Year of the peoples’ protest

Over the 365 days of 2019, Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India witnessed several key events that had an impact on the collective lives of people, either directly or indirectly. But, if one had to sum up the overwhelming theme of the year gone by, it would be one marked by the power of popular protests.

From the continuing pro-democracy ‘umbrella’ protestors of Hong Kong to worldwide climate change protests led by students, this was the year of protests across the globe; and Arunachal Pradesh was no exception.

After the end of the festive season in January, as the state geared up for continued celebrations for Statehood Day in February, the recommendation of a government-led Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) to grant permanent resident certificates (PRCs), under certain conditions, to six communities not recognised as indigenous tribals led to wide-scale protests concentrated in the capital.

Those protests eventually cost three young lives.

Additionally, damages to property worth crores of rupees were incurred, an entire commercial building (Takar Complex) was damaged which also housed the Centre for Cultural Documentation that had (ironically) archived the state’s rich tribal history and culture, the deputy chief minister’s residence was razed, and eventually, the government said that it will not be raising the issue in future.

One of the several cars that were burnt down in the anti-PRC protests in February.

While the government’s announcement helped diffuse the violence, it does not solve the issue at hand.

Denying PRCs may protect indigenous rights and benefits, but we cannot wish away the communities who have been demanding it for decades. Ultimately, an alternative must be found.

The February protests also led to the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) drawing widespread criticism across the board for its stance on the issue.

While the state government had not actually given any commitment that the communities in question will be given PRC and that the JHPC’s recommendations will be tabled and discussed in the Legislative Assembly, it did little to douse people’s anger.

The fact that the AAPSU was part of the JHPC did not help the union’s image as people took to Facebook to openly criticise the body. It has not recovered since then as has been evident by protests that took place in the fag-end of the year.

The February protests may have led many outside the state to believe that the BJP government may face problems in the upcoming elections but when the state went to polls and the results were declared, no one in the state was surprised.

In a state where ideologies and affiliations are the last thing in the minds of politicians, it hardly occupies space in the minds of the electorate and thus the BJP was overwhelmingly voted back into power in the state and the Centre.

The protests in the early part of the year showed us the power of people’s protests and it became the norm to sit at the tennis courts in Indira Gandhi Park in the state capital, with some issues bordering on the frivolous, even.

It also led to the state government holding open public consultations on the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill (later Act).

Such open consultations in the state were almost unheard of earlier but the violence and the anger that was on display in February may have led the government to taking such measures.

Better safe than be sorry.

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in both houses of parliament brought to light the distance and lack of understanding of those in the ‘mainland’ and the Northeast. Even the motivating factors in the protests that were held across major cities varied vastly from those held in the region.

As unconstitutional as the new Act is, and goes against the secular fabric of the country, in the Northeast, the protests in the region and in Arunachal Pradesh were characterised by fears and concerns over what impact an influx of foreigners can have on vulnerable indigenous groups that have faced years of marginalisation.

Assamese protestors in Itanagar protesting the Indian government’s decision.

The concern was evident in the over 30-km unprecedented march that students from Rajiv Gandhi University and NERIST undertook.

While the regional protests have been termed ‘xenophobic’ and ‘non-secular’ by some sections, the question to be asked is whether protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bangaluru, and other places would have taken place if the Act had included persecuted minority Muslim sects, including the Rohingiya from Myanmar.

In the region, the fight is one for our identity; for a culture that is constantly suffering the onslaught of the 21st century. Assam has already lost five sons in the protests which have since taken a more peaceful turn, with sub-nationalistic patriotic songs becoming a key feature in them.

How long can they continue such?

Two years since submergence, villagers still fighting for rights

Driving up from Manipur’s capital Imphal to Ukhrul district towards the site of the Mapithel dam, a magnificent view of a reservoir with the lush green Mapithel range in the background opens up. While for visitors the view offers an opportunity to take photographs and appreciate the scenic beauty of the place, locals aren’t too excited by it.

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Construction of the 7.5-megawatt dam began in 1989 and stands 66 metres high and 1034 metres long; enormous by any standards and even larger considering the considerably smaller size of the installed capacity of the dam in comparison to many of the dams planned for construction in India’s Northeast. Part of what was originally called the Thoubal River Valley Multipurpose Project, the dam is built on the Thoubal river (called the Yangwui Kong by the local Tangkhul tribe), the project was undertaken by the state government’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD) and is intended to generate electricity, provide irrigation routes and drinking water for Imphal.

Goals that have not been achieved and what some say will not be even in the next five years.

“This was meant to be a multipurpose project but they started filling concrete even before the completion of the dam. And the power station has not been built either,” informed Jiten Yumnam, an Imphal-based rights activist who has been working with residents of the five villages that were affected by the project.

The details of the project and the struggles of the people who lost their homes have been well documented. So has the state government’s arrogance when construction began and the apathy that it has shown after villages were submerged and people displaced.

Dominic Kashung, chairman of the Mapithel Dam Affected Villages Organisation (MDAVO), says that the construction of the dam was done without free and prior consent and that surveys were conducted in secret.

A vibrant middle-aged bespectacled man, the anger and frustration are clear when Dominic speaks. Smacking his lips, he says that the villagers were divided by the government right from the time that construction began in 1989.

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Dominic Kashung (standing) is currently leading the fight against the completion of the multipurpose project.

“We had protested, even burnt some of the machineries,” he says, adding that “some of the leaders were hypnotized by politicians”.

At the height of the resistance, villagers had to at times hide in the nearby jungles as security forces came cracking down on protestors, informed Dominic.

He says that visitors often speak of the scenic beauty of the place but that residents lead a difficult life. He also says that there has been pressure on the forests too.

Driving up to Ramrei from where people have to take rickety boats to reach Chadong, several small sawmills running along the road in the village of Riha greet commuters.

Since the flooding and submergence of their paddy fields, villagers have had to take to logging to make ends meet but that too is slowly taking a toll on the forest resources.

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Sights like these have become common ever since the villagers lost their paddy fields and their main source of income after the submergence.

The protest by the villagers has sustained since the inception and the project itself is embroiled in lacunas including construction work that carried on for decades without the grant of appropriate clearances. In fact, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forest only granted environment clearance for the project in 2001.

Several cases ensued in the Manipur High Court and various committees were formed, reformed and agreements signed. Currently, a case on the matter is pending before the National Green Tribunal.

Although the villagers have been fighting for their rights in the courtrooms, there appears to be little hope for fair rehabilitation.

Another prominent voice in the resistance, Honreikhui Kashung, says that in the courts, everyone is a victim.

“Both sides present their arguments as the aggrieved party,” he says.

Dominic, a lawyer himself, says that his practice has suffered since the protests began. He says that they are not asking for anything outside of the Indian Constitution and simply want their basic amenities of schools and hospitals provided to them.

When flooding of the villages began in January 2015, the paddy fields began to get submerged followed by people’s homes and schools including the United Christian Academy at Riha which was started in 2003 by Honreikhui and his friends.

A haunting image that serves as a reminder of the devastation is the Cross on the spire of the church in Chadong that rises above the waters of the reservoir, standing defiantly.

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The cross that bears testimony to the sufferings of the people.

Honreikhui says that these are reminders of their protests.

“The submergence of our schools and churches are a sign of our protest. We were told to take away our valuables but we refused.”


 

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen

The weight of expectations and how Irom Sharmila lost the election 

This past Saturday when news began pouring in that anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila Chanu was staring down a massive defeat in her debut election, shocked reactions from across the country began pouring in. By the time the votes had been counted, the fact that she managed to secure only 90 votes elicited the kind of social media response typical of those unaware of the political scenario of the Northeast. However, hardly anyone in her home state of Manipur was surprised by the outcome.

Last year in August, Sharmila, who had been demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), broke her nearly 16-year long fast to contest the legislative assembly polls after forming the Peoples Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). While her decision to quit her fast and enter electoral politics was met with criticism from many quarters, she and her party believed that they could make a mark on the state’s political landscape. Unfortunately, not many voters felt the same way.

While the PRJA had fielded only three candidates, including Sharmila, it did it best to fend off predictions of a massive loss. Its co-convenor, Erendro Leichombam, who contested from the Thangmeiband constituency and managed to secure only 573 votes, had earlier said he was confident that all three of its candidates would “win by a huge margin”. 

While the PRJA and Sharmila’s first tryst with politics was admired by some, most people in Manipur knew that the outcome of the election would play out unfavourably for them.

“That (election result) was not at all shocking for us,” says one rights activist from the capital Imphal, and resonates what many feel led to the debacle of the party that hoped to buck the trend and make AFSPA an election issue when adding that “PRJA is unfortunately very disconnected with the reality of electoral politics”.

The common narrative attempting to explain the massive defeat of the party’s star candidate and a global icon is that elections in Manipur are not fought on the plank of repealing AFSPA or conflict or militarisation. Most people care about employment and “which candidate can help them get jobs and facilities”. 

In a state where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average, this is an important issue in the minds of voters. Nowhere was this more evident than in Thoubal constituency where Sharmila took on the incumbent chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh.

Ibobi Singh is a veteran who had successfully fought from the constituency thrice in the past and ruled the state for 15 years. So sure was he of his victory that never once did he publicly scoff Sharmila’s foray into politics and welcomed her move. His confidence perhaps stemmed from the fact that he has “provided jobs” to almost every family in the constituency during his tenure. 

Some also feel that Singh had successfully managed to steer the conversation towards Manipur’s “territorial integrity” amongst the dominant Meitei population living primarily in the Imphal Valley which frequently faces paralyzing economic blockades whenever there is a show of anger against the government in the surrounding hill districts.   

Perhaps one of the biggest blows that Sharmila was hit with was the anger and disappointment from other anti-AFSPA activists including the mothers who had staged a naked protest in 2004 against the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles personnel. Many of her long-time supporters felt and advised her against entering politics. Her decision to take a new route caused her to lose the support of an important and influential demographic group. 

Apart from her decision to enter politics, her relationship with Desmond Coutinho has been a bone of contention amongst some of her supporters and other activists. Coutinho’s had an uneasy relationship with Sharmila’s supporters and others in Manipur, to put it lightly.

Reportedly, in 2011 when Coutinho first visited Manipur after staying in touch with Sharmila through letters, he was initially not allowed visit by other activists. And after two days when he was finally allowed to meet her, his reported insistence on sitting with Sharmila at the meira shang (women’s shelter) where the influential Meira Paibis (Women Torchbearers) had gathered, caused much anger. What didn’t help further is that he has been critical of many of those in Manipur who have supported Sharmila’s fight including activists and local journalists. Recently, Sharmila issued a statement apologizing for Coutinho’s use of foul language against some of those who had stood with her during her fast and continue to do so. 

Her private matters aside, Sharmila has since said she will quit politics for good but will continue to fight AFSPA and extend her support to PRJA. She has also said that she looks forward to get married to Coutinho and has plans to go to an ashram for some time before taking the next step. 

Just a day after the results were declared, and as people outside of Manipur continued to express their shock over Sharmila’s defeat, Manipur itself was more preoccupied with talks of government formation. 

By Monday evening, the Congress’ Ibobi Singh had resigned as chief minister to pave way for the BJP’s Nongthombam Biren Singh. Although the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 28 MLAs in the 60-member house, the BJP with its 21 MLAs managed to reach the majority with the support of the National People’s Party and the Naga People’s Front which has four MLAs each, Congress MLA T Shyamkumar, Trinamool Congress’ T Robindro and independent MLA Ashad Uddin.  

Meanwhile, Irom Chanu Sharmila, called by many names including the Iron Lady of Manipur and Mengoubi (the fair one), may ride off into the sunset as a forgotten figure like she did on her cycle during her campaign days.

Can music change the world?

For four days and nights, from September 24 to 27, twenty-eight musicians spanning across various genres came together for this year’s edition of the Ziro Music festival (ZFM) in the picturesque Ziro Valley in India’s remote north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. In four years the festival has grown exponentially and played host to scores of artists.

While music is still seen by many as a leisure activity, musicians across the globe are using their craft to bring about changes. In fact, this year there were a few musicians who made their festival debut at the festival, and used their songs to promote ideas of peace and change.
Yangon-based punk rockers Side Effect, who performed in India for the first time at this year’s festival, sing about politics and social issues that most in Myanmar are afraid to speak about or against.
Lead singer Darko C, sporting a pair of Ray Bans on the morning of the final day of the festival, said with a tinge of frustration that young people in Myanmar don’t care enough to talk about politics; but he hopes it will change.

Beer for breakfast. Myanmar's Side Effect think its important to sing about politics

Beer for breakfast. Myanmar’s Side Effect think its important to sing about politics.

“If we want to see changes then we must bring those changes ourselves,” he told me, gulping down Kingfisher Strong beer at 11 in the morning.
We spoke extensively about music censorship and how it has been relaxed a little recently thanks to “reforms” in the Myanmar government; but Darko reminded me that the more things change the more they remain the same.
For example, their song ‘The Change’ speaks about the apparent shift to democracy from the military junta that happened in 2011-12, with lyrics such as: Is it time to change, the change we always wanted? Kind of hard to believe that; you know should wake up now.
Their song ‘Meikhtila’ is another example of a socio-politically charged song. Written shortly after the anti-Rohingya riots in which at least 40 people were killed, the song talks about the destruction, and the video for the song was shot in the same town where the violence occurred in 2013.
Another artist who raises issues about socio-political problems through his craft is BK.
The young rapper from Tripura wrote in an email before coming to Ziro that he sings about issues of racism and politics and social problems because “I believe that through music we can bring about the necessary changes in society”.
One of the changes he hopes to bring about is in the people’s attitude about the northeast and its people.
On stage, before livening up the place with his immaculate flow, BK told audiences how he wasn’t fortunate enough to be born in a hospice or a hospital, and that he was born in the jungles of his home state where insurgency and communal rife has torn lives apart for decades.

BK sings raps issues such as the marginalisation of tribals in his home state of Tripura and the everyday racism that people from Northeast face outside

BK raps about issues such as the marginalisation of tribals in his home state of Tripura and the everyday racism that people from Northeast face in mainland India.

“Music has the ability to change a person’s attitude. Music can touch lives and change lives. Music is a gift from god. So let’s use music to change lives,” he says.

Singer-songwriter Takar Nabam from Arunachal, who is currently based in Delhi, also later told me that music can bring people together and help heal the world.
Post his opening gig, legendary singer Guru Rewben Mashangva from the state of Manipur said that music “has the power to change the world if people sing about issues that matter”.

Rewben Mashangva (left) a Tangkhul Naga singer from the state of Manipur on stage with Rais Khan from Barmer Boys of Rajasthan in the west of country

Rewben Mashangva (left), a Tangkhul Naga singer from the state of Manipur on stage with Rais Khan from Barmer Boys of Rajasthan from the west of country.

Mashngva is a staple in Ziro and is called the ‘King of Naga Folk Blues’. His unorthodox style of guitar playing combined with his gritty vocals have made him a festival favourite and inevitably draws comparisons with Bob Dylan. Little surprise that the legendary folk singer is one of Mashangva’s favourite singers.

Mercy, of the Tetseo Sisters, has a different take on the issue saying that they do not believe in musical activism “but admit that every song has a message”.

Kuku and Mercy from Nagaland's Tetseo Sisters believe more in spreading joy with their music. And they look good doing it

Kuku and Mercy from Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters believe more in spreading joy with their music. And they look good doing it.

Based out of Nagaland and New Delhi, the Tetseo Sisters have performed across the globe at various cultural exchange events and have used their music to create awareness about voting rights and football earlier.
And while Mercy says that they do not believe in using music to stir controversies, she admits that “music is a powerful medium”.

Even the always jocular never-seems-to-be-serious Daniel Langthasa aka Mr India of Digital Suicide is positive that music can change the world.

Digital Suicide use their music to camouflage the seriousness of issues that they talk about.

Digital Suicide use their music to camouflage the seriousness of issues that they talk about.

Langthasa is based out of Haflong in Assam and has seen his place torn apart by underground violence – and that is reflected in the band’s music.

Their song #OPERATIONALLOUT acts like an outlet for anger and frustration over the presence and damages arising out of the numerous outfits in the region. The song begins with the acronyms of some of the larger separatist organisations.
The lyrics to most of their songs have no more than ten words played on loop, and his songs such as #AKHUNI that expose the hypocrisy of not talking about sex in the second most populated country in the world. Yet, a day after their performance, when I asked if music can change the world, he says, with his most serious face: Yes.