Celebration of India’s Independence Day as also Republic Day, for long has come to be under a cloud in most capitals of the Northeast. With some variations in the degrees of urgency, weeks before these celebrations for the past many decades have come to acquire the look of drills on war fronts. The scenario is not too different in major townships beyond these capitals too. This dismal annual ritual has not worn out despite the fact that insurgency does seem to be on a visible wane in the entire region.
This year has been no different. A number of militant organisations, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), and the several Manipur based underground organisations who together function as a collective under CorCom, the short form for Coordinating Committee, called for a boycott of the Independence Day celebrations a fortnight ahead of the day. The knee-jerk responses to these challenges are also now routine and they are virtual flag marches to demonstrate the power of the establishment. Uniformed gun totting security personnel would begin to be seen on street corners frisking people, stopping motorists, checking vehicles and questioning them, or else using sniffer dogs and metal detectors to ensure the roads are clean of unpleasant surprises.
It is also normal for cities like Imphal to slowly begin wear a deserted look as these celebrations draw close, especially after sunset, ironically not so much because of fear of militant violence, but to avoid being accosted by security men and go through the ritual humiliation of being scrutinised like petty trouble makers. Nobody is surprised anymore, much less distressed, to see long lines of young men standing or squatting by the sides of the roads under blazing summer sun while their identities are being individually verified by security men.
These celebrations of State glory, in the Northeast today are no longer really celebrations. Instead, they have been steadily warped and disfigured into shows of power between the State and those challenging it. However, those who have lived long enough would know it was never this way even four decades ago. In Imphal for instance, these occasions once wore the looks of carnivals, with ordinary men, women and children thronging the streets, not only at the official celebration venue but also to participate in the fun and frolic on the streets. Children returning home with guardian proudly displaying prized colourful balloons and toys, families and friend going out to the cinema together etc. The mood was always unmistakably of gaiety.
Politics was also sober and far from polarised then. Those who came out did so for the joy of immersing themselves and their loved ones in the festive atmosphere of public jubilation and not to oblige the State or any brand of politics. There were no larger-than-life billboards of supposedly larger-than-life leaders on the streets towering over all as if to remind them they were vulnerable but being looked after. There were no flag-waving competitive nationalism or patriotism either, for everybody knew what the day was about and did not need reminders. Instead, the source of joy for children were vendors selling sweetened, coloured ice on sticks which were what ice-creams were those days. Especially in the case of the Republic Day celebration, schools and colleges also trained hard for weeks to send their marching contingents vying to be recognized as top marchers, just as cultural troupes and local brass bands did.
Those days, unfortunately have become distant memories, and unfortunately, they are receding further and further away. Today, official parades are no longer held on the open streets but in gated compounds of police cantonments or else inside the Kangla Fort in Imphal, the old seat of power of the erstwhile kingdom of Manipur, cordoned off during the celebration and entry restricted. By the turn of another generation, whatever remains of that innocent and happier memory, would probably have vanished altogether, unless something happens to alter the situation radically. No amount of induced flag waving can substitute that nostalgia.
Hopefully, this change would happen and the complex, multi-ethnic conflict situation in the region is transformed to usher in durable peace. These conflicts are also not exactly mindless as many often jump to the conclusion. They spawned from certain inconsistencies of visions of identity and dignified life. Though these conditions cannot easily be defined precisely, what needs to be understood is, they are a residue of collective experiences of different peoples through ages. This being so, it would be a fallacy and travesty of justice to ask them to change what essentially were shaped through the eons, overnight.
The traumatic rush under which modern republican Indian nationhood was forged in 1947 would have somewhat made inevitable the aggressive campaigns to have people conform to what was then believe to be mainstream. The Northeast region unfortunately became one of those at the receiving end of this often coercive mainstreaming. That insurrections sprang up in the region almost at the time of Indian Independence should be an indicator of this.
The Nagas were first to say no to be part of this mainstream, but seeds for future unrests were also embedded, though in hibernation then, in many other communities at the time. Many of these societies waited and watched to see if peaceful resolution of their inherent insecurities would come about naturally. Unfortunately, for various reasons, this did not happen soon enough, and one after the other, many more raised the banner of resistance to the assimilation process.
So much water has flowed down the many rivers of the region in the decades that went by, and as they say, as in the case of rivers, there is no way anybody can step into the same time frame more than once. So much have changed and if all stakeholders are courageous enough to strike the refresh button, or even to reboot, perhaps a brave new world where all past hiccups have been done away, will begin to look possible.
This article was first published in The New Indian Express on August 20
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author