Sunday, May 28, 2023

Manipur Shall Overcome


Manipur Shall Overcome

In the past, Manipur has experienced several conflicts and has come out stronger. It will this time too.

Uneasy Calm: A bridge on the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road in Moreh
Uneasy Calm: A bridge on the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road in Moreh Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

The town I fell in love with recently was Moreh. While walking down the famous lane of Moreh—Premnagar—next to the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate No 2, you will see houses that belong to different communities. By the end of the Premnagar lane, you will find the beautiful Tamil temple. And you can hear Azan from the nearby Masjid.

During my team’s stay there for 12 days recently, we worked closely with the locals—Kukis, Tamils, Meiteis, Nepalis, Biharis, Sardarji, Muslims, etc. A friend from Moreh often said: “Moreh is a mini-India, Akhu.” And I completely agree with him.

On April 27, on my way back to Imphal from Moreh, along the scenic hilly highway just before we reached Saivom village, an idea of writing a song for Moreh came to my mind. The day I reached home, I picked up my wife’s ukulele and almost penned down a song.

The shocking news came on the evening of May 3—many houses in Moreh had been burnt down. Immediately, I called a friend who is a resident of Premnagar. “Yes, everything got burnt down, all our houses, including the Moreh Meitei Council building,” he said, his voice choking and trembling.

I could not contact him until May 16, as his phone had remained switched off. I have no idea about his whereabouts. Some say he has safely fled to Myanmar. Recently, I visited around 15 relief camps in the Imphal Valley where displaced people from several districts have been accommodated. Some of them have bullet wounds. Their stories are heart-breaking. At one relief camp, a middle-aged woman from Moreh described how they hid for a couple of days at the police station and then sneaked out, risking their lives, to get their belongings from houses.

“They spared my house because of its close proximity to the Kuki neighbourhood. When I reached there, I saw the lock had been broken and to my surprise, there were armed Kuki militants cooking chicken in my kitchen,” she recounted.

We met an elderly schoolteacher from Churachandpur at a relief camp at Moirang. He was heartbroken that 50 years of his service as a teacher suddenly meant nothing. “I can’t accept this emotionally,” he said.

On May 3, as many as 120 houses were torched at Ikou village in Imphal East district. According to some elders from Ikou, around 6 pm that day, a batch of unidentified youths on 10 motorcycles came to the village and threatened everyone with dire consequences. After they left, the four Kuki families that lived in the village vacated their homes and ran uphill. Seeing this, the majority Meiteis of the village ran for their lives, too, carrying whatever they could from their homes. Seeing them flee, armed Kuki militants threw stones at them, injuring a few.

In an hour or so, from a distance, they saw flames and smoke above their village. They did not dare going back. Till date, no one has gone back to Ikou. Even the media has not been able to access the village. These people will have to live in relief camps till their houses are rebuilt.

The inaction of the security forces while such violence took place has led to a loss of trust in the administration. On May 15, a news headline in a local daily read: “10 houses torched down at Torbung, Bishnupur district, in front of CRPF personnel.”

Manipuris in Kolkata praying for peace
Manipuris in Kolkata praying for peace Photo:Getty Images

There are now relief camps in every corner of the Imphal Valley for the displaced Meiteis. News of cross-firing and casualties at the foothills of the Imphal valley are still coming in. Kuki militants have burnt down hundreds of houses, various shrines of forest deities, household deities and other religious sites that belong to the Meitei community. In retaliation, Meiteis have burnt down houses and religious structures in Imphal that belong to the Kuki community.

Due to the internet shutdown, a lot of misinformation campaign was carried by the so-called national media, without our knowledge, regarding who started the fire. I urge the media to fact-check every claim coming out of Manipur.

For now, peace is just a song on a faraway half-burnt radio. The right thing to do now is to bring an end to the narcotics-linked-terrorism orchestrated by Kuki drug mafias, who used the Kuki militants under the Suspension of Operations (SoO) agreement and illegal immigrants as cannon fodder for this pre-planned violence. This, surprisingly, found support from a section of Kuki intellectuals and policymakers. Only right-thinking Kuki and lovers of humanity can stop this mindless violence.

Moreover, leaders of the Kuki and Meitei communities need to come together urgently to reconcile their differences. Governments come and go but the communities will remain constant. The Nagas, the Kukis, the Meiteis and the Pangals will remain as the natives of Manipur. Peaceful co-existence will be possible only when we respect our differences and when we collectively safeguard our mountains, trees and environment. The question is who would come up with the tune of peace, and who shall sing the song of togetherness.

Since 2015, some of my like-minded friends and I have been working with children from the Naga, Kuki and Meitei communities of Manipur under the music project called ‘A Native Tongue Called Peace’. The project aims to bridge the gap between the hills and the valley. Unfortunately, this recent act of violence will further widen the gap. And this will leave a deep scar difficult to heal in the years to come.

Under the same project, we have also been documenting folk musicians from various ethnic tribes of Manipur. The folklore and oral narratives shared by these folk musicians say a lot about our shared memories. We collectively need to dig deeper into our ancestral stories to understand each other. I hope more academicians get into this field of research.

Coincidentally, on the morning of May 3, the day the clash started, our children from the project sent me a video of themselves playing the song, ‘We shall overcome’. The video features three girls from three different communities of Manipur—one singing, the other playing violin and the third strumming a guitar. Now, every time I go back to my phone, I make sure I watch this video as it gives me hope.

In the past, Manipur experienced several conflicts—armed conflicts, ethnic conflicts, and the Burmese invasion. But we came out stronger all the time. We believe we shall overcome this moment and heal together as one.

In posterity, May 3 is going to be remembered as a Black Day by both the communities despite the day being called ‘Tribal Unity’ day or the ‘Peace Rally’ that took place on the day in the Kuki-dominated hill districts. May 3 is also the date of birth of the American folk singer and environmentalist Pete Seeger. My friends and I even started a festival named “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” in 2014 on the same day to pay tribute to this legend. And here, I would like to end this note quoting few lines from his song:

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Covered with flowers everyone
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

I hope my friend from Premnagar, who is reportedly taking refuge in Myanmar, gets a chance to return home and have a glimpse of the graveyard-like houses before they are forever erased.

(Views expressed are personal)

Akhu Chingangbam is an Imphal-based singer-songwriter

This appeared in print as "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?"