risk the business relationship we were establishing to answer back tersely to such a comment. The third story is around getting married to a non-Indian in Manipur. Knowing that my fiancée would need a Restricted Area Permit, we applied for the permit in July for a wedding scheduled on Christmas day, a day we considered auspicious. Rather unsurprisingly, the permit was only issued a few days before the wedding after my father and I had literally camped in the corridors of the Manipur Secretariat building for a full week. And, after I had personally complained to the Chief Secretary, and sent a fax to the Home Secretary in Delhi that I was treated with more respect in a foreign country than my own country and asked them how they expected Manipuris to feel Indian when we were being treated as step-children. The treatment and support meted out by my own fellow Manipuri bureaucrats were no example setters either.
The above stories appear to only blame others however I believe we also ought to ask ourselves what we are doing wrong that is sending such messages. Why are we perceived as less hard working, as less culturally advanced, as politically weak and so forth? I saw Manipuri students in Delhi and elsewhere who were only too happy to waste their parents’ hard-earned money but a majority of my friends and contemporaries were diligent students who wanted to achieve success, peace and stability in life. A culture that developed its own language and script can by no means be any less advanced than the others in India. A state with tens of ethnic groups and dialects should, if anything, be a global anthropologist’s dream. Yet, why do we come across as weak and insecure? My feeling is that this is because we are a divided lot; we are too busy defending our individual identities that we have forgotten the higher goal of defending our state. There will always be those who question and fight for the loss of sovereignty of a kingdom that had never been dominated until the British empire came along, the creation of states in a union that divided ethnic groups into separate states and districts, and the subjugation of minorities within each of the states. But, in the context of today’s India, why could we not take a pragmatic approach and find a social and political solution that would strengthen us? Are we so weak that we cannot find strength in whatever little number we have?
As a student growing up in a Manipur ravaged by bandhs, strikes and violence, I wondered why our people could not sit down together and peacefully work out solutions to our problems. I would hear my father talk about the need for change and I would often retort back by asking him, then a fast rising engineer within the Public Works Department, what he was doing to do this. His answer was that he was changing the system from the inside in whatever way he could but that it was only limited to his sphere of influence, which I must say was rather limited. So, it came as no surprise to me that, a year or so ago, he declared that he and a few like-minded Manipuris were creating a party for the people of Manipur and for Manipur, above everything else. Until then, I had only known him as the Roorkee (IIT Roorkee now) educated, state-selection-exam topping, tough but fair, driven and ambitious engineer who wanted to make things happen, and happen quickly. Until then, I had known him as the ever eager engineer who collapsed of malaria purposefully touring the deep interiors of Tipaimukh and Jiribam, the father who competed with me to be the first one to get a doctorate by writing his thesis in his mid-fifties, and the husband who sacrificed a lot of family time by visiting every remotely located project as often as possible to ensure progress and delivery. And, the one who retired at the pinnacle of his career as the PWD Chief Engineer without the black spots of corruption normally associated with his line of work. To start a political party has been an inspirational move from my father and he truly is my hero! You may consider this article as promotional but I genuinely believe that Manipur needs change and that Manipur desperately needs good people at her service.
Having heard a lot of stories about how politicians in Manipur get elected, from spending crores of rupees to adopting every means possible to get elected, I was not sure if my father had the financial strength and popularity to win in such a ‘competitive’ landscape. Now, having had the luxury of time to ponder and consider the impact, I believe the time is right for Manipur to see a leader who is willing to take the risk of challenging the status quo, and one who is willing to shake, even if not entirely uproot, the tree so that the rotten fruits drop off. For how long can we Manipuris continue to live in such abject ignorance of the things that are happening around us? For how long can we bear the destruction of our motherland by a select few selfish power-hungry individuals? And, for how long can we tolerate the fact that, despite 60 plus years of being India, we seem to be so far behind the rest of the country? Why is it that no state-minded political party has had much success in the state? Why is it that we allow ourselves to be fooled with a few short-term sugar-coated development initiatives and charities whilst losing our long-term right to peace, success, employment for ourselves and our children, and continued prosperity of our state which God has blessed in so many ways? Why can we not elect a government that will govern rightly keeping the people of Manipur top of everything else?
Why can we not develop an outsourcing village with uninterrupted power and good infrastructure where large multinationals could set up bases thus creating jobs for our people? Why can we not set up a sustainable and highly productive agricultural system that will not only provide our basic staple crops but also surplus fruits and vegetables that could be exported? Why can we not securely maintain the two National Highways we have so that we cannot be made to dance at the whim of any self-obsessed organization that decides to blockade either one of the two? Why can we not have integration where Biharis, Kukis, Marwaris, Meiteis, Nagas, Nepalis, Pangals, and all the other ethnic groups think of Manipur at the same time they think of themselves? Why can we not establish a successful textile industry like Kashmiri carpets and shawls through our renowned muga weaving skills? Why, when we have the only floating national park in the world, can we not turn ourselves into a tourist and relaxation paradise for all those hard-working, exhausted, citizens in the big metropolitan cities of India? Being at the epicenter of a trade route between the fast rising eastern countries such as China and the rest of India, why can we not provide good infrastructure to act as a trading hub in the region? Why can we not achieve the same level of success as Singapore and why can’t we learn from them? Are we really so incapable? Why are our roads always full of potholes? Why are we so focused on banning Hindi movies instead of channeling our energy and resources on making Manipuri films, videos, songs, literature, and art better resourced and more present? Have we been so dumbed down through years of corruption and politicking? Why can’t all our elected members stand up in parliament and demand what is rightfully ours and what is good for us? Have we lost the entrepreneurial spirit that makes every Manipuri a fast learner and adapter wherever he or she goes? Have we lost the fighting spirit that produced such elegant martial art forms as Thang-Ta and Sarik-Sarak? What happened to the artistic and creative instincts that led to such beautiful and colourful art forms as the Meitei jagoi, Kabui and Naga dances, and so on? Are we Manipuris ready for change? Perhaps, I am asking the wrong questions, and I know he does not have all the answers but I surely will be continuing to ask these questions to my father, the engineer turned politician.
Shachi Gurumayum is the son of Dr. G. Tonsana Sharma, President of Manipur Democratic People’s Front that will make a political attempt to bring good governance to Manipur in the upcoming elections.