Of the seven athletes from the Northeast in the Indian contingent to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, there was only one male, a hockey player from Manipur. Of the seven again, five were from Manipur. The Northeast athletes brought back three medals, and two of these winners are from Manipur. Even these very broad statistics hint at some very obvious and interesting profiles of the Northeast. One of these pertains to gender emancipation, although the idea is problematic. For in matters of state power, women here are in the margins. None of the Northeast states has seen a woman chief minister and it is unlikely this equation will change anytime soon. The question whether Northeast women are truly emancipated will hence always remain an enigma, eliciting several answers, many of them seeming to contradict each other but each with a measure of truth.
The Northeast is indeed a land of paradoxes, but nowhere is this more pronounced than in Manipur. This is a land where its many ethnic communities call themselves siblings but are also bitter rivals, envious and distrustful of each other. This divide works at many different layers. Hill communities who have gone to the extent of ethnic cleansing each other unite when pitted against those they see as their common oppressors, the valley community, who by virtue of the fertile, well-irrigated flatlands they inhabit, became more stable and complex socio-politically from premodern times. But despite Manipur’s hill-valley antagonism—in the pattern of the relationship James C Scott said existed between “Paddy States” in valleys and state-evading non-state communities in the hills in upper South East Asia that he called Zomia—the two also share numerous folklores and legends binding them at a subliminal level.
Domestic abuse by male heads of families, preferences and privileges for male children, disrespect for LGBT, etc., are near universal but at the same time, women have also been very much in the forefront of the traditional agrarian economy as well as in social campaigns. If in modern politics women today find little space, this was not exactly so in many traditional spheres. Irom Sharmila’s 16-year hunger strike for the abrogation of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a record that will probably not ever be broken in human history, as well as many powerful social movements led by women’s organisations such as the Meira Paibis are reminiscent of the shape things were in the premodern past, though even there, gender oppressive institutions were not entirely unknown. But by and large, in the transition to the modern, a severe disconnect seems to have been introduced and women have lost the place they once had in the society’s understanding of state power. Sports, where these new social barriers have still not reached, is now proving to be where women are showing they can do as much as or more than their male counterparts. This is also an indication that if doors to all other fields of life were left open to all genders, the scenario should not be any different.
But beyond the gender question, the fact that this tiny state of about three million has emerged as a virtual nursery of outstanding sportspersons, 19 of them Olympians so far, should also have some interesting insights. The earlier batches of these sportspersons were generally from Imphal but as the city got progressively more congested and local playgrounds either shrunk or disappeared to be replaced by a few official and more exclusive stadiums, sporting talents too trickled away, only to show up in the rural agrarian hinterlands. As a pattern, most of the athletes who make their way to the top are from impoverished backgrounds. Mary Kom, Laishram Sarita Devi, Ngangom Dingko Singh, the latest sensation Saikhom Mirabai Chanu and more, almost all have this background in common. Quite obviously, there would be so many other states with people sharing the same socio-economic conditions, so what is it that gives these young men and women the extra drive to give their everything to overcome several formidable barriers to be frontrunners in their chosen sporting disciplines?
In the Freudian sense, the answer may lie in Manipur’s measure of success in sublimating this innate and chaotic violence within—the instinctual energy of id striking the right balance with the civilisational regulatory norms of superego. In the raw, this killer instinct can result in mayhem, but its sublimation can lead to sporting excellence, exquisite arts, etc. Hence, like in sports, Manipur’s Nat Sankirtan is listed among UNESCO’s intangible heritages and directors like Ratan Thiyam and Heisnam Kanheilal have caused ripples in the theatre world. In literature, few have interpreted this personality dynamic better than Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness and William Golding in Lord of the Flies.
This is where Manipur’s numerous paradoxes come in. The bitter and often deadly ethnic rivalries, youth unrests, unemployment, poverty, insurgency—the list is long. But it is also a state that finds time for unbridled festivities even amidst raging social discontents and street violence. This was evident even in accounts of Ras Lila dance festivities held in the midst of WWII bombings and the consequent massive internal displacement of its population. Similar examples of the ease with which creativity and destruction are juxtaposed are many. In addition to this, amongst its many communities, there is also a deep affinity for their identities and a longing to contribute or prove themselves worthy of it.
The takeaway from all this is that the way forward is not in smothering the raw, potentially violent energy within a society, but in harnessing it and channelising it to creative directions.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics