Charred memories of Manipur's ethnic conflict

Official record says 223 people died, ,more than 60,000 people have been displaced, both internally and in other states whether Assam or Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, or Delhi or Calcutta
Capturing a burning, conflict-ridden Manipur, the exhibition features works by Manisha, journalists Rokibuz Zaman and Greeshma Kuthar, and photojournalist Aakash Hassan.
Capturing a burning, conflict-ridden Manipur, the exhibition features works by Manisha, journalists Rokibuz Zaman and Greeshma Kuthar, and photojournalist Aakash Hassan.

CHENNAI: Dots, dashes, demarcations. These arbitrary thin lines that crisscross ocean and land, arguably teach us our first idea of global boundaries, during dreary geography classes. Dots, dashes, ‘us’ vs ‘them’. Boundaries leak beyond maps, and spill into the world, brewing hateful divides.

Hurtling past the boundaries of a map, Thangboilal Vaiphei and Andrew, like many citizens from Manipur, cross through National Highway 102B, to reach Churachandpur.

“The wobbly road of 102B is the only way for the Kuki-Zomi to enter Manipur, as the ethnic conflict between two communities — Meitei and Kukis-Zomi continues...this journey includes a 20 hours road journey and a few hours in a flight,” writes Manisha Mondal, a journalist, whose work was among the 100-odd images exhibited in ICSA on Saturday. 

Visuals of the two students in a shaky Tata Sumo braving the path, Andrew checking maps on his phone, and Vaiphei slurping up noodles are scattered across the walls. Capturing a burning, conflict-ridden Manipur, the exhibition features works by Manisha, journalists Rokibuz Zaman and Greeshma Kuthar, and photojournalist Aakash Hassan.

A year after the ethnic conflict began, organisations in Tamil Nadu, including the Indian Christian Women’s Movement, Dravidar Kazhagam, Poovulangin Nanbargal, All India Democratic Women’s Association, and Neelam Cultural Centre stand in solidarity with Manipur and call for an end to the conflict.

“Official record says 223 people died, ,more than 60,000 people have been displaced, both internally and in other states whether Assam or Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, or Delhi or Calcutta,” says Makepeace Sitlhou, journalist. 

According to writer-journalist Jeyarani, “The country is divided into pieces based on caste and religion. The constitution that holds us together, should be the basis of all the decisions we make. Dr BR Ambedkar gave us the constitution but we are entering a situation where democracy lives on in the pages but not in society. The violence that Manipur is feeling should disturb the whole society.”

As Dr Aiswarya Rao, organiser, says, each visual in the exhibition delves into different themes, following the conditions of women, displacement, death, grief,  and violence. As the war continues, she underscores the importance of solidarity. 

Refugees and riots

A woman praying with her hands clenched, another weaving her way through the forest to provide supplies, hundreds of women on the street in Imphal protesting the killing of two Meitei students — each shot is a chilling glimpse of a state wreaked by violence, “Protestors, agitators, instigators — their role in this conflict is defined by who you ask – their loved ones or the police,” the exhibition reminds.

In the US last year, Makepeace worked on an article delving into illegal migrants, crossing borders, and dangerous dunki routes. One interview lingered in her mind about a Punjabi man and his brothers who relocated to America after the Sikh massacre. “After the 9/11 attacks, one of the man’s brothers was first to be killed in a hate crime. A white man shot him at a gas station and said ‘death to towel heads’. It is so hard to digest to leaving your land and state-sponsored violence and then come to a land where you are targeted: What sense of security would you carry? Until we have a government that is willing to take accountability, we can only dream of a land that is safe and secure.”

On internal displacement, Greeshma shares her experience of reporting on the ground in Manipur and speaking to displaced communities in Chennai, “We have to speak about this (issue) now because we don’t know what will happen post the election. Because we have not spoken about this issue, it has dragged on for so long. In May (2023), it was a riot, how did it become a civil war? We need to think about how this happened. If we don’t question anything, this will happen.”

Suganthi from AIDWA, A Arulmozhi, and Mathivadhani from Dravidar Kazhagam, advocate Papa Mohan, Rev Jacqueline Jothi from Church of South India and Vetriselvan, Poovulagin Nanbargal, were present. According to a release, the organisations call for “the government to ensure that the ideologically and politically motivated violence is stopped and that the laws of the land are upheld. We ask that all victims and their families, be it Kuki or Meitei, be adequately compensated and cared for. We call for perpetrators of all crimes committed during the violence to be brought to book.”

 From the rap by Sollisai Sistahs, and notes from Dhamma the Band to a satirical play, each performance echoed the thoughts of solidarity. The air was filled with the yearning for change, beyond dots, dashes, and demarcations. 

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