Manipur caught between healing and forgetting

Healing is slow but when it comes it does so with another dilemma—the onerous burden of remembering and forgetting tugging her in opposite directions.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The agonising conflict between the once-fraternal communities Kuki-Zo and Meitei in Manipur is at the half-year mark. While the state government remains clueless as ever, and perhaps powerless too, even the scant attention the central government spared for the state is now shifting to Israel and the forthcoming assembly elections in five states—Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana. A resolution to Manipur’s despair, it seems, is destined to remain uncertain for longer.

It is also confounding that even to this day, it has never been made clear whether Article 355 has been imposed in the state, though both state and central forces are operating on the ground under a vague and never-elaborated hierarchy of command. Article 355 is an emergency provision of the Constitution just short of President’s rule under Article 365. During its imposition, the responsibility of handling law and order in a state deemed to be facing grave threats from external or internal disturbances is placed with the Union government.

Amid this uncertainty, the trauma of those who suffered tragic losses, including the lives of loved ones, displacement from homes, and waning or vanished livelihoods, still remain largely unaddressed. Expectedly, this is also leading to further entrenchment of bitterness among the warring parties. Under this circumstance, even the need to trace the original spark that set off the communal frenzy is fading. Instead, all the empathy bonding that humans are gifted with is also sadly getting overwhelmed by vengeful desires of those caught in the conflict to hurt the hated other even more.

The picture which emerges of this prolonged mayhem is also increasingly becoming a matter of who is telling the story or whose story observers from outside this conflict theatre are choosing to believe. However, this layered nature of truth behind any bitter and prolonged conflict is not new. Cathy Caruth demonstrates this in her book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. In one of the essays in her book, ‘Literature and the Enactment of Memory’, she critiques the 1959 documentary classic Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Alain Resnais and Marguerite Duras.

Resnais, it seems, initially refused to do this documentary, saying it would be impossible for a documentary film to capture the depth of trauma created by the atomic devastation, but later changed his mind after his condition to introduce two fictional characters in it was agreed to. Of the two characters, one is a girl in Nevers, France, and she falls in love with a German soldier during the German occupation of France. The day France is liberated, her lover gets lynched and mobs humiliate and dehumanise her and her family. Her father also loses a thriving business, leaving them in ruins. Driven to the edge of insanity, the girl attempts suicide and is locked up in the family cellar for months. All the while, her country is in celebration mode. Her moments of extreme despair contrast cruelly with the mass elation in her country. France celebrates again when the atom bombs are dropped on Japan to end the war and the Allied forces emerge as victors. All these somewhat also make her identify her own predicament with that of Hiroshima’s.

Healing is slow but when it comes it does so with another dilemma—the onerous burden of remembering and forgetting tugging her in opposite directions. Forgetting the past and the lost loved ones is never easy or guilt-free, but ironically with forgetting also comes liberation from the excruciating and paralysing prison of memories, especially if they are traumatic ones. The inference is that trauma resolution cannot, or should not, be about forsaking the past altogether but about acknowledging the unbridgeable divide between the dead and the living world, and then for the living to find the courage to move on in life. The girl’s soliloquy as she recovers is touching: “...I see the daylight. I see my life. Your death. My life that goes on… Oh! It’s horrible. I’m beginning to remember you less clearly.”

Having reconciled with her fate, the girl, now a woman, is an actress and longs to see Hiroshima. Her opportunity comes through a film project. She meets an ex-Japanese soldier in Hiroshima who, too, carries his own load of traumatic memories. They become intimate friends.

Caruth raises many engaging questions, but to concentrate on just one which has relevance to Manipur’s current crisis of truthful representation of deadly conflict, one fine day the woman decides to tour Hiroshima’s war sites. When she returns, the Japanese man asks what she saw and she begins with “I saw everything” in exasperation and complete empathy with Hiroshima’s agony. Her story is interrupted after each episode by the man dismissing it cynically with “You saw nothing”, implying that as a foreigner who was never a subject of the devastation, she can never fully understand the pain in the hearts of victims who lost so much. She says: “I have always wept over the fate of Hiroshima. Always.” He replies: “No. What would you have cried about?”

The question Caruth poses here is, whose account of Hiroshima’s trauma should be considered truthful history? If the story of the French woman who identifies her own past trauma with that of Hiroshima’s and sees its sufferings through this lens is not a truthful history of the agony of the city, should the account by the Japanese man who lost his home, family, childhood memories and more from the same event be considered closer to the truth? Probably yes, but it must be remembered that the Japanese soldier was away from Japan, fighting the war on foreign soil the day Hiroshima was bombed, for if not, he, too, would have been dead. His account therefore is also not first-hand. Where then must the balance be?

Manipur is now struggling to strike this precarious balance between subjective and objective vision in the representation of a tragic development as well as between forgetting and remembering while working towards a reconciliation. Amid this, it is painful to tolerate the naïve cockiness of many watching the conflict from social media gallery seats with patronising pretensions of foreknowledge of what fair representation of Manipur’s agony should be.

Pradip Phanjoubam

Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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