Guest Writings
23/08/04 Manipur: India's Intifada by Satya Sagar

It is not Fallujah, Palestine or even Kashmir but only a small province in the north-east of India. But there is no doubt that what the people of Manipur are staging right now is a full-scale intifada against the atrocities of an occupying army.

The immediate target of their ire is one of the world's most draconian 'anti-terror' laws anywhere- the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, imposed on several parts of the Indian north-east since 1958. The larger protest is against what is correctly perceived as decades of racist oppression by successive Indian governments that 'inherited' the north-eastern territories from British colonial rule in 1947.

'Manipur? Who? What? Where? is Manipur' I can already hear people ask. Not surprising at all for those are questions that many Indian citizens themselves would be hard put to answer. Unlike Kashmir or the fate of the 'untouchable' Dalits- whose causes have made it to global platforms in recent years- the dirty little secrets of the Indian State's predations in its north-eastern provinces are unknown to even the rest of India.

Not that the rest of 'Aryan' India really cares. To them, the populations of the Indian northeast, of largely Tibeto-Burman ethnic origins, are an 'invisible' lot- whose territory and resources 'belong' to India but whose people don't. Probably a rung below the 'visible' Dalits who 'belong' to India but possess no territory.

What sparked off Manipur's intifada was a spectacular and emotionally searing protest against yet another rape and murder of a local woman by members of the Assam Rifles, an Indian paramilitary force stationed in the province.

On July 15, this year, a dozen middle-aged Manipuri women calmly walked up to the gates of the paramilitary headquarters in the province, stripped stark naked and held up placards which read ' Indian Army rape us', 'Rape us the way you did Manorama'. The images flashed throughout India caused outrage of course but in Manipur it brought the entire citizenry out on the streets.

Manorama was the name of a 32 year old Manipuri woman, who was picked up from her house in early July by soldiers for being a 'suspected insurgent' and later found dead. Autopsy reports showed she had been shot at close range several times through her genitals- an obvious attempt to fudge any investigation of rape.

Officers of the Assam Rifles claimed Manorama was a member of the outlawed People's Liberation Army (PLA), one of several Manipuri militant groups demanding autonomy or even outright separation from the Indian union. According to them she was shot while trying to 'escape from custody'- a standard excuse for assassinating the 'inconvenient' anywhere in the world. Assam Rifles personnel have so far brazenly refused to testify before an official inquiry investigating Manorama's death.

What has united the entire population of Manipur's 2.4 million people and across the political spectrum, is not just the rape/murder (of which there is a long list over the decades) but the fact that Indian security forces are 'legally covered' no matter what they do.

Providing such legal cover is the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA) under which all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccountable power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared 'disturbed'. The Act allows even a non-commissioned officer the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion and to “maintain the public order”. And members of the security forces acting under the AFSPA can be prosecuted only with the explicit consent of the Indian government- leaving their victims perpetually without remedy.

Like many other antiquated Indian laws the AFSPA is a slightly modified version of an old British colonial Act imposed to control a nationwide struggle by Indian nationalists for independence. The AFSPA was enacted in 1958 and initially aimed at the Naga insurgent movement for independence from India but amended in 1972 to be applicable to all the seven provinces in the north- eastern region of India.

Known as the 'seven sisters' the provinces of Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland- are among the most neglected and underdeveloped parts of India. Manipur lags 22% behind the national average for infrastructural development, and the entire north-eastern region is 30% behind the rest of India.

The irony of the AFSPA lies in the fact that Manipur, of all the seven provinces in the Indian northeast, was the most peaceful- until it came within the purview of the Act in 1980. There have been separatist insurgencies in other parts of the Indian north-east since the early days of Indian independence, notably that of the Nagas and Mizos, but never among the ethnic Meitei who form the bulk of Manipur's population. Currently there are reported to be over a dozen insurgent groups operating in the province – a testimony to the AFSPA having achieved exactly the opposite of what it was purported to do.

According to human rights groups, the enforcement of the AFSPA has resulted in innumerable incidents of arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and looting by security personnel. Many of the provisions of the Act violate the Indian constitution and various international human rights charters.

Despite all this, over the years successive governments in New Delhi have justified the legislation on the basis that it is required to stop the North East provinces from seceding from the Indian Union. All the mainstream Indian political parties, each trying to be more 'patriotic' than the other, agree on the need to keep the AFSPA despite its unpopularity and dubious record.

The simple truth about India is that its elites are still running a 19th century State wrested from British colonialists which always prioritized land and resources over the lives of ordinary people. For all the glib talk about India being a 'software superpower' those who run the Indian State have always displayed a perverse fetish for protecting their 'national hardware'.

Successive Indian governments since independence have been guilty of treating the country's north-eastern provinces as mere property with little respect for its people's culture, aspirations and demands. And when the people revolt against such treatment the only solution the Indian elites can think of is a military one.

Making matters worse is the reality that these Indian national elites, essentially drawn from upper caste 'Aryan' stock, combine the brute technology of the nation-state with the metaphysics of the ancient caste system thereby asserting a double oppression on all 'lesser people' in the land. So the members of the Indian army and police who lord it over the people of the northeastern provinces are armed with not just gun and bayonet but also with Bramhinical notions of cultural and racial 'superiority' over those they so gleefully rape and pillage.

Truth be said the Indian government's actions in its north-east are not really very different in many ways from what many other countries are doing to their own ethnic and cultural minority people elsewhere in the world. And within India too it is not just the people of the Indian north-east who bear the brunt of such racism but also all the Dalit and tribal people living in other parts of the country- robbed of their resources, dignity and way of life under the 'patronage' of the Indian State.

The only real difference though is that the people of the Indian north-east are not willing to take such colonialism lying down and have repeatedly risen up to fight for their rights.

Even as I write now Manipur is burning- literally- with students setting themselves ablaze, shops and institutions closed, people out blockading the roads- an entire population out on the streets in protest.

The recently elected Congress government in Delhi – ill advised no doubt by the Indian army and bureaucracy – says it is willing to talk to the 'insurgents' but refuses to repeal the AFSPA. This ignores the fact that the unrest in Manipur is today not about a handful of militants anymore but has turned into an insurrection by its entire population.

It is time that the rest of the world woke up to the plight of the people of Manipur and the Indian north-east for the simple reason that they are among our globe's oldest victims of the tyranny wrought by misplaced and dubious 'anti-terrorism' legislation. All those concerned about how the US sponsored 'War on Terror' is destroying democracy globally should pay close attention to the struggles of the Manipuri people. The context may be different but the problem is a painfully familiar one.

And the rest of India should oppose what is happening to their brethren in the north-east as the Indian State is perpetrating atrocities in their name and because the price of indifference could be their own subjection to such brutalities in the future. In the process, they could begin to forge nothing less than a new idea of the Indian nation – shorn of racism and defined in terms of living people with living concerns and not dead property or the abstract perimeters of a paper map.

Satya Sagar is a writer, journalist, videomaker based in Thailand. He can be contacted at sagarnama@yahoo.com

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