Friday, 15 November 2013

Guns and Roses

The beautiful land of Manipur has a long shadow across it.  Its something that's not easy to talk about, but like the proverbial elephant in the room - its clearly there.

The hidden dimension is the presence of guns.  And the people who wield them.

We see the security forces.  Patrols.  Heavily armed Quick Response Teams.   Soldiers with impassive faces on top of fast-moving jeeps, manning machine guns that can be swivelled around.   Barriers outside armed forces encampments with slogans like 'Friends of the Hill People" on them.

And we don't see the others, but their seeming absence is just as real.  We are talking with two senior doctors and they hear a sound.  I thought it was a door slamming in the next room.  They ask each other: "is that a bomb?" "No, I think it is a cracker left over from someone's diwali."

We walking by a village and saw men making gun powder.  Our host took me over to look.   He and I talked about the local practices of hunting as we walked away from the group of 3 men grinding up the black powder.  When I got back to Churachandpur and mentioned it to a friend, he had a different take.  He thought it more likely that the powder is being made for militants who move about fairly freely in some of the hill villages.

Silence speaks as well.

The totally deserted streets of Churachandpur, every single night, speak volumes about what is going on.

In Thane, if I want to get a packet of milk at 10.30 PM, I go downstairs and walk across the street.  There is a blaze of light, I am surrounded by the tempting aromas of 'pav-bhaaji' that the local vendours are out selling to families.  Folks are out till almost 12 AM, chowing-down on dosas or 'chinese' and finishing it off with kulfi bought from the street vendours.  There is light, sound, smell.  We live in the steady low grumble of a city awake - even at 3 or 4 am.

Here in Churachandpur every single shop is boarded up by 7 PM.  The sun has set at 4.30 and the electricity is only on for 4 hours a day so you are basically in darkness.  The odd person on the street may be walking back from a church meeting, or may be a member of a security force... there seems to be precious few others out at night.  The nights are dark and utterly silent.  Its only at 4 AM that the thick blanket of silence is broken - by the sporadic call of the rooster announcing that the sun is about to rise.

It wasn't my intention to query into the security situation here in Manipur - but you can't avoid talking about it.  It leaks into our conversations frequently.  "We have less problems with the UG than we had before" said one of the senior men I talked to, referring to the 'Under Grounds" - members of the bewildering number of armed outfits that operate in the valley and the hills of Manipur.  "The government is giving a monthly payment of Rs. 3000 per cadre to the organisations, so they are happy and allow the government to function."  Cold comfort thinking of my tax money going to pay off sundry folks with guns.  Cold comfort to think of our money going into supporting the various paramilitary forces.  Cold comfort to think of the dusty pot-holed roads where the 'public works department' has gotten the name 'patch-up works department.'  The contracts are won and the money pocketed by the powers to be - and the game continues.

I had started writing this post 2 days ago in general way.

But this morning the reality of it really sunk in.   We should be saying good-bye to our local hosts about now and getting into a vehicle to drive to Imphal.  But we are not.  Why?  Because day before yesterday a prominent Meitei politician was murdered in broad daylight near the Imphal Airport.   His party has declared a 24 hour bandh - no vehicle is supposed to ply the streets.  And that means that this morning - after having packed up to leave - we were told that the bandh is total.

Since we have pass through areas controlled by this party, and since the current intelligence reports talk of at least one vehicle already set on fire by the 'bandh-wallahs' it means that we are still in the cool sunshine of Churachandpur, instead of heading for Imphal airport.  We have postponed our flight to Guwahati and have just managed to book tickets for tomorrow.  The projected extra cost will be at least Rs. 13,000/-.  I don't think that the particular political party that has called the bandh is going to refund it to us...

As outsiders we are furious to have half of our precious time in Shillong cut by our dear protesting friends.   This is really the chance of a lifetime for our family, and we have invested heavily in this trip - to give Asha and Enoch a chance to see the beauty of this place and Shillong - and meet some of the wonderful friends that we have made over the years.  But what they are also getting is an education in the hard-knocks life of what local people face here day in and day out.  

Besides today's bandh declaration, the paper from Imphal has another story, about another political / social outfit that is threatening an indefinite strike in the hill areas unless their demands are met. And inside the papers are more demands and memorandums and condemnations by variety of parties and fronts.

Is it any surprise that young people from this area are leaving in droves?  That there is virtually no future for anyone who wants to invest and build anything up here?

My respect for folks who continue to live here in Manipur continues to go up.  To remain in the midst of constant uncertainty, to carry on despite the shadow of various guns and outfits above and underground, official and unofficial, supported and unsupported is a feat in itself.

The roses?  Well, it must be our hardy friends who live here.  Humanly speaking, there just seems to be so little hope.  But in this hard soil our dear friends continue to bloom.

Sheba commented to our host - Dr. Lalzakung Tusing - as we drank tea this morning: "you are always smiling - even when "  He responded: "we have to, if we are upset and worried about what is going on around us, it won't help us."

We leave tomorrow (we hope) and take with us another glimpse of the pain that our friends go through on a daily basis.  Our prayers are all the more urgent that the swords will be beaten into ploughshares - and that the Prince of Peace will return to take His rightful place in this beautiful and broken land.

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