Churachandpur: Spark of a revolution

The cry for justice that blew up into a conflagration on August 31 was a call to all of us: it behoves us to join the tribals in their struggle

Sam G Ngaihte London

Given the years of overlooking the corrupt ‘leadership’ of elected politicians in Manipur with a sense of resignation that the misuse and abuse of power is the norm (the way it has always functioned), nobody could have foreseen the colossal influence that a group of young student volunteers in Lamka would engineer by going on a mass protest on the evening of August 31, 2015, to vent their frustration about their leaders’ incapability and unwillingness to serve their own people yet again.

The venting of this pent-up frustration was finally triggered with the passing of three controversial Bills (one original and two amendments) – the Protection of Manipur People Bill (2015), the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill (2015), and the Manipur Shops and Establishments Bill (2015) – in the Assembly, unopposed by the tribal MLAs even after repeated advice and expectations by the tribal student bodies to consider the welfare and safeguard the rights of the hill tribal communities.

This disregard for the people sparked a resentment of all things corrupt, and therefore all things governmental. While much has already been written about the interpretation of the three Bills that were passed, and the ensuing positions taken – on the language, the content, the intent and the manner in which they were passed – the hills-valley divide has been reaffirmed. This divide has been a longstanding issue and the break-up of present-day Manipur into two Union Territories might be the only plausible way forward towards ensuring peace in this part of the country. However, in the obsession with the Bills and the furore of exchanges between their proponents and opponents in the form of a (non)dialogue, talking across one another, there is a purer and more momentous revolution surfacing that has often been bypassed all too quickly.

The Churachandpur burning down of the MLAs’ houses (mansions that were built with the Centre’s funds meant for the development of the tribals), is an incident whose symbolic portrayal of struggle against injustice and overthrow of corrupt leadership can be easily overlooked.

To miss the significance of this incident is to misunderstand the essence of the struggle, and to misunderstand the struggle is to introduce short-sighted and misguided ‘solutions’ – applying a bandage where a surgery is necessary – that are at best only geared towards prolonging and eventually trivialising the real problem, without tackling the root cause(s).

Dismissing the careless and misguided attempt to reduce the incident to a ‘law and order’ problem, and disbanding the all-too-easy generalisation that the incident is a regular occurence in a region which is often projected and characterised as a ‘disturbed’ area, the committed and responsible observer is aware that at the heart of the seemingly chaotic protests, fires and rallies, is a fight against a depraved and reprehensible corrupt system that has plagued not only Manipur or the Northeast, but other parts of India as well.

The raging fires were an expression of a courage that has come of age to mount a challenge to years of systematic discrimination and exploitation meted out by the powerful few to the common populace, and the burning down of the houses epitomises the collective cry of despair and outrage of people who will no longer endure the tyranny of such misrule. The rarity of a revolutionary movement as gallant as this happening in our world today, where the common people are crying out in collective voices, not against any community but against a system, demanding only what was constitutionally supposed to be their right, demanding only the fairness of equal opportunities, must mean that as a responsible fellow human being, this fight is now collectively our concern as much as it is theirs.

This fight for a new order of peace and justice will now require our long-term solidarity even as the can of worms that this dauntless and valiant revolution, led by the common people (particularly women) on the ground, opens up will mean that every party to the system will be scrambling for ways to settle the problem behind closed doors. This is already evident in the Ibobi-led state government’s attempt to intimidate the protesters to a one-sided negotiating table through the use of brute force which has resulted in the loss of nine innocent lives.

The real tragedy of this struggle for justice, for which an 11-year-old boy (who was shot while his hand was still raised in the air in surrender) and eight others (most of whom were the only wage-earners in their families) have sacrificed their lives, will be our non-participation, our indirect sanction to let the fight remain their fight, even as we watch from afar and comment with our own biases.

The vision of future peace and development, guided by the will to contribute to nation-building with their unique traditions and customs, through self-determination under respectable and accountable leadership, is what the fires are primarily all about. Nobody should have to lose their lives in pursuit of such dreams in a democratic country.

(Sam G Ngaihte is a PhD candidate based in Oxford and New Delhi)

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2015