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Sound & fury

Vivek Singh | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on October 02, 2015

Hard times: A deserted street in Churachandpur -- Vivek Singh

Anger strikes Protesters attack a government vehicle outside the district collector’s (DC) house -- Vivek Singh

Hard times: A woman argues with paramilitary personnel outside the DC office -- Vivek Singh

Hard times: Banners demanding a separate administration for the hills of Manipur -- Vivek Singh

Rose Ngaihte addresses DC Lunminthang Haokip as he tries to leavehis residence, gheraoed by women from Manipur’s hill tribes. -- Vivek Singh

A massive rally at Lamka Public Ground -- Vivek Singh

Hard times: A protester mourns the death of nine tribals -- Vivek Singh

Hard times: A memorial for those who died in police firing on August 31 andSeptember 1 -- Vivek Singh

On the boil for over a month, Churachandpur finds its women leading from the front as it challenges the Manipur government’s ‘anti-tribal’ land bills

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Benjamin Parker’s (Uncle Ben of Spiderman) words come handy as Rose Ngaihte, a resident of Churachandpur, takes on district collector (DC) Lunminthang Haokip in full view of the public. Microphone in hand, Ngaihte berates the senior IAS officer for trying to ‘sneak out’ of his official residence as hundreds of protesting women laid siege to it. Such behaviour doesn’t become a man of his stature, Ngaihte tells him, to loud cheers from the protesters. Prevented from leaving the house in an escort vehicle, the harried DC retorts with a quote from the Bible before storming back inside: “Read Exodus 23:2, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment.” Haokip’s words, however, fall on deaf ears. The crowd that had barely moments before stomped and kicked his belongings around the street, was in no mood to listen.

The DC chair usually commands respect in CCpur, as Churachandpur is popularly called. But these aren’t normal times. On just two days — August 31 and September 1 — nine people died in police firing during violent protests against three new state laws. The largest district in Manipur, CCpur lies only 65km south of the capital, Imphal, which had recently witnessed a two-month-long agitation for an Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in the state. (The ILP is currently operational in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram.) Just as those protests died down, Manipur was on the boil again with the passage of three land bills that the hill tribes are opposed to, on the grounds that they play into the hands of the Meiteis, the dominant Vaishnava Hindus. One of the most controversial clauses relates to the right to property ownership. The state assembly has set 1951 as the base year to identify non-indigenous people, who are regarded as outsiders by a section of Manipuris. The law decrees that those who settled in Manipur after 1951 will have to give up property and may even have to leave the state.

The tribals were incensed that the laws would make them foreigners in their own land and they rallied against the government in large numbers. In the widespread arson that ensued the houses of some of their elected representatives were burnt down.

The police action led to nine deaths, followed by a curfew that paralysed normal life in this volatile region.

The coffins of the nine dead are still in the District Hospital, a two-minute walk from the DC’s residence. Families wait for a resolution, which appears increasingly difficult, before they are ready to bury their loved ones. Only the brave would venture inside this room, where two hurriedly installed air-conditioners work round-the clock at 14°C — 10 degrees higher than the ideal temperature. There is no freezer or any attempt to get one.

Sitting outside the hospital, Ching Nuhoih, an employee of a restaurant in Chennai, weeps inconsolably, “I have one brother, now no brother (sic)”. The brother, Kham Sian Muan, was among those killed when the police opened fire on a group that gheraoed the police station in Lamka. “They shot him thrice… Why three bullets?” Ching asks as she sits in solidarity with the movement she lost her brother to. She doesn’t know when she can return to her job, which supports her family, in Chennai.

Liankansuan Volte’s hands tremble as he describes the police firing on September 1. He was among the group of men who marched to the Lamka police station to demand answers for the killings of the day before. “They shot at us, hit us with rifle butts. They treated us like animals.” The violence stopped only after a Joint Action Committee (JAC) of the various tribal bodies in the district decided to put women at the forefront of the agitation. This was done to prevent the men from becoming easy targets. 

Dressed in black, women line the streets of CCpur, at the intersection of every village, every town square and road. Armed with sticks, they occupy long wooden benches as they take turns to chant slogans against the government. No vehicle passes during the bandh hours — the timings change every day as per notifications from the JAC.

A massive rally at Lamka Public Ground greeted the observer from the Union home ministry on September 22. A few days earlier, thousands of women, again dressed in black, formed a 14km-long human chain for over five hours as they shouted demands for annulment of the ‘anti-tribal’ bills as well as a separate administration for the state’s ethnic minorities. The human chain started at a village called Kangvai and extended up to the District Hospital. It is interesting to see how the different tribal groups — including Hmar Inpuis, Kuki Inpuis, Nagas from the hill districts, the Zomi Council and several student bodies — have put past animosities and differences on the backburner in their effort to challenge the state government. High on their shaming list are the tribal legislators who didn’t oppose the passage of the land reform bills.

“We are like a tree, and our branches are being cut off. There’s an ongoing effort to uproot us,” says Lahlimum Joule, a 27-year-old teacher taking part in a late-night protest at Rengkai village. At another sit-in at Bungmual, Ningsialchin, a 53-year-old daily-wage worker, who earns ₹200 a day for her family of seven, refuses to budge till the government gives in to the demand for a new administration for the hills.

Twenty-eight-year-old Niang Hoi Ching makes ₹150 a day; her husband ₹200. Both haven’t worked for almost a month, so there’s no money for food. But Ching says she is in mourning and won’t go back to work till the ‘martyrs’ are laid to rest and the bills revoked. She says she is prepared to brave hunger, even death, much like every other protester around her.

With its ramshackle shops, potholed roads, poor electricity and weak internet service, CCpur speaks volumes about an indifferent administration. The ongoing protests, centred around the nine corpses in the makeshift mortuary, have just added to the general disarray. An uneasy calm prevails for now as several other hill-towns in Manipur watch CCpur closely.

(Vivek Singh is a documentary photographer and journalist based in Delhi)

Published on October 02, 2015
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