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Curfew and the night

Strikes, gunfire and the dark pall of fear envelop Manipur, a state that has been under terror’s siege for more than four decades, writes Akshay Mahajan.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2009 22:24 IST

In the 30-something degree heat of day, all is silent in Imphal except for soldiers beating their sticks against the pavement and dogs barking in distant neighbourhoods.

I had flown in a few hours earlier, unaware of the city’s uncertain state of siege. Travelling past alternating police checkpoints and local highway blockades, I reached the city. My belongings were scrutinised, papers examined by policemen. The local blockades, manned by angry Meitei women and children pulling on makeshift rope past burning rubber tires, were as much forms of extortion as they were forms of popular protest. The bundle of ten rupee notes in my pocket helped me negotiate these barriers.

Manipur was in a state of clampdown, the consequence of the kidnapping and brutal murder of a young officer of the Manipur Civil Service, Dr Thingnam Kishan. His body was found alongwith his driver and guard, hacked to death, strewn under a bridge on one of the state’s highways on February 13. It seemed like yet another death in the face of the terror Manipur faces from the armed forces and from scores of militant groups, hardly any of it is reported except by their local media. I did not know immediately that this was different — there was a communal angle to it, and rumours of Dr Kishan’s honesty getting in the way of a politician’s corruption.

The insurgents have been in the region in one form or another since the birth of the country, engulfing it in a civil conflict with an almost unending stamina for death. In time, more groups have mushroomed, crystallising around the different ethnic and tribal identities. Each of these groups has its own skewed separatist agenda. What they share is a deep distrust of Indian soldiers and a love for extortion. India has pumped in almost 55,000 soldiers and loads of money in this more than half-century of conflict but neither seems to have stopped political grievances or everyday misery.

I walk over to the window and take pictures of the scene beyond the heavy grill. The suspicious black box in my possession catches the eyes of one of the soldiers. In a sudden jerk he dismounts his gun off this shoulder and points its upwards; I drop my camera and push my hands through the metal outwards to make my intentions clearer — my first exchange of fear. Here in Imphal, the soldier can shoot me on suspicion.

If you have lived in Imphal long enough you will find that the life of its three lakh inhabitants revolves around perennial cycles of general strikes and curfew. In fact Imphal has remained in a state of partial curfew for decades, a reality incomprehensible to those of us who live in metropolitan India. Between 5am to 5pm, when curfew is relaxed, the city swings into action. Everyone desperately rushes to do their chores before time and supplies run out. Even the most routine of transactions like buying vegetables takes on an air of tension. Come evening, the streets fill with people making a hasty retreat home as the last of Imphal throng outside ATMs before the shopkeepers down their shutters and police loudspeakers announce the coming of yet another curfew.

A large photograph of a young woman — her nose covered by a medical swatch making way for an IV tube — dominates a makeshift bamboo hut in New Checkon in Imphal East. This is a picture of Irom Sharmila. She has not eaten for nearly nine years now. For this she has been locked up by the government and force-fed by tubes. She launched into this almost decade long fast unto death, demanding the removal of the repressive Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) after she witnessed the killing of 10 civilians allegedly at the hands the Assam Rifles in November of 2000.

In the hut Ima K Taruni and the dozen other Meira Paibi, the torch bearers are angry as they sit in a relay hunger strike for Sharmila. “Enough is enough, we will not vote until AFSPA is revoked. What kind of democracy is this were members of our own army kill us with impunity,” she says.

The smog gently floats over the valley in a vacuum left by the pause of violence; in the days that follow it is the Yaoshang festival. A quiet before the storm only to be pierced by gun fire. In the streets people scatter, shop shutters come rumbling down and all is once more quiet in anticipation of the next rattle of bullets. A photographer’s job is filled with fool’s errands; we chase gunfire instead of escaping it. Meters away in Imphal’s Kunjabi Leikai, I find them breathing their last — two young men killed in yet another encounter. A 9mm pistol, a grenade and some documents are found. People watch as their bodies are put onto the back of a pickup truck by a lanky policeman. In Manipur, death itself, has become an unremarkable spectacle.

Akshay Mahajan is a freelance photographer and an avid traveller

First Published: Apr 17, 2009 22:19 IST