Last week, a friend of mine asked me: "What do you think of the problem in the north-east?" Let us begin with the obvious. The north-east is a colonial construct. The very act of labelling distances it. The plurality of places, spaces, memories, ecologies we call Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Bodoland, Assam gets homogenised into a flatness of north-east.
We have increasingly orientalised ourselves after Independence. Once we homo-genise, once we orientalise, we behave as if we colonise. And the three together create what sociologists call the self-fulfilling prophecy. What is familiar through, say, the People of India survey is behaviourally reproduced by attributing strangeness. Manipur is more distant than Madison. Do we even think of the difference between Hindu Manipur and Christian Mizoram?
An integral part of India is read as an item of foreign policy. And people respond in turn by saying "go back Indian army". Of course there is insurgency there and the insidious fingers of the ISI. But is ISI the marker to a problem or are we as a democracy going to wrest it from ISI and redefine it for ourselves? The youth of these societies are already part of the Indian and global mainstream. They are prominent in every educational institution both in their ability to be westernised and yet retain their separate indivi-dual identities. When the PM, sensitive though he is, says we have to retrain bureaucrats for the north-east, he might be falling into the same stereotypical traps.
There is a second part of the story. My late colleague Giri Deshingkar was a defence expert with a heart. He knew that statistics could bleed. Giri once talked to us about a problem of law and order and not as he emphasised a ‘law and order’ problem. For instance, the atrocity of Assam Rifles or the insurgent violence, the agitations could be read as a problem of law and order.
The problem of law and order dealt with the paramilitarisation of our society. Deshingkar observed that India as a society has over a million paramilitary forces outside the army. Many are equipped like army units and yet function for internal order and control. He talked of a decade when almost all the awards for gallantry the army got, were for action against our own people. What then happens to the idea of civil rights and people’s security? In that sense women’s protests against the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by Assam Rifles is something that concerns us all. How do we stop the paramilitarisation and brutalisation of our society?
I am not ignoring the problem of terro-rism and insurgency. It is commonsense that terrorist groups, whatever their
inaugural acts of liberation, gradually degenerate to fat-cat tax collection agencies. The monstrous jugalbandi between terrorism and paramilitarisation literally asphy-xiates democracy in a society. When atrocities like terrorism and rape are met with silence, then protest must be genuinely creative to break through the crust of complicity and silence. That is what the nude protest in front of Kangla Fort achieved. It demands a response beyond questions of rights, feminist propriety, security or the other cliches of the "north-east problem".
What do we do as ordinary citizens and concerned Indians? Do we leave it to the experts — retired ministry officials, security denizens and exiled politicians desperate to make a comeback? How do we respond to the Manipur in each of us? There is in each Indian a part that wants to secede and another which desperately clings to the idea of India. Each of us wants to be separate and Indian — Tamil and Indian, Gujarati and Indian, Sikh and Indian. The term ‘and’ is crucial for Indian identity. The minute we guillotine it terrorism is born. But more, since media is so central, do we restrict it to the visual spectacle of protest of the women or do we demand to hear voices, discourses from Manipur and not from Delhi? Sometimes one feels it is Delhi that has seceded from the rest of India. Can we insist on a newspaper panchayat where citizens can demand the news, voices, views they want so that Manipur gets more
space than the socialites on page 3? A newspaper panchayat allows conversations across states between people. Let Manipuris speak for themselves and let India don a hearing aid and listen to these voices. If protest is a scream of pain let us insist on hearing it without experts as middlemen brokering the idea of Manipur. We have to decide whether Manipur is only an issue for the state or an idea for civil society.
A few years ago when the earthquake struck Gujarat, people from every part of India rushed to help. They came with the little they had, but ready to share. An atrocity is like a social earthquake. When people protest atrocities in Manipur do we remain silent or do we remember that each gift demands a return? Silence magnifies the terror and brutality of an atrocity. Worse, we have to decide whether the only way to discover some parts of India is either through a tourist folder or an atrocity narrative. The first destroys the sacred geography of India and the second demeans our democratic imagination. Let us sustain the Manipur in all us. One hopes that the prime minister’s visit inaugurates a small beginning in this reciprocity of decency and conversation