Amongst those who count the dead in Manipur
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.
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.
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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