As we flew past the Tsinghat community ground in Manipur to land at the newly prepared helipad on the southern end, it was an unbelievable sight. A gathering of a few thousand people had descended on the venue. A large number of children smartly dressed in school uniform stood lined up in columns, raring to go.
One could also spot a group of people attired in tribal wear, gearing up to perform traditional dances and martial arts. As we were walking from the helipad to the grand stand, there was a thunderous applause, the crowd frantically waving Tricolour paper flags.
That day, India was celebrating its 58th Independence Day. The scene would seem normal in any other part of the country, but here it was like a miracle for the locals. Since the late 1990s, half of Manipur was in the grip of militancy, where underground groups ruled the roost.
Churachandpur district was one of the worst affected. Of its six subdivisions, Tsinghat and Henglep had been cleared of militants by mid-2005 after fierce encounters.
As the civil administration was nonexistent, the children here had not seen a policeman or a national flag for more than a decade. They were more familiar with flags of militant outfits. The major functions they had witnessed in the recent past were anniversary celebrations of militant groups. Given the background, the residents had understandably come out in strength to celebrate their freedom after a decade of misery and humiliation.
The civilian dignitaries had turned up in good numbers for the flag-hoisting ceremony. The children put up a spectacular performance during the march past. The performance of martial arts exponents was awesome. What overshadowed everything else was the enthusiasm of the public. They were in awe as only a few months ago, it was a different world marked by fear, tyranny and rule of the gun. One could fathom the joy and sense of the festive mood from the thumping cheering of the spectators. Despite being from different ethnic groups, the spirit of nationalism was prevalent.
The event was followed by tea. The children were excited to have participated in I-Day celebrations for the first time. They wished to lead a normal life, as children in other parts of the country, with access to TV, computers and the internet. They were eager to make up for the lost time. The students were thrilled when we promised that a computer centre would be established soon along with Dish TV, under the aegis of the army.
As I was taking leave, a few teenagers approached me for an autograph. While I was signing in their notebooks, one of them asked me rather innocently: "Why were we left to suffer at the hands of militants for 10 long years? Is it because we belong to the distant land and are deemed to be the silent voices?"
I struggled for a while to respond. Spontaneously, I embraced the young fellow to express my emotions. In the process, I could feel deep within me the power of silence. "It's only the heart which can listen to the silent voices." Although a little amazed by my gesture, it seemed that my answer had struck the right chord with the bravehearts.
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