Richard Loitam: An alien in his own country?
On the afternoon of July 15, 2004, 12 women disrobed themselves and stood naked in front of the Indian paramilitary headquarters in Imphal. Together they held a single length of white cloth that had "Indian Army Rape Us" emblazoned on it in red paint. No corner of India had witnessed such a display of anger, ever. The Manipuri women were protesting the gangrape and murder of a 32-year old woman, by paramilitary forces. It was only after this protest by the 'Imas' or mothers of Manipur and the publication of photographs of their protest in some newspapers that the rest of the mainstream media woke up. Reporters were sent to Imphal. Stories were carried and awards won. Unfortunately, the principal demand of the protest, the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, fell on deaf ears. Manipur, again, dropped off the national mainstream news cycle. Ironically, in December 2008, the same group of 12 women travelled from Manipur and staged a sit-in protest in Delhi. The media did not find the protests newsworthy.
It is not without reason that Indians from the North East corner of the country often feel neglected and ignored. The apathy displayed towards the region by the so-called mainstream Indians is perverse, if not criminal. Currently, the death of 19-year old Richard Loitam and 21-year old Dana Sangma has hit the national headlines. There are protests, debates and efforts to bridge divides. Even then a large number of educated Indians display surprising ignorance. Some believe that the entire debate of ignorance of the North East is a myth. Some, still, do not think twice before cracking a joke on the region. In metropolitan India, the dominant image of the region still remains that of a wild frontier.
At Delhi, few months ago, an award winning Indian film critic was looking back with much love at a few days she spent in Nagaland. Or was it Manipur? She couldn't exactly remember. But she was certain it was the North East. That was what mattered most. She seemed happy to have done her bit of exotic tourism. "But oh the roads and the time we spent to travel to "what was the name of the capital city" from Dimapur?, she asked me. "I could have reached Paris in that time", she underlined. Global citizens have their way of drawing comparisons. I couldn't fathom the Paris-Kohima trade off even if it was in half-jest. But our cine pandit's bharat darshan kahaani let my mind go back to what an Ivy League-educated American economist had once asked me, "Tell me frankly, are there any cannibals in North East?" I thought there wasn't much difference between these two entitled and illuminated global beings. Be it an elite Indian or an elite Westerner, for most, the idea of Manipur and that of the entire North East even in 2012, still remains that of an area of darkness. It's an idea that comes with a healthy dose of colonial hangover. Gazeteer's records hidden away at archives in London, the fountain head of civilisation, have ravingly racist descriptions of North East India. In the 19th Century, according to Lord Dalhousie, it was an area full of "pertinacious savages". An idea not too far removed from what is thought about the region now. In 2008, an Indian television anchor reporting from Nagaland famously said that "the further I travel inside Nagaland, the further I move away from civilisation". The foundations of the British Empire still appear unshaken in such statements.
The biggest instrument of such a civilisation, democracy and in turn elections, has established itself comfortably in North Eastern Indian states. When it comes to governance in a place like Manipur, for most observers and policymakers what remains of interest is the number of people who cast their votes in elections. In this democracy overdose, many also tend to ignore that Manipur was the first corner in South Asia that elected a government on adult franchise in 1948. That assembly was dismissed, the King of Manipur was put under house arrest in Shillong. A treaty of accession was signed in 1949 under direction of the then Home Minister of India Sardar Vallabbhai Patel of the Indian National Congress. Late Mr. Patel probably would be a happy man to find Manipur's speedy rise in India's electoral politics in the last sixty years. A newfound status of a C Category State (from being an Independent Kingdom that was making the transformation to democracy) in 1949 to 60 MLAs and at least 30 militant outfits in active resistance in 2012 the journey has been stupendous according to some, disastrous according to most. Not to forget the inescapable darkness of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act across the state.
When it comes to building bridges with the rest of India, one extreme suggestion is to overlook problems and talk about success stories. Ignore the insurgency chatter, ignore the problems and put the winners, the successful on the hoardings of Incredible India. I met the incredible-then thrice world boxing champion MC Marykom at her home in Imphal in 2007. I clearly remember how she said that for many Manipuris sport remains the passport to a better life, or a job in the police or two meals a day in a training camp. Marykom's story is one of incredible success against all odds. Yet, for her recognition has been incremental. Not a continuous one as is the case in cricket or tennis. It is almost to hide the embarrassments of racial hatred against people from North East India, an embrace of a Marykom seems imperative.
That embrace, however, fails to erase certain facts. The Ministry of Development of North East Region has released Rs 138 billion in the last ten years. However, the funds have either been misdirected or not used at all. According to the Human Development and Infrastructure Index mentioned in the Twelfth (2005-10) Finance Commission Report, the seven North Eastern states rank the lowest in infrastructure development. Basic facilities like electricity, water, roads are absent in most of North East. There are local militias calling the shots in various places and in many places the ideology of resistance has been replaced by the convenience of money-sharing arrangements between local militias and bureaucracy. The Justice Manisana Commission report (2008) on the misappropriation of funds in North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council mentions how funds meant for development work were channeled to militants and some departmental officers in Assam received their due share. In 2012, an Austrian Company moved out of oil exploration work in Assam, after they were asked to pay Rs 70 lakh by a faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam. There are at least 30 active militant groups in the region. The government is negotiating with at least 15. Every year, like a ritual, signing of ceasefire agreements and surrender ceremonies keep alive the lies and deception of peace building in North East India. Behind all changes in the region, this remains a constant.
What also remains constant despite all efforts is the attitude of the Indian bureaucracy towards the region. In 2007, an Indian Police Service official wrote a booklet for students from North East who come to study in Delhi. In "Security tips for North Eastern students" racial profiling was the underlining theme. It had instructions for women from the North East to avoid wearing revealing clothes and dress according to the sensitivity of the local population. "Avoid lonely roads/bylanes when dressed scantily", it counselled, clearly implying that women from the North East display too much skin. It also objected to North Eastern food habits, especially the cooking of akhuni and bamboo shoots, saying "smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in the neighbourhood". Ironically, the booklet was written by an IPS officer from the North East who considered these exhortations to be in the interest of 'emotional and patriotic integration".
Suddenly, when it comes to North East civil liberties seem to have been defenestrated. And in a free India integration seems to be taking place at gunpoint. This integration was probably never there and with the deaths of Richard and Dana seems to have gone horribly wrong. Take a look at the the profiling of North East India that takes place comes out in various ways. Jonathan Glancey of The Guardian mentions a report of the Indian media in his travelogue, Nagaland: A Journey to India's Forgotten Frontier (which too is guilty of making the area appear exotic), where someone suggests that the thriving monkey population of Delhi should be sent to Nagaland because, "the locals will have no problem dealing with monkeys; they will eat them". This year in February during a dog menace in Punjab, the MLAs decided to write to the Nagaland government. Then MLA Makhan Singh, a member of the Vidhan Sabha Committee wrote that "besides looking for a provision in law to kill stray dogs we are working out the possibility of sending the canines to Nagaland, where dogs are commonly sold for meat".
After the death of Richard Loitam and Dana Sangma and a campaign for justice for them, Indian Parliament discussed North East last week. Arun Jaitley and P Chidambaram spoke with much passion. They spoke of helpline numbers for the students. They spoke about sensitizing the rest of India about the region. I am told most of Manipur could not catch them on TV. The region just gets one hour of electricity in a 24-hour day.