By Colonel I S Chanam, Retd
The year was 1995-6. Congress Govt was in power. During my friendship with some ministers and MLAs, I had occasions to visit them in their govt quarters and the state guest house at Sanjenthong where some law maker colleagues were putting up. During some of these visits, I chanced to notice several new brands of whisky. A number of people seeking favours were gifting to the law makers, attractive gifts including high end brand whisky. It was my new knowledge of the varieties of whisky, not learnt in my past years of central service. One whisky was green in colour, name forgotten. Taste, well, was not the issue. Cost and the brand were the criteria of status and prestige.
Having been invited to a number of drinking parties and some dinners, it was now my turn to invite them to my house. I wanted also, to showcase my wife’s culinary skills, picked up from different communities and places, during our central service at different places in India.
During my entire service, I stayed either in govt quarters or under tents, and some months in a year, in underground bunkers. After retirement I stayed in my father’s old house in which I grew up. A wood framed, tin roofed house. No brick-wall. Bullets fired from rifles from the road outside could pierce through the walls.
Chanam Pukhri (a large pond located at Chinga Makha, Liwa Road) was dug during Maharaja Chandra Kirti’s time on a piece of land donated by my great-great grandfather, Chanamba Penakhongba (Chanam Babuhanjaba), a legendary maestro of Pena ( a Manipuri string instrument). The earth dug up and scattered around the area while creating the pond, made the surrounding areas of the pond higher. During the big floods in 1960s, flood water spared this area due to its higher level. The higher ground provides advantageous weapon firing positions, too. Our house is located on the western side of the pond, on a lower level, a bit safer from stray bullets from the road outside, either from non-state gunners or security forces.
The invitees to the dinner in my house that day were a mix of some ministers, MLAS, a senior police officer, a commandant of an Assam Rifles battalion, a few retired army officers and some civil govt officers. The state of insurgency then was high. Lt General VK Nayyar, PVSM, AVSM, Retd, was the Governor. Police patrolling was intense. Since the commandant was coming out during night time, that too, not on a military duty, I suggested to bring along adequate security personnel to ensure no untoward incident occurred.
One by one the invitees arrived. Drinks of many popular brands available in army CSD canteen were laid out. Soda, ice and snacks were kept within easy reach. It generally takes two drinks (pegs) to warm up for a party of this type. For a non-drinker, a party is a drag till dinner is served unless some captivating ladies keep the party enthralled.
After the party started warming up I went outside to brief the weapon wielding soldiers. Assam rifles soldiers were asked to cover the leiraks (small village roads) leading up to the eastern and the western sides of Chanam Pukhri from Burma Road side. Manipur Rifle soldiers who came as security for the law makers and the senior police officer were asked to cover the approaches from Kongkham leirak on the north and Heirangoithong side in the south. West of the house is all houses closely built next to each other and there is no approach road and hence, no threat.
While briefing the soldiers I shared an information with them. Till this date I continue to wonder the effect of this information on the minds of the soldiers. I told them that ’the leiraks on the east and the west of Chanam Pukhri were sometimes used by armed insurgents during night time’.
Inside the house the party was progressing well. My wife was busy refilling the bowls of snacks. I got busy topping up the glasses of my respected guests. It went on till around 11 pm when a buffet dinner was laid out. Dinner started. Some guests still continued drinking. Food was a great success as per the compliments from the guests.
Suddenly a sound of explosion was heard as coming from Singjamei bazaar side. Local people are accustomed to such sounds. We halted eating, trying to decide as to from which side the explosion sound came; was it a real bomb or a cracker? However, within that moment, our house was engulfed by a continuous rattle of rifle bullets. Almost everyone dived under the dining table, under the beds, on the floor or at any empty space.
At army parties, ladies are requested to lead while taking food, the gents follow after all ladies have filled up their plates. However, on this day the gents led in diving onto the floor on hearing the gun shots and urged the ladies to follow suit.
I rushed outside to take care of the soldiers. I found the commandant following me. My concern was for the soldiers. I apprehended there might have been a clash between the soldiers and local insurgents. I rushed to the different positions where the soldiers were taking lying positions, to check if any one of them was injured. A little later when no movement was visible, we gathered the soldiers to ascertain the cause of the fireworks. Nearly 60 soldiers were there. Except a few Manipur Rifles soldiers who were at the back of the house, the remaining soldiers fired their weapons. Hence the intensity of rifle shots and the resulting panic felt inside the house, where the party was at its near climax.
The winding up of dinner party at army houses is characterized by the host couple standing at the entrance gate of the house and bidding ‘good night’ to the departing guests. On this occasion however, by the time I and the commandant returned after checking the troops, the guests had all left. The pudding remained untouched. The paan for distribution after the meal,remained lying on the table. Later, on subsequent days, my guests told me they were not in a fit condition to bid ’good night’ and had to disappear hurriedly as their clothes were all smeared with food from the plates dropped by the guests when they dived and crawled on the floor in panic, below tables, chairs, beds….
From next morning newspaper it was learnt that some insurgents had lobbed a grenade to the jeep of Singjamei police OC while passing near Singjamei bridge the previous night.. The grenade missed the target. The sound of this grenade explosion coming from Singjamei side triggered off the volley of rifle shots during that dinner party. During night time, the source of explosion appeared to be very close, though it was nearly two miles away. Luckily no one was injured.