Dr. Khan is Additional Professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. He can be contacted at [email protected]
When I got an invite to speak at a Conference in Imphal, I was excited. I had never been to the North East (India) and therefore saw this as an opportunity to explore. My wife thought that Imphal was the capital of Mizoram while I was sure it represented Meghalya. When we, on an individual, furtive basis, found that Imphal was the capital of Manipur, both of us decided to ignore the subject. Well that was the best I knew North East as an “integral” part of mainland India! But yes, I knew Irom Sharmila (through personal web based “search” efforts) and Mary Kom (through the mainstream, National media) as representatives of this plucky, spirited state. For a country obsessed with merit and hungry for National icons of hope and courage, it was funny that even though Mary Kom could capture national imagination temporarily, Irom Sharmila was pushed into darkness till the mockery of Anna Hazare forced the media to make her a passing reference; a footnote on the pages of democracy!
As soon as I came out of the airport, my perceptions or rather misconceptions of the North East began to crumble. The presence of gender equality was so palpable that it began to feel a bit uncomfortable for someone gone from a feudal, male dominant North India. Symbols of female emancipation were too loud to be ignored. Young women walking freely on streets in the odd hours of the evening was a sight to which my sensitivities had withered with time. For a man coming from the rape capital, Delhi, it was a pleasant change. It was as if I felt free from the clutches of a schizophrenic, amnesic society to which I had now integrated. The schizophrenia of double speaks and double thought of North (mainland) India was suddenly replaced by liberal, honest verses of a society waiting for its time. There was a Mary Kom and an Irom Sharmila in every Manipuri. The smell of freedom rose from the stalls of Ima keithal, the all women market of Imphal. The idea of justice and equity floated in the air like the free floating phumdis (or floating villages) of the Loktak Lake. Most young students I met during my trip were full of hope…. hope for a better future, hope for an inclusive development of the state. This was in contrast to the more common lot back in Delhi- the “true” torchbearer of free India’s dream. The lot which is most, if not all the time interested in knowing methods of flying out to the West..…exclusive agenda with exclusive hope!
Despite eternal peace throughout the city, the presence of State was too garish. Heavily armed armor cars with hypersensitive young soldiers peaking into mounted stens were a common scene throughout the city. The green camouflage of the army was a ruthless mix with the lively, vibrant colors of the city and its people. India was keeping a close eye on its democracy! My courteous hosts explained that these jawans of Assam Rifles were part of the operations to keep insurgents at bay…. although it was difficult to explain the nature and severity of insurgency requiring such keen interest of the army. The fact that Manipur was the only land route out of India into the Far East, compounded with a growing presence of China in and around the region and a hostile Myanmar at the doorstep, insurgency can surely be a pretext for galvanizing state presence till it appears to look like an occupation. It is known since the inception of totalitarianism, that an occupier always tries and besieges the local symbols of culturalism and identity. No wonder the Kangla Fort and other local places of mass manifestation in Manipur had been under the control of Assam Rifles till recent past. In fact some vital historic places of Imphal continue to be under army/paramilitary control even today.
North East is a forgotten vision in the dream of Indian republic. They have ceased to exist in our imagination. The provocation by Mary Koms and Irom Sharmillas is too weak to arouse the psyche of the common Indian. The vision of India is complete without its outstretched arms of the North East. Their happy lives, away from the spotlight of mainland India has given them enough courage to survive. They have learnt to live without us. Whether we live without them or live to learn from them is a choice, which mainland India should make sooner than later.