‘What’s the point of studying when I know security forces will kill me the day I finish college?’ 15-year-old VK, a Class 9 student. had lobbed the question at me. Without waiting for an answer, he hurled another one: “We have the right to education. But we also have the right to live. Don’t you agree?” VK was explaining to me the rationale behind the closing down of all educational institutions in Manipur as a protest against the encounter killings of Sanjit and Rubina in July 2009. All educational institutions, including ‘coaching classes’ were shut down indefinitely by students’ unions in Manipur in September 9, 2009. They reopened only on January 11, 2010, after the chief minister announced a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the killings. Manipur’s academic calendar is from April to March.
In Manipur, the political situation had been tense for years now, with discontent rising for many reasons: extra-judicial killings, corruption, the nexus between political leaders, underground rebels and security forces, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that gives securitymen the power to shoot, kill and even maim people on suspicion, in the name of counter-insurgency operations. Sanjit and Rubina’s deaths had provided another spark to an already tense situation.
The call for an unprecedented shutdown of all educational institutions was given by the 35-group civil society organisation Apunba Lup and was supported by the All Manipuri Students’ Union, the Manipuri Students’ Federation and the Kangleipak Students’ Association. VK is a member of the Manipuri Students’ Federation. Even though the cause behind Lup’s action is justified, their reaction is not. Denying youngsters a chance to carry on with their normal lives in the abnormal situation that prevails in the state today can never be a solution to any problem.
Equally surprising is the attitude of the Centre. Surely, New Delhi understands that the four-month shutdown was a symptom of a much larger problem — the quality of governance under Chief Minister Ibobi Singh. Manipuri society has been exposed to constant pressure and turmoil: nobody ventures out after dark lest they get caught in a crossfire between underground groups and security forces; very few entertainment options are available thanks to diktats of the underground groups; extortion threats; and the lack of job opportunities. All these are choking a society that, given the space and opportunities, can grow like any other part of the country.
Take sports. Despite constraints, the state has produced our best boxers, footballers, hockey players and wrestlers. Manipur is the ‘birthplace’ of polo. Yet, the government has hardly bothered to revive this traditional sport. Corporate companies don’t want to sink their money in such a violent state. “We need money to keep polo alive. It helps us to forget the hopelessness that surrounds this place,” one polo player said.
Manipur’s ‘soft power’ has made its mark outside the state. Playwright, director and 1987 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winner Ratan Thiyam is considered one of the leading lights of contemporary Indian theatre. Top Manipuri dancers travel and perform all over the world. “We do a lot of experimentation with different classical dance forms. Currently, we are fusing the Manipuri sword dance with Kerala’s Kalaripayattu,” said Dilip Mayengbam, Director, Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy. “Unfortunately, there is no State patronage and no investments... The culture of violence and counter-violence and protests have started affecting artistes. If there is a performance in Delhi, there’s no surety you will make it, thanks to regular curfews and bandhs.”
“People have been forced to become resilient. But actually they are suffering. Only peace can heal this society,” Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike for 10 years against the AFSPA, told me over and over again. Sometimes resilience can prove to be such a ticking time-bomb.