The Imphal-bound NST Bus was all set to leave Dimapur yard at 6.30 am on the April fool day (1st April), 2021. All passengers in silent prayer had already wished and visualized their safe arrival to the warm welcome of family members at the end of 220 kms of serpentine route through the hills, potholes, dusty roads and traffic jams. When the conductor entered the bus it was sure he will show the green flag for the driver to roll the wheels from the start point of the journey home. But nay! He announced, “We have 36 hours Bandh news from Kangpokpi area. We are waiting for further confirmation. Please, remain seated for a while or ask for refund at the counter.” Perhaps, the prayers went unheard and so the fresh vision of warm welcome home was disappearing fast. With dropping eyebrows passenger started alighting the bus heavily with their luggage. Even the bag piles of Imphal-bound fresh vegetables including much sought after Yongchak looked sad and sullen having to rot for another 36 hours in the rising heat of Dimapur. Seeing the predicament of the helpless passengers the conductor lamented, “what to do we are also helpless. Bandhs come up anytime in Manipur.” April fool seems to be no more fooling! That is my motherland, Manipur! Yet, I am thankful to all Bandh callers in Manipur: past and present!
Manipur has a history of endless social unrests in the forms of general strikes and Bandhs resulting into direct and indirect confrontations with the state forces. The origin of these social unrests may be traced from the first Nupi Lal (1st Women’s agitation) in 1904 when women came out to protest against force labour of their husband by the diktats of British administration when wounds of the defeat of the kingdom in 1891 might not had healed properly. This was a significant event in the society in that the Nupi lal-I may be seen as the transformation of the subjects into human agencies in the Monarchic society which was transiting from master-servant social order to right bearing social and political order. From the Nupi lal-I to State-hood demand agitations in the early 1970s was of the whole of the society nature until 1980s when NSCN(IM) began to affect social and political order of the hill-valley state transiting to democracy. Bandhs began to take different forms and nature as whole of the society nature to breaking up into divisive nature: from Hill – Valley polarization to Naga – Kuki – Meitei polarization and fragmentation of the society following Naga-Kuki ethnic clashes in 1990s leading to disintegration of state’s polity into ethnic and regional political aspirations. “All Manipur Bandhs” (AMB) often began to be countered by “Hill Areas Bandhs” (HAB). This trend of social disintegration, whether it is politically organized strategic move or unorganized local action, has gone down to local specific Bandh called by section of people in Kangpokpi under the newly curved out Sadar hills district but the effects of localized Bandhs are same as that of All Manipur or Hill Areas Bandhs in a growing interdependent world order of the 21st century, today.
Bandhs, however localized they may be today, are life threatening experiences for all in Manipur as most Bandhs are geo-political strategic attempts to strangulate the most vital part of the Government and the state systems – the two national highways passing through hill areas considered as the arterial line for the state of Manipur and the population. Equally, Bandhs called in the valley directly affect the capital city like cardiac arrests. The entire state machineries come to a standstill as it always remains at the mercy of the irate sections of society. Any group can easily call “All Manipur Bandh” (AMB) even when the issue may be very local affecting a section of society. Both public and Bandh calling aggrieved sections of society easily cooperate to an extent of curiosity and leisure time out. Some people often used to go out to see Bandh. It can be amusing and interesting to hear someone saying: Ei Bandh yengba chatluge (I am going out to see Bandh). At times, and apparently so, for the bureaucracy and elected members, Bandh days are good time for rest, relief and peace for many in power and positions because they do not have to worry much about day to day basic needs. Many failed to understand the sufferings of the thousands and poor and needy people who come to seek for basic needs from near and far furlong remote corners until Jarnail Singh, the then Chief Secretary of Manipur highlighted the loss per day caused by Bandhs in terms of money during his tenure (2004-2008).
Accordingly to Jarnail Singh, one day Bandh in Manipur cost Rs 5 Crores in the state economy which is almost 100% dependent on central funding. This was a great awakening to many independent thinking persons in the state which later on resulted into anti-bandh movements in after 2015. When the present BJP Govt came into power in 2014 following the change in political winds at the centre in favour of BJP things began to change in Bandh management by the Government. Bandhs are easily managed presently than any other times in the past Congress governments. Some Bandhs get nibbed at the bud itself by satisfying the aggrieved party leaders. Such improved Bandh/ crisis management skills has been keeping the lifelines free to regular transportations of goods and labour from outside into the state for the comforts in lifestyles of all not necessary without any political will to address the root causes of the histories of social unrests in the state and society. And yet whenever a Bandh is called the Bandh callers are blamed to be bad people in the society or making best out of the troubles they create. On the contrary, trouble makers may be elsewhere! May be some questions help us lead there!
Why do the state of Manipur and society continue to produce and reproduce social and political unrests through one generation to the next since its merger to the largest democracy in the world? Do we have to see the frequent unrests; Bandhs as indicators of healthy democratic processes in the society? Do the people in the state whose literacy ranks higher at 80% than the national average at 74% (2011) with 68 colleges including regional institutes and universities constantly prepare its younger generations as Bandh makers? Is round the year seasonal social and political unrests systemic design of a centrally sponsored and internally contested state at an unsecured international boundary and cultural peripheries of a larger nation? Why does not the education prepare the population as problem-solvers to advance democracy within the largest democracy? Why wouldn’t one ask what is at fault instead of traditional blame games: who is at fault? Why should people be blamed for all the wrongs without answering the question what right education has been imparted to the people by the state? Why can’t the frequent funds by any group for whatever small or big reasons and how so ever it affects the lives of the poor and struggling mass be seen as INDICATORS or SYMPTOMS of something seriously wrong in the political and government systems and structures in this land?
Everyone is innocent unless proven by law. In the same vein everyone is innocent including the Bandh callers unless they are given the right quality education that provide them the right kind of knowledge, attitudes and skills for problem-solving while advancing democracy in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. It is good to have the frequent Bandhs, tensions, violence and armed struggles disrupting normal lives and forestalling all round development processes of the people in this part of the world. It is good to have frequent Bandh calls as they are the frequent reminders to the power: Hey! Something is seriously not right here. If the power listens to it and responds appropriately through policy research and change the better for them. If the power continues to act like ostrich behind the security covers and do not take a step beyond day to day crisis management then it is their problem, not mine nor ours. People have lived with Bandhs and violence through generations for no fault of theirs. They will also find their own local creative ways out. The choice for the Government is clear: peaceful society by providing the right education or violent society without bothering about the right education as the ways things are.
The writer is Visiting Faculty, NEISSR, Nagaland and Coordinator PINE (Manipur-Nagaland)