Decoding Highway 39

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By Chitra Ahanthem
Sudeep Chakravarti’s ‘Highway 39: journeys through a fractured land’ published by Harper Collins (388 pages, Rs 450) was a much anticipated book after his earlier ‘Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country’. Sudeep’s style of narrative based on his travel and interactions with various stakeholders in the Maoist issue that marked Red Sun is used to put together ‘Highway 39’ that details his travel into contested spaces and issues in Manipur and Nagaland. The title alludes to the 436 kilometres stretch of the National Highway (now renamed) from NUmaligarh in Assam to Moreh in Manipur at the border with Myanmar.

Blame it on the complexities AND contradictions of the region for Sudeep’s attempt to ‘bring more stories out of the confines of the North East’ so that ‘people would understand more, misunderstand less’ fails on both counts with regard to the content on Manipur. In the first place, most of the stories detailed from Manipur have been told numerous times. Secondly, the author’s efforts of making other people to understand the region, its people and issues must follow his understanding which is unfortunately limited to what is told to him by his St Stephen Alumi or Delhi University links and the people his friends connect him to. Besides the Delhi related circle, Sudeep does talk with bureaucrats, Army officials and Human Rights activists who run NGOs to get more perspective. The author talks to the family of Sanjit (whose death in a fake encounter was captured on camera) and Rabina (who died in the shoot out leading to Sanjit’s fake encounter) and his lack of briefing on the incident shows when he puts it down that he had not seen any mention of Rabina’s two and a half year son, Russel being with his mother when she was shot. Background reading would have led to photographs of Russel being cared for by women vendors and accounts of the incident mentioning the presence of the child.

A chapter titled ‘The day ‘Caman-do- took away a little girl and other stories’ tells the story of Bidyarani, a class VIth student who was picked up by state security forces so that her parents alleged to have links with an underground group, would surrender. Read in between the lines and the chapter tells you exactly how NGOs and human rights groups operate in the state in their zeal to expose the government: without much concern for people who have undergone the trauma that they as human rights groups take upon themselves to expose.

The book redeems itself in part with its focus on the Naga issue and the author’s probing into the minds and thoughts of people in Nagaland. He succeeds in bringing together various groups, throwing in his analysis and questioning and in one interview with a leader of a breakaway group from the NSCN (IM) who later joins the rival NSCN (Khaplang) faction manages to get him to examine with startling honesty the quagmire of the Nagalim cause vis a vis the Government of India on one side, the Meities opposed to the idea of Nagalim since it clashes with their own territorial boundaries, on one side and different Naga factional groups, each claiming moral authority of the cause as a third party.

Sudeep’s writing bristles with anger (mainly in Manipur!) but also throws in dry wit. His thoughts and descriptions of the Tourism gambit for the state are hilarious and full of irony. Making a note of the glossy photographs and good print material of brochures produced by the Tourism Department, he asks why “these hapless promoters of tourism say that NH 53 ‘links Imphal’ with the ‘railhead at Jiribam 225 km in the southwest without telling us we would require the service of a chiropractor; that the journey takes one day in good times; three days if it rains and cannot be completed if it rains hard?” The chapters on Manipur certainly has interesting chapter names but are filled with spelling mistakes of names of people and places. In his interactions with various stakeholders, the probing is missing. The ‘what if’ question over Nagalim could have well been lobbed to the people he talked to in Imphal: what if Manipur secedes from India? The how it would work out would have been fascinating given the assorted range of Meitei based underground groups. No rebel leaders (of Meitei armed groups) are interviewed but again it’s understandable: just too many groups and too many factions. But having the question unaddressed by civil society representatives leaves a gaping hole in the narrative.

Manipur’s theatre of conflict is a triangle of complexities between three major ethnic communities: the Meiteis, the Naga and the Kukis. Sudeep admits that his inability to give space to the multi ethnic aspirations of different groups in the state but the argument falls flat for his chapter on traveling into Moreh gives him the context of bringing in the Kukis to the picture. The alleged killing of a 21 year Kuki youth at Bongjang village under Moreh Police Station in 1992 by suspected armed Nagas in the backdrop of Naga millitants collecting ‘house tax’ from four Kuki inhabitated hill districts of Manipur sowed the seeds for the most violent ethnic clash that left both Kukis and Nagas killed and scarred. It eventually led to the armed Kuki struggle. The chapter on Moreh mentions that a Naga will not travel into Moreh, a Kuki area but does not mention this major incident and how it triggered off ethnic armed conflict.

End-point:

While there is definitely a dearth of non-academic books on Manipur, ‘Highway 39: journeys through a fractured land’ will be disappointing overall for people looking at understanding Manipur. The overt pricing does not help though the book jacket colour and design makes up for the lack of joy in contents. With a name like ‘Highway 39: journeys through a fractured land’; one can only imagine how the narrative of the drivers on the highway would have shaped up with their stories of hold ups, of being caught in blockades and illegal taxation by both state and non state forces and their take on conflict in the region.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am sure they have changed the name to NH2. That cost Manipuris 80 crore. They are never going to build it. Watch out for a new book from Doctor Malem N Meitei. It completely turns on its head stories about Irom Sharmila. I look forward to a review as I think I’ll give this one a pass.

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