Amongst those who count the dead in Manipur

By Nitin Sethi
Published: Saturday 30 September 2006

Amongst those who count the dead in Manipur

-- (Credit: Nitin Sethi / CSE)Four environmental activists sit with me in room 122 of Hotel Imphal. "How can we get information from the state?" one asks. Do they expect an answer because I work for a Delhi-based environmental fortnightly, I wonder. They have failed to get information from state agencies on an important infrastructure project.

"Why don't you use the new powers under the Right to Information Act, 2005 to query the government?" I suggest. Four pairs of eyes confabulate, building a silent consensus on whether to talk or not. Believing that their silence means permission to continue, I go on: "You know it's quite revolutionary, they cannot deny you information under the act. You can ask them anything. People have tried it in Delhi and Maharashtra. Some officers have been personally fined under it for denying information." My interlocutors' eyes get shifty again, and one of them finally speaks up: "We have another act here: The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (afspa). It gives security forces unrestricted right to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer has the right to kill, just on suspicion: on the pretext of 'maintaining public order.'"

I squirm. Every journalist who knows Manipur knows about afspa. I try and hide my embarrassment by asking them for tea. "It's a bit different here," another of the environmentalists responds with a benign smile, assuaging my embarrassed ego. In the next two weeks I learn how different.
Pick up the gun A Naga woman leader tries telling me how stiffly they will resist a decision of the state to build an infrastucture project in their region. "We shall pick up guns if things comes to such a pass," she says, her eyes bloodshot. I am trying to make out how much of it is for me, the journalist and how much, an anguished reaction.

Before I can decide she laughs, catching me somewhat unawares. "It's a joke, each family has someone who has already picked up a gun. Taking up arms is no more a threat," she tells me. Her bloodshot eyes and smile, with anger and disgust writ large, certainly don't betray humour.
Stringing out I am leaving Manipur earlier than planned: a couple of stories aren't finished. I detest having to leave midway, but circumstances are particularly extenuating. Before leaving, I must find an Imphal-based journalist to report for Down To Earth. Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press suggests one of his reporters for the job. I speak with her. Excited she says, "Yes, let's see what one feels about doing them (the stories I have asked her to do). Here most news is about gathering body counts. And after the numbers are in, one has to go about town collecting condemnation letters from as many organisations as possible. All condemnations have to be on paper." "For us, these development stories are like low intensity warfare, as debilitating," I respond. "Yes, we normally inform these many dead, this day," she repeats. The conversation strikes a chord: just a day before, August 16, 2006 actually, a blast at the Iskon temple in Imphal has killed four and injured 70 . Most papers outside Manipur describe the blast as a "terrorist attack on a holy day" which importantly has also "injured a few foreigners". The reports also have a closing line about the dozen insurgencies festering in the state.
Entry woes To meet the minister for power, I have to enter the state secretariat. It's a fortress actually: I require a pass to enter. For that, I need to be accredited as a journalist by the state government or be an important enough name to sneak through. The accreditation also comes from inside the secretariat. The local press information officer can't get me an appointment with the minister. His private secretary's number is small consolation but of little use: repeated calls over three days don't get me a response.

Mobile numbers of the right people are hot property in conflict zones. The right people could be from the state or from amongst those 'underground', I soon realise. Anecdotes narrated by friends and my experiences bring forth another realisation: the ways and the paraphernalia of the state and those underground have begun to mirror each other.

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