As a boy who grew up in Manipur in the 1990s, living in gruesomeness had become a way of life. When I tell stories about those days I feel that telling stories constitutes an act of resistance, an act that reaffirms our existence. Why it is essential to tell these stories is because the stories of the dominating population of this nation are the dominating stories, and the perpetuation of those stories constitutes an act of domination.
It is possible for the people of the “frontier” to not have any interest in what the Indian state does, but it is not possible to be left unaffected by it. There is the distribution of power and the operation of it at every village and town of the state of Manipur and the people at the receiving end of that power. What is datum obvious is that the military establishment with the blessings showered upon them by a constitutional act called Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958 has found it necessary to rely on the continuous and systematic repression of all manifestation of opposition, howsoever weak and negligible, for the legitimation of its presence.
Manipur is one of the few states that is under the permanent watch of AFSPA, 1958. It is an act that is old as the Indian nation. What is apparent is the fact that judges at the top rung – from the Supreme Court to High Court – have not failed to be deeply affected by the very ideology of a state that goes tightly hand in hand with the acts performed by its military apparatus at this frontier geopolitical space. The final seat of decision lies outside of the people, and when the location of the power of decision does not lie in the inside there can only be an illusion of choice, to be more precise, an illusion created by a “democracy.”
The Manipuris became the subjects dominated by powers that be which constantly seek to know them and what is “good” for them, rather than what the subjects could possibly know about themselves. The Government of India in governing the “Northeast” in general and Manipur in particular implicitly or explicitly also devise ways of governing the entire population, wherein it unleashes a set of “acts,” often violent ones, leaving consequences into the whole social beings. It is as if a country that has achieved feats in the scientific field and spacecraft capable of accomplishing a mission to Mars has failed to extend its democratic principles and institutions in Manipur.
We live in a society where the task of traffic control is done by armed forces with loaded rifles and AK-47s, where there is no distinction between the role of the military and the police; a society where you visit a university for the first time only to be greeted by military bullet-proof vehicles at the entrance and inside, a university that houses the army. If the military represents the startling manifestation of a concrete ideology, the mere existence of a population without which the military institution becomes lifeless represents an ideological orientation that is oppositional and counteractive.
I believe that it is only those who are oppressed that understand the oppressive realities of an oppressive society, that these people represent the clear force which will ultimately recognize the necessity to fight for a dignified life, that telling stories is one way of becoming an active subject. Telling these stories comes with positioning the self as a Manipuri; in doing so the self claims a historical and political set of experiences.
These are personal experiences of growing up in a militarized zone. They all happened to me when I was a little boy of around 9 or 10. At this point in time, our village had an army camp just next to the village playground.
The last conversation
It was a hot and sunny afternoon. The sun was just above our heads. Me and my friends were coming back home after a cricket match at a village nearby (Nongada, the dream capital of the revolutionary Communist Hijam Irabot of his peasant socialist republic). On the roadside of the Imphal-Ukhrul national highway (NH-150), the road that connects us to Nongada, some soldiers of Indian armed forces were sitting under the trees taking rest. Every boy who grew up during these days knows how much the military “loved” them. As we passed through the line of soldiers some of them called and asked us to join them. We agreed and our group was split into three or four, each joining a different group of soldiers. I was with a friend whose father happened to be in the Indian Army, a Subedar Major, now retired. As we started getting into the conversation the soldiers made efforts to make us understand what they were saying as we didn’t know the Hindi language. During the entire interaction, the soldiers gave special attention to my other friend. Maybe it was because his father served in the Indian Army, also may be that they found him more “Indian” than me. We were tired and hungry and by chance, they offered us some food. It was chapati and dal. The chapatis were real big and thick. After the food, we sat for a while talking. I don’t remember what all things we talked of. After a while, we decided to leave as it was getting late. We were all just starting to walk when a friend, who was alone with a soldier the entire time, said to us that the soldier made him give him a handjob. I was overcome by sheer disgust, accompanied by deep fear and we all started walking faster. We could run as fast as we could but we didn’t. I don’t know why we didn’t. That day was the last day I ever sat with any army patrolling group. Before this happened I had been into this kind of interaction with the Indian armed force, sharing chapatis and all.
This highway (NH-150) still has the presence of army patrol every few kilometers. They seem to tell me something always – be disciplined or you will be disciplined, do only what they want you to do or you be shot or “encountered” or “disappeared.” Last summer, when I went back home after four years of stay at the capital of this nation this ubiquitous army patrol gave a sudden violent shock to my sensibilities. It was not that I failed to see them before; I had now become conscious of their presence, had become fearful of them more than ever. To the people of Manipur, these army patrols are as normal as the air they breathe: the normalization of an abnormal presence.
The combing operation
It was one early morning. A combing operation which started early in the morning before sunrise was announced when everyone in the village was in their beds. We all ran in panic into the house, especially my mother. The first thing she did was to run to her almirah, opened it and hid all her jewelry inside the pocket of her petticoat. She said the army would take all of them away if they found them while ransacking the house. Dad left us as all the men of the village were to be taken to the village ground to be lined up for verification. I, my brother and sister and Mom stood at the courtyard while the army went inside the house to do their task. There was only silence all around, broken now and then by the talks of the soldiers and the sound of their heavy boot-steps. All I could hear was silence. I stood there just staring, knowing only fear.
It was during this time that an elder brother next door was killed in an “encounter.” One evening, we heard some bullets fired. People said it was at Sekta which is few kilometers away from my village. The next morning his lifeless body was brought in an open coffin. People were all shouting and crying. When the coffin was placed on the ground I rushed through the pack of people to have a glimpse. He had only one ear and toes all torn into pieces. People said it was the army sniffer dog that ripped off the ear and bullets that tore the toes into pieces. He belonged to the armed rebel group People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and was unarmed when caught by the army. His handsomeness had not departed his face, even when his lifeless body lay still in the coffin. Young people who knew him, do talk about him till today.
The surprise visit one early morning
It was a cold early morning. The family was asleep. We were woken up by loud terrifying bangs and shouts on the front door. We knew instantly that it was the army. Dad went to open the door telling us not to come out. It was about some interrogation regarding a bus Dad owned in those days. The officer had a loud and heavy voice. He spoke in Hindi and Dad answered in crude Hindi, stuttering between the words. I could see that he was scared and angry at the same time. The conversation took place in Hindi and I could grasp bits of it as I grew up amidst Bollywood. Bollywood was rampant those days and had not been banned by armed rebel groups.
A big argument followed between the army officer and Dad. The officer shouted and kept the muzzle of his assault rifle at Dad’s chest and threatened to shoot him right there. I became terrified, shuddered with fear and started to cry out loud. Mom tried to hush me up and asked me to stop crying keeping her one hand over my mouth. The officer then went to the driver of the bus, slapped so hard on his face, with no response or a word from him. The driver was a Khongsai from Litan whom my grandparents had adopted after his father died of gunshots in a crossfire between some armed group and the state police force. The father was working at the rice field when he was shot. A few years later his mother died of cancer. After the officer slapped the driver they all left. They felt satisfied, or I felt so, now that they had assaulted someone. He is now a Thokchom, my uncle, part of our family. He got married to a Meetei woman around ten years back, has two kids and lives in our village.
These are my stories. To me, experientially, they represent the closest picture of a fundamentally horrifying system which is able to impose its horror upon a society in which it flourishes. The ever continuing process of othering a population involves a reciprocal process of claiming the other as the same. Both these tasks are carried out by the military institution.
The experiences of the people portray a picture of an exhaustive magnitude of impunity enjoyed by the armed forces of Manipur, where the whole population is perceived as suspects, where anybody can be arrested, maimed, tortured, killed or raped at any time. A military response to a political challenge became embedded in the approach and policy. The Indian Government’s measure of “protecting the territory of India” and holding on to the territory ended up in making the people of Manipur unsafe, the “security” apparatus becoming an apparatus of “insecurity.”
What we want and need is to speak and write for ourselves; not being written or told about us by an other. Because where the latter is at a place it is not impossible that the reality will be overshadowed by an appearance and the appearance will become the reality. Here, the distortion of a narrative would be realized in its entirety. By telling our own stories we produce a knowledge of our own. In this process, we resist another active process where stories about us are collected, characterized and then represented to the “mainstream” in various shades and colours; the latter process repeating itself then through the eyes of the mainstream to be told back to us about who we are. And, terrifying it is when we refuse to tell our stories, we remain complicit in a systematic structural functioning of a “narrative violence” over our collective.
What is needful of the present is the enlivening of the buried stories by retrieving them from their graveyards. Nevertheless, sooner or later, despite all the massive difficulties on the path, the “voiceless” and its allies will acquire that power to tell their own stories that are far deviant from the mainstream representation of those stories. These stories will once again assert our claim to humanity and to all sense of hope.
Veewon Thokchom is from Manipur, he is the fourth child of his parents, has done his schooling in Manipur, Uttarakhand, Kerala, and Karnataka. He graduated in 2016 graduated from Kirori Mal College (Delhi University) and did his masters in History at Ambedkar University, Delhi.