By Pradip Phanjoubam
For political observers who wish to know more of Manipur and its complex maze of interrelated issues, often not complementary to each other, new encouraging vantages are now available for them. This is especially so for those who by the compulsions of their services land up in the state and are expected to size up the myriad issues this besieged state is confronted with. But there is also much for those already familiar with the place to take away in terms of fresh and different perspectives to problems they have known, many of which have remained either unarticulated or inadequately so.
I refer here to two recent books on Manipur and the Northeast by two wellknown TV journalists – Anubha Bhonsle`s “Mother Where is My Country: Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur” (Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd. 2016) and Kishalay Bhattarjee`s Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters (HarperCollins Publishers India, 2015). There are two more books waiting to be released, advanced copies of which are already available with the author The Northeast Question: Conflicts and frontiers (Routledge 2016) which is a study of the evolution of the idea of the geographical, political and cultural entity we know today collectively as Northeast, and the other a coffee table brought out in partnership with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, INTACH, Shadow and Light: A Kaleidoscope of Manipur (Hachette India 2016), both of which I have read several times and in minute details, but cannot be part of this review, precisely because I am their author. Hopefully, when they do hit the market in the next few weeks, there will be others who think they are worthwhile to be reviewed. In the meantime, watch your book local stores as online book sellers for their arrival.
Mother Where’s My Country
Of the two earlier named books, Anubha Bhonsle`s Mother Where is My Country… is creating the bigger splash in the market. It has already made it to the list of top 10 bestselling books released in India in January, in the non-fiction category. Not surprisingly too, for the book comes across as an impassioned portrayal of a forgotten corner of the country, therefore likely to strike a note of concern and empathy in the hearts of the average Indian readers. The reason the book is able to evoke these sentiments is in a way a contagion, for the author herself exudes with them in her treatment of the subject. It is a story told with both the mind and heart, and as often the case with this kind of storytelling, the narrative tends to meander its way delightfully between prose and poetry. I will be dishonest if I said I finished reading the 250 page book in one sitting, but I did do it in three days. But if it was during a leisurely holiday journey for instance, I probably would have finished it in one. It is one of those books. It provokes but also milks empathy.
The author shows no urgency to sermonise. She instead allows the intended moral landscape to emerge out of the narrative as if by what Eliot called the “third voice of poetry”. In this case, it this would be akin to a voice of conscience that results out of a dialectics between the outlooks to life of the characters in the book, the author’s own voiceovers and the reader’s engagements with the ideas as they come along. The overall picture that becomes progressively clear as the reader come to the end of the book, is one of a badly wounded civilisation, licking its wounds, trying to heal itself and move on. It conjures up the evocative image of what the author’s well known colleague, Rajdeep Sardesai, once described how Manipur struck him as – a tortured beauty.
The opening chapter “Sorrow is Better Than Fear” sets the tone of what would follow. It tells of two rape victims, morally devastated, who retreat into themselves to overcome and mourn their immense losses, but are not resigned. The story ostensibly is built out of interviews with these victims, but identities of the two women are kept anonymous for obvious reasons, and this in strangely shadowy way, gives the story a touch of eeriness. They move around like ghosts, watching the world outside, detached and distant like outcastes, from their self-exile in a soulless world inhabited only by other unfortunate fugitives like themselves. The brutal and traumatic loss of innocence is their purgatory. It is life in limbo for them, and each day is a tragic struggle against despair. Suicide is an option but they do not recourse to it. They prefer sorrow as their road to redemption. Their personal battle to save themselves from complete spiritual sterility thus becomes their heroism, and indeed on the larger canvas, the heroism of many more in the twilight zone of Manipur.
This inherent sense of tragedy and triumph in extreme adversity is what you encounter in practically every chapter, and this tension borders the sublime in the portraiture of Irom Sharmila, the lady with the iron will, taking on the establishment singlehandedly in her demand for the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958. She comes across as a person with an indomitable will even when confronted with the prospect of shouldering an impossible mission, and by this awesome quality, pushed on to a public pedestal. The author also discovers Sharmila is a very private person, with human frailties as any ordinary woman, pleading for her private life to be respected. In the agonising pulls of her public and private personas, her sense of responsibility to her cause, compels her to choose the former.
As in the author’s portraiture of Sharmila, the broad picture of Manipur that emerges at the end of her book is also an intimate one. It is not a picture that comes out of linear and objective reportage of issues that confront the place, but one that results almost naturally out of a sensual treat of the sights and sounds and smells of the state, therefore much more complete and nuanced. You get to know for instance how Imphal city wakes up, how it retires. You get a sense of the oppression of (draconian) laws as in the chapter “Three Anniversaries”, the uneasy insecurity of near complete absence of the law as in the chapter “I Want to Die a Naga”, of youth frustration in “Escape to Delhi” and so on. This certainly is a book which, apart from being a delightful reading, is also one from which policy makers can take plenty away from.
Blood on My Hands
In Anubha’s “Mother Where is my Country” there is a chapter “Everybody Loves a Good Insurgency”. Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s book “Blood on My Hands” is almost a zoomed-in picture of this scenario. This book is hard hitting and the author fights with gloves removed. Sometimes though you cannot help feeling some punches have been delivered low, but almost hear the author hiss between his teeth, “take that, everything is fair in love and war”. Indeed, the subject of the book is how in the ruthless war of counterinsurgency in the Northeast, Kashmir and in the Maoist belt in Central India, criminal brutality has come to be rationalised as fair war strategy. It should not surprise anyone that reportage of such wars too would have borrowed some from the same skewed logic.
The book seldom names sources, although all that are in print are supposed to be straight out confessions of Army and police officers, of the inside stories of their organisation, and how there exist in them very sinister policies of fake encounter killing. This is so even while making the most damaging charges of broad daylight mass murders against those discharging counterinsurgency responsibilities, sometimes making the reader doubt if the incidents described are not mere rehashed hearsay.
But then the security forces, or the government establishment, usually very sensitive about such allegations, even in nuanced references and hints, have seemingly not dared complain, much less legally challenge the author. It is therefore reasonable to presume this is because of their foreknowledge that the author is privy to hard proofs of these allegedly widespread crimes, therefore the conclusion that silence is the best policy on the matter. The idea again presumably is to let time take care of the guilt of these unspeakable officially sponsored murders, and leave it to the clichéd brevity of public memory for them all to become irrelevant and forgotten.
Kishalay cites the reasons why these custodial extra judicial executions by the state forces are so rampant. Nowhere is this more dramatically spelled out than in the first chapter of the book titled “Manhunt”. An episode in this recounts how a young army officer in Assam, not long after the Bhutan operation by the Royal Bhutan Army with the assistance of the Indian Army, to flush out Indian militants who have made Bhutan’s south province their safe haven, rushing into a police officer’s office to seek a loan as his balance was depleted. The latter agrees to transfer some from his account by the next day though his own account was also rather low. The shock that follows is inevitable even if the reader sensed the suspense was headed for one. The negotiation had nothing to do with money. The army officer was asking for the loan of a prisoner he could kill in a staged encounter so as to boost up his field performance index, and thus clear up his career promotion routes.
The author says these sinister transactions are common, and indeed many people in insurgency torn states like Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, brutalised under the oppressive AFSPA, would vouch so too. It is not a wonder then that every time I travel air from Imphal, chances have been I would find some passenger or the other glued to the pages of this book.
The book also has accounts of many established fake encounter cases. This includes quite prominently, the July 23, 2009 broad daylight gunning down of a former insurgent after capture on Imphal’s busy B.T. Road. Although this case has been widely reported in the local as well as in the national media, triggered by an expose in the Tehelka weekly, the blow by blow account in the book still commands outrage, and therefore reader attention too.
Kishalay’s many ground zero TV reports from conflict epicentres everywhere in the country, in particular the Northeast is well known. The book in many ways is a collection of his experiences while on duty which went unreported on the TV because they were too gruesome or hurtful to be broadcast. It obviously would have taken him much courage to decide to compile them into this fascinating book. Researchers into the incessant violent insurrections in the Northeast ought to be thankful he decided so.