In No Man’s Land
By the time I boarded the return flight from Imphal, I had made up my mind. I must write to the foreign minister, I told myself emphatically. Manipur must be dealt with by the External Affairs Ministry.
I had my reasons. A drive from Imphal to the hills makes you feel as if you were in Vietnam (especially since I am from UP and have never been to Vietnam). The most popular movies in Manipur are Korean. Much of the food in Manipuri markets is from Myanmar. And worse — or better still, for the foreign ministry — Indian governments over the past 60 years have done little to make the state feel that it is part of our country.
To the cynical visitor, Manipur would seem like a land far, far away from India. It is India’s first failed state, completely overrun by two dozen militant groups whose activities touch nearly every aspect of the lives of the state’s citizens.
How do I know this? By chance, because the intercom in my hotel room was not working. Let me explain. I had checked into the government-run Hotel Imphal, the city’s largest, where the beautiful lawns beckon guests into long corridors guarded by armed guards sitting outside the VIP rooms. I am not a finicky traveller, I carry my world with me. So, it did not matter to me that there was no towel or soap in the bathroom, or that mosquitoes were swooping down on my delicate Lakhnavi skin and the ceiling fan made noises like Ravan’s laughter, flashing dirty teeth as it ran in eternal slow motion on a hot, hot day. None of that mattered.
What mattered was the intercom. I, the soulful UP shayar, survive mainly on small talk and ginger tea. My idea of room service was not to walk what seemed like four kilometers to the restaurant to order a cup every time I felt the urge. Why on earth was the intercom not working?
I investigated the matter. The hotel officials had written many letters over the past six months to the tourism department to repair the hotel’s internal phones. Now the tourism department, its officials said, was facing a small problem: an Underground group had sent a threat letter, asking the officials to give them most of the funds. Terrified, most officials weren’t even going to work.
So the intercoms had not been fixed.
Irony of ironies: at around the same time that day, thousands of miles away in New Delhi, Manipur’s tourism secretary — top boss of the hotel where I was staying — was at a press briefing declaring plans to make this year the Visit Imphal year.
One man who could become the mascot of the Visit Imphal year is the state Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, who has spent most of his time in New Delhi these past few months, travelling intermittently to his state and winning thousands of frequent flier points at the taxpayer’s expense.
Ah, the taxpayer. The citizen of Manipur pays tax twice over — once to the government, and then to the underground militant groups — ranging from five to 10 per cent. Just like the Indian government, Manipur’s citizens long came to terms with all this.
Most Manipuris I chatted with say co-existing with the Underground groups has become a way of life.
In Imphal’s flea market, I come across old granny shopkeepers on an ice-cream break. I walked through rows of shops selling everything from herbs and dolls to meat and shawls. Sunlight streamed through a jute covering over the corridor, in the shape of tiny squares.
Two shawl seller grannies fought over me. I decided I belonged to none, leaving them heart-broken. Outside, I meet the real world again. On the roads, rickshaw pullers wear masks. They are graduates and post-graduates and they hide their faces out of shame.
The next morning, I travelled across the picturesque countryside to the Myanmar border, to the insurgent hub of Ukhrul. In a small, dimly-lit room at the district hospital, three HIV-positive men sit at a counseling centre. They are now trying to help others, but they have not been provided a vehicle to visit the far-flung areas and help other patients.
The district’s administrator has not been in his office for a month. There are sandbags at the entrance, no electricity, and the corridor is damp and gloomy. His deputy is not there too, neither the deputy’s deputy.
It didn’t really matter, because this place runs according to the rules of the Underground.
It didn’t really matter that there are no schools or hospitals or employment opportunities. The government of India and the state have long abdicated their role in Manipur.
A sense of anger and helplessness filled me, and by the second evening I decided it was time I did something about it. I returned to Hotel Imphal, tried the intercom again, slammed it down, walked to the reception and announced I was checking out.
I had found another, humbler hotel for just Rs 600 a day, where the intercom worked.
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