June 28, 2014 saw the concluding function of the three month long commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Imphal (1944 during the Second World War). Making their presence felt in Imphal for various memorials during the course of the commemoration were Government representatives, war veterans and family members who came to pay their respect to the remains of those who lost their lives far away from their homes. In almost every event, the unanimous voice being raised was the futility of war and how it wasted the lives of young men leaving behind women and children and how peace and reconciliation would be the way forward to the future. It may be noted that the Battle of Imphal along with the Battle of Kohima have together been pegged as the most decisive battle during the Second World War. People from big nations came to this corner of the world to fight it out and suffered the vagaries of weather, an alien culture and topography, disease and illness while the people of Manipur were uprooted from the familiarity of their lives and forced to go into hiding to save their lives. It has taken seventy years for various agencies including the State Government to get talking about the significance of Manipur in the context of the Second World War but the remains of the last big war does look like it might herald to be a huge draw for the tourism industry. The Government on its part will also benefit from the aid to develop battle related sites.
The irony of course is the other silent war that the Government does not want to address: the shadow of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that has been responsible for militarizing the region. Over the years following the imposition of the Act in different parts of the region, there have been unaccounted deaths, forced disappearances, arbitrary killings, wrongful detentions, rape without any recourse for legal mechanisms to bring personnel of the Armed Forces to justice. In Manipur, parallel to the after effects of the AFSPA, the incidence and phenomenon of extra judicial killings point to a war like condition in terms of the loss of lives and the trauma they have left behind. Surely, talks of peace and reconciliation should encompass the loss of lives because of AFSPA and fake encounter killings and not be just lip service that comes wrapped in the soft cocoon of the distant Second World War. If different nations can talk of reconciliation, there is no reason for the people of one country, India to make serious efforts towards peace and to remove military presence.
The fault-line in talking about the horrors of war while keeping silent of the rumble in our own backyards not only smacks of sheer hypocrisy, but is bad business sense. Developing Second World War sites with an eye on bringing tourists and generating revenue for the state and profits for private agencies is important but for this to be possible, the Government will also have to do some serious thinking on giving the message that Manipur is a safe place for tourists to come to. The only message that rising trends in terms of statistics be it in terms of killings or bomb blasts can give is that the state is not safe for visitors. Currently, there are travel advisories given out to citizens of certain countries not to step foot in the North East region, including Jammu and Kashmir. Not surprisingly, these parts of the country are where the AFSPA is being imposed and are states that are being described as ‘disturbed’.
The Government will have to decide what its approach is to be if it is really serious when it makes noises about peace and development. It is easy to make a point or a speech with the spin that development will bring peace, but for people who will head to Manipur to retrace the routes and places that their ancestors took during the Second World War, they will first look at the existential question of whether they can indeed come all the way here. And until the violence that has come to signify Manipur takes a backseat, the impression they will get is that the war is still on. A war they certainly would not want to be caught in, an insidious war in which the state is pitted against its citizens.