When I was starting out to be a journalist, it was with a definite dream. It was to be able to change things for the better or so I thought, in my naïve and simple way. Having grown up in Manipur and seen the peak of insurgency as a schoolgirl, I wanted so much to see the calmer side of life. I could tell by the sound of gunshots if it was an AK 47 or a pistol. Such was how the so-called “gun culture” had its impact on growing young minds.
I have lost count of the number of times we had to be sent back home from school because insurgents would barge inside (and serve ultimatums to the nuns), while frightened little children would huddle in one corner of a large corridor looking for familiar faces to pick them up. I was among those wailing children looking for my parents or someone to show up. The next day, we would all go back to school as if nothing happened. As I reflect, I gather I picked up my spirit of resilience early on without realising it.
And so, as I joined the profession, early on, I had my heart lost to many causes – it was to the displaced Afghans, Burmese and Tibetans. As a trainee, I found myself drawn to their stories of strife and spirits of survival. Natural empathy for them saw me scripting their stories. Alongside, a warm camaraderie was forged. I recall sharing the Burmese refugees’ half-cooked (over a stove in a one-room set) khao soi in the annexe room that our former Defence Minister George Fernandes spared in his official bungalow at Krishna Menon Marg. They became my friends. La Shaw, whom I last heard went to Canada, once gave me smoked beef tightly wrapped in paper. He came one afternoon to our office and shyly handed over the packet. Ashwin Ahmed, my co-trainee colleague and I, escaped to the terrace to quietly eat our loot and came back to our desks to key away copies that correspondents sent from different parts of India.
While I interviewed the misplaced Afghans, Burmese and Tibetans, I would often wonder what it must be to be homeless or be rendered homeless. I thought it was a bizarre thought to be driven out of one’s home. While I was empathetic, I could never fathom the depth of their pain. A few days ago, when my home state Manipur sank to its lowest -- I think I finally understood that pain I thought I could never fathom. A sharp invisible pain pierced through my heart and numbed every possible sense. Did I hear it right, I heard myself ask again and again. That all that we built materially was lost in a fraction of time.
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In so many ways, Manipur, for me, has always represented a mini-India. When nearly 30 communities live together, bickering becomes a part and parcel of your collective existence. The hill tribes inhabit the mountains of the state as if guarding the valley which is home to the Meiteis, the dominant group as we know it. The seat of power has always rested with them and they assumed the unofficial role of a big brother. It was a way of life – a somewhat convenient happy state of coexistence. Legends and folklore of our common past would testify to the harmonic coexistence of all the communities. Anything that breaks the equilibrium was disturbing enough to compel people to take to songs and poems. Peace was something each looked for secretly and resolutely in the quiet recesses of their minds.
We have had a bloody past. And we wanted to move away from the shadow of that past. Many understood the futility of infighting. It is regressive as we all understand. Those who understood moved on but we are still in the clutches of many whose inward thinking has become a stumbling block. And I thought the past was behind us as the restoration of peace seemed very convincing. There were innovative and never-heard-of outreach programmes like ‘Go to Village’ and ‘Go to Hills’ that began in 2017 when a new leadership took over. These measures ensured that people in remote places avail benefits of various welfare schemes at their doorsteps. And of course, and importantly, it was to build human bridges.
The unrest had been simmering. It intensified when the High Court of Manipur on April 19 issued a direction for the submission of the recommendation on the inclusion of the Meiteis in the ST list to the Tribal Affairs Ministry. The tribal groups, who are categorized as Scheduled Tribes, protested the high court order given that the Meiteis already come under the OBC category. The hill tribes believe the safeguards that they enjoy under this ST categorization will be rendered null and void once the dominant Meiteis are brought under the ST umbrella.
This immediately divided the Meiteis and the hill tribes who are anyway bonded by their faith into two warring groups. I do not wish to get into who started the fire because this piece is not to incite any further emotion. But when houses were set on fire, there was a clear divide. In districts where Meiteis were a minority, they became victims. And in places like Imphal where Meiteis were the majority, pockets where the hill tribes lived for decades became fierce battlefields.
I got a call that evening on Wednesday just as I was beginning to write a journal. Not a word came as what I heard left me dumbfounded. My parents, especially my mother who grew up in Imphal among her Meitei friends, have earnestly believed in that harmonic setting and it was home for her more than my dad who grew up in Churachandpur. My mom studied in Imphal and the street that leads to our home was her bastion so to say. Everybody knew her and because of her everyone who knew her knew her children. It was home. An angry mob first torched our business enterprise – a sprawling set-up started by my enterprising mom, the first lady special PWD contractor of Manipur. All the vehicles parked at the premises were smashed to pieces and then what followed was everybody helping themselves to whatever they could lay their hands on. The fish pond my mom designed. Her pretty rose garden. The gazebo she got built to rest on a hot summer afternoon and feel the breeze. The teak my father planted. The little church we built at the entrance to remind ourselves of our creator. They were wiped out. By then, my mom had left her office campus and retired home as usual.
As evening grew darker, an angry mob from Imphal started to burn houses in my colony. A parish church next to our house was torched. All along, I was on the phone with my parents who could not comprehend what was happening. My brother who is posted outside the state called one of our Meitei neighbours and asked if my parents could take shelter. Our neighbour’s son said he would ask his father and then he would get back. They never called back nor answered our calls. My brother called his Meitei childhood friend who lived behind our house. They were more than accommodating and a ladder was arranged where my aging parents climbed over the fence along with my two-month-old niece who was wrapped in layers of clothes. They were later rescued after many pleas to the authorities. Along with many others, they were sheltered in an Army camp – and I would imagine it would be like that of refugees that I often saw on television.
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That very night, our church was burnt and the homes of my neighbours one by one. The mob outnumbered the forces at all times. On Thursday (May 4), the rest of the houses in this very upmarket (by Imphal standards) colony which houses bureaucrats, politicians, engineers, professors, doctors of the hill tribes were burnt one by one. I was numb when I heard that my house was burnt. I called that same childhood friend of my brother who gave me a running commentary of what seems like a state of anarchy -- house on fire and black, thick smoke coming out from all directions. I think of my anthropologist father and his life’s work. I think of what he considered his most precious possessions – his books and his works both published and unpublished – all stacked in his book shelves in his home office. Violence is tragic and the collateral is the loss of knowledge, wisdom, memories and linkage to our past. And then, as another well-meaning Meitei neighbour walked past our burnt house on Friday, he told me of the free looting of things inside our house. They took away all that we left behind. Anyway, what is left when you leave your home behind?