Why children in Manipur are writing postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Stacked on a dining table which doubles up as a workdesk in the office of Human Rights Alert lie postcards written by schoolchildren in Manipur and addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and save democracy in India.

For years, Manipur’s people have been appealing and agitating for the removal of the act which grants immunity to military forces operating in parts of India declared as “disturbed” areas. But in the last week of May, the efforts received an unexpected boost when Tripura lifted AFSPA. “We wanted to send 25,000 cards,” said Babloo Loitongbam, the executive director of Human Rights Alert, an Imphal-based organisation, “but the post office did not have enough. We are sending 3,500 in the first batch.”

Unlike Tripura, where the act was put in place in 1997, AFSPA and its colonial precursors have been in force in Manipur since 1950. The colonial Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of 1942 was first deployed in the state to quell popular unrest when Manipur was merged into India. It became the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act in 1958 which was put in place to help the army crack down on the violent ethnic insurgencies taking root in the state.

Sixty four years under AFSPA and its predecessor have scarred Manipur. Despite the heavy military presence, the state remains one of the most violent parts of India. Over the last decade and a half, several insurgent groups in the state have morphed into extortion rackets. There is an accompanying breakdown in the functioning of the state government. Corruption is high. Not to mention a runaway VIP culture.

My field report from Manipur.

Announcing “Ear To The Ground”

How is India doing?
It’s hard to say. While some of the major changes underway in the country are extremely visible, others, less dramatic or occurring away from the media’s usual hunting grounds, are more difficult to detect. Between them, we have an incomplete understanding of India as it is today.
The fallout is predictable. We live in a balkanised democracy whose people are poorly aware about the lives of their fellow citizens. The country keeps throwing up surprises ‒ the recent lynching in Dimapur, unexpected election outcomes as in Delhi, a strident new religiosity. It’s getting more difficult to comprehend where we are headed…

i am uploading this post late. my first story for scroll’s field reporting series, called “ear to the ground”, appeared on the 19th. that day, i was in central mizoram — in its lunglei district with dim connectivity. the next day, i travelled further south for another 7 hours and ended up in saiha, one of the three autonomous district councils in mizoram. this evening, as i type this post out belatedly, i am in lawngtlai.

these are all parts of the country i have never seen before. and so many of the issues i am encountering are ones i have never written on earlier. like this first story on dampa.

The park is overrun by assorted gunmen, from local hunters to armed insurgents. A senior forest official in Mizoram’s forest department estimates that, given Dampa’s location, abutting Mizoram’s border with Bangladesh and Tripura, the reserve is used by as many as 12 separatist groups variously to enter or leave India.Key among them are splinter groups of the Shanti Bahini, which is fighting for Chakma autonomy in Bangladesh, and the National Liberation Front of Tripura, which wants to establish the state as an independent Christian nation.
In recent years, the NLFT has carried out a set of kidnappings in and around Dampa. The most recent took place in February, when NLFT insurgents, working with the Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram, kidnapped 22 workers of the Border Roads Organisation near Dampa. While the Mizos were released the same day, two non-Mizos were taken hostage. Unconfirmed reports suggest they were eventually allowed to go, but only after ransom payments were made.
Armed insurgents, however, aren’t the only threat to the park. Dampa exemplifies the complexities of wildlife conservation in the North East, a region where not just animals, even people are caught in the throes of upheaval.

ps: have spent close to a month in mizoram. one month more to go. it is a daunting thought. time goes by so quickly. and there is so much yet to understand.