Unruly Darkness Under Several Suns: Parsuram Thingnam’s Political Poems


By Thoithoi O’Cottage

The Birth of the Original Sins
In its millenniums of lived life Manipur has known wars[1], social, economic and political crises, suffered exploitative home rules, and oppressive and devastating foreign rules. During the first millennium BC what is now Manipur was torn into several pieces of inter-warring principalities, which met in violent wars frequently until they became united or subsumed under the Meties (the community of the most powerful principality that subjugated the others) under the leadership of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, the ruler of the Ningthoujas or the Meiteis, who accessed to the throne of the soon-to-be-united Kangeipak in AD 33. Manipur also went intermittently into violent wars with the Burmese from the Middle Ages through the first half of the 19th century, with victory alternating between the rivals, the most excruciating oppression of defeat in which was suffered by the Manipuris during the Seven Years Devastation (1819–1826)[2]. The Manipuris have also lived hard life under the extorting regimes of their kings, socio-political disorderliness cut loose by administrative failures due to palace intrigues especially after the Devastation, and oppressions under the grinding mill of the British colonial rule.

The lives of the Manipuris all through these ages, thus, were not stable, though the seeds of their rich culture could take fast roots during the transient periods of peace; however, Manipur has never before gasped in an air as stifling as what has been enveloping the state’s political (and social, economic, moral, intellectual for that matter) life since October 1949 when the contested Merger Agreement annexed/merged Manipur into the Indian Union. The merger which was processed in an allegedly crooked, extralegal manner coupled with the dishonorable treatment of Manipur by the union government (at least in three very crucial instances in the first forty years since independence) spawned the political original sins due to which and the other sins derived from these the Manipuris are still tormenting in the political inferno of the state. And these social imbroglios Manipur has been through since the merger are so different in kind from all what it had had before the merger that these problems have transformed and twisted Manipur into shapes which could never ever have been imagined before the merger.

Despite the disputed nature of the merger and the dishonorable handling of Manipur in the series of shonky, unfair dealings by the Union Government of India initially through the Governor of Assam (from 1949 to 1956), the Manipuri intelligentsia expected much from the merger, and as the intelligentsia were for the merger, the mass which was composed mainly of uneducated or less educated people did not question the merger much or express any strong dissent (Singh, CTD, 2002, p. 197). The mass had confidence in the intelligentsia, and honored their opinion. In fact the people, now exhausted by the colonial rule, had already been tired of and now feared relapsing into the old exploitative, oppressive monarchy, and when the British rule terminated they wanted a change in the form of a responsible government to be constituted by the representatives elected on the basis of adult franchise. In pursuit of this political aspiration Manipur had Manipur State Constitution already passed and enacted by the king’s Darbar[3] in 1947 and held Manipur State Assembly elections in 1948 thereby establishing the long-desired responsible government[4]. However, when, contrary to their expectation of a democratically formed responsible government, the Union Government of India relegated Manipur to a Part C state of its recently drafted and enacted Constitution[5], a territory (not a state) administered by the Chief Commissioner of Assam, the thrill the Manipuris had felt before the merger dried up completely. Under this new administrative system, a council of three members assisted the Chief Commissioner who appointed them, and all of the council members he appointed were from outside the state. Besides this, in all administrative and bureaucratic departments non-Manipuris who held the most important and senior posts dominated the natives. In this setup the Manipuris saw the same old colonial principles at work, and in fact this political dissatisfaction had already gave birth to a revolutionary party by 1953, while the rest of the civil population demanded statehood in non-violent ways, including submitting memorandums to the Prime Minister. In the meantime, while India was gearing up for states reorganization (which would soon come up in the form of States Reorganization Act, 1956) various proposals of several political parties in Bengal and Assam for Manipur’s annexation to their states frightened the Manipuris. However, when the demand proved persistent and its gravity grew more and more intense, with several political parties threatening to pull Manipur back out of the Union if statehood was not granted within certain points, Sardar Patel, the first home minister and deputy prime minister of independent India asked, “Isn’t there a brigadier in Shillong?”, which still seems to remain the basic tenet underlying the Government of India’s insurgency management models in the north-eastern region.

With the constitutional amendment of 1956 converting Part C states into Union Territories, Manipur became a Union Territory directly controlled by the center. However, this did not bring much change to the administrative scene, with still non-Manipuris dominating in all of the departments, and traders from the heartlands of India flowing in threatening an unbalanced, unchecked exploitation of the ancient kingdom’s limited resources. Manipur continued to push their demand in a non-violent way, but more vigorously. At that time Nagaland under the leadership of A. Z. Phizo was fighting violently for sovereignty, not for statehood, but it was granted statehood in 1963, while Manipur was denied it until 1972. There is no problem with granting statehood to Nagaland; the problem lies with how it was done vis-à-vis India’s treatment of Manipur. Naga statehood was not demanded vigorously but granted readily, reportedly to wean the Naga people from the secessionist and extremist A. Z. Phizo thereby breaking the backbone of his violent irredentist movement. To do this the then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru sidelined Phizo and his supporters who did not give up their armed rebellion, and carried on prolonged negotiations with the more moderate, non-violent and non-secessionist Naga leaders (Chandra, Mukherjee, & Mukherjee, 2000, p. 146). Manipur’s demand for statehood, on the other hand, was rejected on the ground of alleged economic unfeasibility (while it had been a country before the British rule followed by Indian interference!), but when Nagaland was granted statehood it became clear that something other than economic factor was the criterion for denial of the establishment of a responsible government in Manipur (Singh, RMM, 2005, p. 34) because in economic terms Manipur was (and is) far more potent than Nagaland. Manipur’s statehood demand was a serious one conducted democratically, in non-violent ways. However, it seemed to the Government of the Indian Union that the demand, which was non-violent and pushed in a Gandhian way, as a few noted historians would later put it, “was not pressed with vigor; nor did the Government of India encourage it” (Chandra, Mukherjee, & Mukherjee, 2000, p. 144), while Nagaland’s violent ways received relatively earlier attention granting statehood this secessionist territory which was struggling rather for sovereignty than statehood. This Indian Government tendency of turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to democratic movements while violent agitations are paid quicker attention has incurred accusations such as “India knows only the language of blood and violence”, and in pursuit of Naga solutions via its “Naga appeasement policy”, it would do anything at the cost of other communities in the region.

The demand for statehood was finally fulfilled but by then the delay had already driven several many frustrated, educated youths underground into armed struggles for sovereignty, while the civil population, after achieving statehood demanded the recognition of Manipuri as one of the 8th Scheduled languages. However, the struggle had to be stretched for long two decades until the demand was granted only in 1992. These delays clearly show the Government of India’s arrogance and political unfairness, the historical mistakes it had made while they could have been avoided. However, “[i]nsurgency” was born in Manipur under these historical mistakes” (Bhattacharjee, 2013, p. 17).

Politics is the nervous system of a society and once a flaw in this system for whatever reason gets sustained over a period then every organ of the society becomes malfunctional, because everything, from institutional to individual, in a society is processed through politics. Manipur’s prolonged political problems have deformed its democracy, corrupted its economy, warped its judicial system, poisoned and maddened its security services, paralyzed educational institutions, destroyed public distribution system, corroded moral sensibility among the members of its society and reduced all of its members to the status of mere animals perpetually in a neurotic survival mode in the competitive environment. The overall scene is the noisy disorderliness of a live battlefield.

Poets form a larger section of the few who remain fairly sane while being sensitive to all this maddening insane disorderliness. Despite fear of state and non-state prosecution, many Manipuri poets did not let these post-merger political developments of the state ever slip by without their verse commenting on them. Manipuri political poetry took a sharp turn in the early 1990s when the change in the nature of the insurgent or irredentist organizations started to show an unattractive color. Prior to this change the revolutionaries had a mass support base, and many theater groups openly expressed their endorsement through their productions, and many poets through their verses. However, when the revolutionaries had assumed unwarranted authority parallel to that of the government and started to irritatingly, interferingly police every aspect of the people’s social life, and taken to extortion and threats, the people had seen another host of evil forces as oppressive as the state. The sharp turn Manipuri poetry saw in the early 1990s is the result. With the increasing perversion of the insurgents the security forces also tightened their grips, and the frequency and intensity of their encounters increased, while the bullets whizzed (and it is still the case) across the civil space.

The Birth of Discontented and Protesting Political Poets

Manipuri society—the sociopolitical and economic formation—at the moment is a spoiled stew: you can never tell who the villain is and who the hero is. With the government corrupt, the bureaucracy paralyzed due to institutionalized or systematized irresponsibility and corruption across its power spectrum on the one hand, and with the wearing out of the ideological threads, on the other, of the “revolutionaries” who claim to be fighting a war of independence or emancipation from the Indian (post)colonial state with its “puppet” of the state government of Manipur, and showing up of their empirically self-seeking and corrupt indulgence divorced from their ostensible agendas, the wasted, vulnerable civil population is left to occupy the butter space sandwiched between and taken hostage by these rival cheats. In this nightmarish, contesting situation, everybody in this butter space seems to be intelligent and rational, and talk with impeccable sensibility about the social ills, and at the same time, put constantly in a survival mode, they would do, to best adapt to the severe environmental conditions, the lowliest things with no qualms or prick of conscience, with no lady or gentleman shocked by these practices all too familiar and common to be ignominious.

With the Union Government of India seeing the violation of human rights in the state (and other states in the north-eastern region of the country) as the necessary cost of keeping the nation safe from its enemies inside and outside (Baruah, 2005), the erosion of democratic institutions and ethos within the “insurgency-hardened Northeast” becomes increasingly systematic and sinister. In this sinister regime of “durable disorder” (which commonly characterizes the restless states of the country’s north-eastern region) all their mutual antagonism, insurgency and counter insurgency interpenetrate within a single menacing world. Reviewing Sanjiv Baruah’s Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India (New Delhi, OUP, 2005), Sudhir Chandra by way of summing up says about the insidious regime, which holds good individually for Manipur as well:

In this world are brought together “ethnic militias, counter-insurgency operations, state-backed militias, developmentalist practices, and the deformed institutions of democratic governance”. Incorporating insurgencies into the democratic political process, this world is overseen by “a political structure that works outside the rules and norms that govern India’s democratic political institutions. Power in this world is unevenly distributed among, fought over, suspiciously shared, and separately exercised by three agencies: the formal structure of democratic governance; an informal parallel structure of governance—a state within the state—remotely controlled by the Home Ministry in New Delhi; and various local militias. Here the emancipatory poetry of insurgency rings but partially true, and the restorative prose of counter-insurgency rings utterly hollow (Chandra S. , 2007, p. 50).

Insurgency which is “terrorism” in official terms has been incorporated into the democratic system so much that the recent report of the Hedge Committee on Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958 in Manipur, appointed by the Supreme Court, points out that “terrorism creates much employment both in the underground groups and the police, CDO and other formations set up to combat these groups” (Hedge, Lyngdoh, & Singh, 2013, p. 95).

Whatever caused the original spark of this burning imbroglio, but the whole situation is now a black hole which has embroiled every party in it. As Shudhir Chandra puts, “the problem [is] never one for which all blame rested with the state. Even less so now, when the problem has been aggravated by a state functioning within a democratic polity, a fact that seriously implicates civil society as well” (Chandra S. , 2007, p. 48).

With the reality of armed secessionist movements which had been quite nebulous earlier beginning to be felt in the political atmosphere increasingly growing tense by the late 1960s, the Government of India declared, under Section 3 of AFSPA, certain parts of the state disturbed area in 1970 (two years before the granting of statehood), and with continuing resistance all over the state the whole of the state was declared disturbed area in 1980. Thus, the prohibitory order required by Section 4(a) of the AFSPA made under Section 144 CrPC has been continuously in force since the declaration under Section 3 of AFSPA except for brief intervals for some specific occasions[6]. However, the 1980s was far peaceful in hindsight, and all hell broke loose during the 1990s when both the state and non-state forces took turned insane and began to wreak havoc in monstrous proportions.

While AFSPA, “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness” as the Jeevan Reddy Committee describes it (2005, p. 67), should be rightly damned, the history of its imposition on the land traces the growing intensity of resistance responded to by a corresponding intensity of increasing civil space militarization by the Government of India. These sudden political transformations strafing the land started to shape the consciousness of the poets with a political bent. The sudden deflection in the political course of the state came to be nothing but a regular state of affair to those born after the 1970s, who have lived through and inhaled the elemental vapor of political conflict, and who have in three or four decades’ sustained exposure to this political substance evolved into a completely new political species.

Born when the political situations started to decompose to a marked degree, and lived through the violence, twists and turns, Parshuram Thingnam’s (b. 1987)[7] political outlook is not singular or unique among most young Manipuris born after the 1970s. The post-1970s generation is entrenched in the stiflingly narrow stretch between the corrupt, unfeeling state and the extortionist and oppressive revolutionaries. Poets of this generation who write political poetry write invariably with certain degrees of confusion.

Political Poetry of Parshuram Thingnam
In his preface to his second and latest collection of poetry, Ei Amasung Eigi Ima (EAEI, I and my Mother, 2011), Parshuram Thingnam wonders if there is any change (and improvement for that matter) in his style, vision and theme in the second collection from the first, Meegi Machu (MM, The Hues of Man, 2007). Then he quite confidently answers:

“I don’t think my style has changed. One’s style can’t change that easily. Uncle Saratchand may write under his pseudonym Sarthi or Sarat City, or any other nams de plume, or may write even anonymously, but the style of the writing will give him away. However, my vision and theme…should change, and they should be different. If they don’t, it’s my weakness” (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 11)[8].

The main concern of this essay is the “vision and theme”. While four years have favorably given an evolutionary touch to Mr Thingnam’s poetic journey, the touch has not been so thorough as for the poetry in his new collection to shape up satisfactorily thematically, though it is coming along and its blurred vision clearing up and crystalizing a bit. The new collection has rather improved in style and treatment, but in both collections the poetry remains dominantly political thematically, which is not bad. A poet does not necessarily have to meander through different themes from collection to collection. It is like poets, like any human individuals, are born with certain dispositions of their own and these dispositions keep propelling them toward certain directions only, and as for poets, as is usually the case with most serious writers, they tend to work around more or less the same issues/themes all through their life, with them maturing in the process. What’s important in this process is this consistent progress, change, maturing along certain lines of dedication rather than mere change in areas of engagement from one collection to another. Thus, “vision and theme” is as tenacious as style in the nature of a poet.

The political space his poetry operates in is the stiflingly narrow strait, where the civil population disillusioned with both the cheating government and the extorting revolutionaries is smarting from the political smoke obstructing their vision in every direction. There these political poems moan in politically inflicted pain, seek to understand historical reality from certain political perspectives, cry in disgust and protest, and attempt to produce, affirm, or subvert specific historical and social institutions. When understanding historical reality politically political poets in effect present, in Leonard’s word,

an individualized vision of reality, one which not only corresponds to the modes of activity in their cultural context, but also one which corresponds to his or her perception of the process which produced the reality that may be agreed upon by all as reality (PPD, 2010, p. 9).

Mr Thingnam’s poetry may not be “express[ing] our total range of feelings” as an anonymous El Salvadorean poet wrote (Lorentzen, 1993, p. 219), but his two poetry collections gives a fairly good description of the present Manipur. Poknapham Lamdam (Native Land) gives a description of Manipur as a land with:

Bombs exploding every day
Bandhs being called every day
People being killed very day
My native land… (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 33)

which is literally quite true with some variations. Service delivery system in this place is all paralyzed:

Your narrow, dusty roads
Faucets with no water even dripping
Wires with no electric current (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 33).

But its

roads, alleys and markets
are swarming with soldiers of Yama
like sprinkled ashes (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 33).

Here in this land people are perpetually in a state of fear and uncertainty, and they don’t know when the untimely end of their life, which may come any moment, will visit them, because their fate here seems to be determined more by these soldiers of Yama, who are either the state forces or the revolutionaries or the treacherous unidentified inhabiting the nebulous space in between who may be either the state forces or the revolutionaries in wicked, ghostly political disguise. The poor people, thus, always are

…unsure when we’ll die—today or tomorrow
(Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 33).

and when one dies clearly and undisputedly at the hands of the state force, the compensation paid ex gratia for the irrecoverable life killed is “between Rs. 100,000 and 500,000” (EAEI, 2011, p. 33).

Literally lawless, order and all the hierarchy of power and authority disrupted, and the areas of departmental work remit highly muddled up, anyone with some formal or otherwise power assuming the unrestricted power to do whatever at the slight twitch of their whims. The fittest survival tactics known here if you cannot master others is to submit to the extortion in whatever form by the powerful, and as the territories of these extortionists mostly overlap you will most probably have too many masters to serve. This lawlessness is like the situation in the Manipuri myth, Nupit Kappa (Shooting the Sun), in which people had no rest or respite during the day or night because they had to serve two brother sun kings one of whom reigned during days and the other during the nights (therefore the time that would otherwise have been nights was never dark), and people had no time for rest, sleep and to be with their families. This mythic lawlessness and restlessness under oppressive rulers/powers is what Mr Thingnam sees in Manipur’s everyday real life today, as his Numit (Sun), the first poem in the recent collection, describes in a quite mythical tone:

Rising from the graves
Taohuireng Ahanba and Yoimayai Numit Sana Khomdon,
The two brothers
Shine in the land’s sky once again.

The elder brother during the day
and the younger during the night
They sit in the throne (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 19).

In the original myth of Numit Kappa, Khwai Nungjenbam Piba, the hero who has been deprived of rest and has not had any moment for long to be with his family from serving the two brother sun kings day and night, shoots one of the suns down, and only then does the land regain their normal routine of life.  However, soon the other sun in fear of his life runs away and hides himself in a deep forested mountain gorge, throwing the land into a perpetual night, another cause of miseries as terrible as that of perpetual day with no sunset and no night. Eventually, all the land’s high priests go to the gorge the sun is hiding itself in, pray to him, offer oblations and sacrifices, and request him to come out and shine in the sky. They promise that nobody will shoot him now. Thus the sun comes out of his hideout and shines and the sole king in the sky of the land, and the people now serves him well by day and rest with their families by night, and thus the land lives happily ever after.

Mr Thingnam’s Manipur, however, is hopeless, for hope, his another poem called, Asha (Hope), says

Has winged its way away
as a butterfly or as a parrot.
……………………………….
Therefore now I
Build up hope like cows and buffaloes (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 65).

Perhaps because now, differently from its mythical ancient days, Manipur has too many suns, big and small, shining in its sky:

The sons of these suns—
Tiny little suns
Rule the sky
In their respective days and nights.

Each of these tiny sons
will become
a big sun all
and the skies will be thickly studded with suns (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 19).

Therefore, differently from what the mythical hero Khwai Nungjenbam Piba does,

Children of my land
These stunted children make their own bows and arrows
of bamboo and shoot up in the sky
so the arrows fall on themselves and they die (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 20).

While too many suns, too many masters to serve, have made Manipur restless, with no night for sleep, this land, bereft of the light of trust, certainty, safety, has on the other hand been in the embrace of eternal darkness. In Eigi Lamdamgi Numit (The Sun of my Land) they have to search for the sun in the darkness using search lights, and with the photograph in front of them they talk about the sun as if about some endangered or extinct species:

This photograph is said to be taken at night
using searchlights
after consultations of leaders.
………………………………………………
Manipur has not had a new morn for long
(Since when the sun was gone)
Long have the villagers in the moonlight
Been tilling the field, cultivating the land.
There is no hope of the sun returning after six months
As either in the North Pole or in the South Pole.
For our sun—we don’t know
If it’s ill or has died in an epidemic.

Therefore when photography is required
in special times as of festivals
Ministers and powerful officers
Borrow search lights from the cantonment and flash them.
……………………………
I take this photo to the land of gods
To apply for a sun loan (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, pp. 31-32).

Manipur is in perpetual darkness, and its night endless. Generations have died and new generations come and go, but all this happens in this perpetual darkness, and the endless night continues, and there is no hope of a morning coming either, thus condemning the state into a perpetual present with all the poisons of the past and what’s happening at the moment acting diabolically. Thus, Ahing (Night) reads:

We’ve been through this night
Wearily.
But this night
Knows no end.

We’ve been born repeatedly
We’ve died repeatedly
But this night
Does not wear on (Thingnam, MM, 2007, p. 26).

This darkness is even more highly concentrated in the narrow strait of the civil population, which, as Kang Amasung Ei (Mosquito and I) maintains, is fraught metaphorically with mosquitoes.

(I)
Cruelty of mosquitoes
I know.

Guarding against mosquitoes
I
have not slept for nights.

I asked mother
for a mosquito net,
to sleep
undisturbed just one night
if not more.

(II)
Every moment
mosquitoes hatch out
in hundreds
and hundreds.

Each mosquito
is a giant in strength,
Every street, every alley, around every house
poisonous mosquitoes frequent
at will
both in light and in the dark.

(III)
Yesterday, and the day before,
Every day
the news of
mosquito bites
of deaths from mosquito bites
make an awful din
in every village.

Mosquito net!
Poor mother
Couldn’t provide a mosquito net.

(IV)
Seeing me
mother wept
rubbing my
sleepless
restless body.

Weeping together mother and I
spent that night too
sleepless (Thingnam, MM, pp. 17-18).

The civil population in this narrow strait is sleepless at night from fear of the blood-sucking “mosquitoes” haunting every street, alley and flying around every house, the mosquitoes of both state forces and the insurgents. The insurgents exercise their blood-sucking influence over the people by extorting a large amount from their earning and from the development funds of the government, and failure to comply with their diktat would land one in some severe corporeal treatment that may lead to clear death or mysterious disappearance. The state forces, whose vision has been dangerously blurred by the AFSPA (1958), comb through the population and torture whoever their suspicion (real or baseless) bites. Every Manipuri night is sleeplessly nightmarish with these mosquitoes always there everywhere, in the light and in the darkness.

If a youth does not come back home in time in the evening there is always the possibility of his dead body being found somewhere or his mysteriously disappearing permanently as in the case of Loken, Lokendro, C. Paul, C. Daniel, Laisram Bijaykumar  and Yumlembam Sanamacha, etc.[9] The state army or the Manipur state police commandoes can pick up anybody from any house or anywhere without arrest warrant, and there is always the possibility, as it is mostly the case, of reading in the next day’s newspaper about the arrested as having been killed in an encounter which is fake, or, if the state apparatus is less honest about the status of their capture, of their mysterious disappearance, with the state apparatus easily washing their hands off their handiwork. This haunting possibility keeps the most elders of the state literally so sleepless that mothers in every locality of most parts of the state’s valley now come out at night to watch and keep vigil in relays. It is no wonder, then, that several many of the poems in the two collections are anemic with sleeplessness gnashing its teeth impatiently.

Deaths at the hands of these state and non-state forces are like deaths from insect bites or snake bites. You can do nothing more against these inhuman forces than against mosquitoes and snakes. You cannot pull these mosquitoes and snakes in to the court—the courts are for those who share the same legal codes, but these insects and reptiles don’t share any moral or legal codes with you.[10] Thus they just romp through the population and go about their sportive biting. Indiscriminate killing since the merger, thus, has taken a heavy toll on the Manipuri civil population to such an extent that the state seems to be metaphorically haunted by the dead[11]. In one way these destabilizing forces, with whom the people cannot share the basic principles of being, with whom they cannot reason, are like zombies terrorizing the narrow strait. These zombies, as another poem Ashiba Mee (Dead Bodies) says,

…propagate their ideology of death.
……………………………………………
They rule all—public, private, local
Families, women and children (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, pp. 97-98).

In Ei Hatpa Mee (The Man Who Killed Me), Mr Thingnam writes, though in a quite different vein:

Once I was dead
My journey stopped.

The unfinished part of my journey
haunted me…

Now
A knife in hand
I am searching for
the man who killed me (Thingnam, MM, p. 23).

This “I” here is quite so universal in Manipur with its socio-political situation that the state is like a morgue, or dumping ground of “ashiba mee” (dead bodies). The threads of life are scissored off at its whimsical will by the armies of darkness, the determiners of fates in Manipur. Mr Thingnam’s two collections consist quite a good number of poems of frustration observing deaths happening rampantly, a very emotional and pathetic one being Eigi Ichegi Lunhongba (My Sister’s Wedding), which is worth being reproduced at length:

My sister missing since last night
Today at dawn
We learn—
She has been married
Gone to her groom’s,
Won’t ever see her again.

My sister’s lush, sambrei[12]-smelling locks
Are found caught twisted
In her loom.
Last afternoon
Washed her hair with chenghi[13]………………………………………

Mother, father, friends and locals
All lament my only sister’s wedding
For we won’t see her ever again.

Her takhellei[14]—she plucks it every morning—
Is found broken
at the other end of the courtyard.
She used to keep it under her pillow
and waited for the spring
…………………………………….

Still fresh in this flower is the smell of my sister’s hair.

We don’t know
Why my sister got married
So violently.

Her
pink tulle
is found caught in the gate door.

Her shirt in the countryside, her phanek at the hill’s foot.

My sister got really married
to the poisonous storm
of the last night,
My sister all naked
shivering, biting her lips (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011).

In a politically relational field nothing is free of a political valence, and poets are no exception—no matter whether or not they consciously and purposely exercise their conviction politically, they are not innocent for they “do not compose in a vacuum; hence, their poetry, like newspapers, is ideologically constituted” (Leonard, 2010, p. 7). And as discourse generally classified as literary is also rhetorical, poetry, especially political poetry, is discourse by the same logic, despite the short shrift it is given (Bacon, 2011, p. 352). This political valence poetry is charged with enables poetry, despite misgivings propagated often, to negotiate with the shifting dynamics of a society—politics, history and culture.

Mr Thingnam’s poetry in both these collections draws almost exclusively on common sense and does neither draw on nor advance any set of doctrine or a coherent system of beliefs; however, common sense is ideological, representative of the people’s political and social will, their collective consciousness shaped by what Fredric Jameson calls their “political unconscious” (PU, 2002), because, as Catherine Belsey argues,

ideology is not an optional extra, deliberately adopted by self-conscious individuals (‘Conservative party ideology’, for instance), but the very condition of our experience of the world, unconscious precisely in that it is unquestioned, taken for granted. Ideology, in Althusser’s use of the term, works in conjunction with political practice and economic practice to constitute the social formation (Critical Practice, 2002, pp. 4-5).

Belsey further maintains that “ideology is inscribed in language”, and rather than a separate element existing in some free-floating realm of ideas and is subsequently embodied in words, it is a way of thinking, speaking, and experiencing (Critical Practice, 2002, p. 5) given majorly by common sense. Common sense, thus, is the repository of the most pervasive form of ideology; and common sense or ideology, therefore, is not an inherently negative force, as understood by Marxist-inflected theories, used to contain the oppressed classes, but a system of matrices which are the determinants of thinking and behavior, which every class has as their own. An oppressed class may, therefore, be unwittingly complicit in their own oppression—an analytical understanding “without assuming that individuals are necessarily simply passive victims of systems of thought” (Mills, 2007, p. 27), as Sudhir Chandra pointed out above. Mr Thingnam’s political position, thus, presents an ideological rival in Manipuri society, a kind of thinking which has already been embroiled in the imbroglio.

Born at a time of heightened communal politics, and brought up in an environment charging its people with an ethnic sensibility, a homeland mentality, Mr Thingnam seems unfortunately to have been influenced to some extent by a prevailing parochial nationalist ideology or patriotism that entraps us into narrow identities denying the humanity of those who do not resemble us, as is clear from “imported people” a phrase which shows the secessionist outlook toward the migrants in the state from India’s heartlands. These “imported people”, the migrant workers, traders from the Indian heartlands, many of whom have settled and established their own families there, are dark and the ethno-nationalists, suggested by this skin color, quite sardonically call them “crows”, a term hackneyed in ethno-nationalist parlance and literature. Mr Thingnam, in his poem From the Office (Manipureshwar Maharaj Garivniwas), writes satirically:

Metei deaths in thousands don’t matter
for from outside they will import
truckloads of crows for replacement (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 57).

Though vaguely referring to the early 18th century event of the Meitei King Pamheiba’s initiation into Hinduism, changing his own name as Garivniwas, declaring Hindu to be the state religion thenceforth, consigning to fire all the scriptures of the land’s indigenous religion that could be collected at his order, with which the Indian inflow started, the anti-“crow” hate propaganda is very much current among the Meitei nationalists and many non-nationalists who at least partly share the nationalist ideology.

However, while the civil space is not absolutely chargeless politically, it is definitely antithetical to the schematic indoctrination of students or minds in the formation by political elements in the state who too often contrive to use students as a convenient resource and shield. In Eigi Lamdamgi Maheiroi (Students of my Land) Mr Thingnam writes protestingly:

Hypnotized students of my land
willy-nilly
sat in files in the magazines
as bullets.

Government and private
school houses
are ammo warehouses (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 29).

With school houses and libraries burned to a cinder, Eigi Lamdamgi Angangsing (The Children of my Land) paints an apocalyptic picture metaphorically corresponding to the pathetic political scene:

Children of my land
Wasted and suffering from malnutrition
Run around naked
in my destroyed, devastated city
after the explosion.

There is nobody
To hold up these children
They are strangers here as if fallen from the stars.
None wonders, not even God—where these children must be sleeping
Late at night, what they must be eating!
Such are the children of my land (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 30).

If the state forces have killed civilians in terms of thousands[15], the revolutionaries, going by the number of suspicious deaths reported at a daily frequency, must also have killed an equal, if not more, number of people. If the deaths in various crimes are added to the toll, the figure must be quite alarming, quite to the extent of being a grave demographic issue. This ethnic self-immolation is a matter of great concern to what was a small “nation” flanked by geographically estranged lands of ethnic mongoloids on the east and the ethnically distinct and previously politically unrelated Indian sub-continent and the middle-east on the west. Meitei Ei (Meitei I) throbs worriedly:

Mother when cutting myself
With this sword every day
I never thought I’d die.
……………………………
Please rescue me, from self-immolation! (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 66).

This ethnic self-immolation is the gravest concern to the Manipuris (in spite of the rhetorical “Meitei” in the title risking sounding patriotic which most poems in both of the collections obviously are, confirmed by the poet’s own introductory confession) because external aggressions and challenges could be faced relatively more easily, but mutual elimination among the Manipuris (especially the Meiteis) is emaciating the “nation”, weakening it defenselessly from the inside. The poem concludes with:

Mother! As for this aggression of others, let me face them,
But first please rescue me from this self-immolation,
Else I’ll die soon surely (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 66).

Patriots, died long ago, remain immortalized, and their names are respected almost in sacred terms by national histories all over the world. However, despite sacred names in the history of Manipur, the mention of which inspires awe and instills some thrill in any Manipuri hearts, the term “patriot” (leibak ningba in Manipuri) has acquired a sarcastic connotation in the last 20 years in Manipur which has dominated its denotation which has currency elsewhere beyond this twisted state. This historical sacrilege, contamination of the sacred is effected by the demoralized practices of the insurgents who were once respected “revolutionaries” since the early 1990s. Exorbitant extortions, diktat impositions, interfering where unnecessary and unwanted, assuming absolute authority over every aspect of social life without being called for, torturing and killing people for nonconformity or holding different views, treating people as expendable to save their own hide, etc. in the name of patriotism, of the “revolution for motherland”—these practices have made “patriotism” as well as “motherland” to some lesser degree taste bitter to the Manipuri civil senses. This bitter sense of “patriotism”, thus, has put majority of the civil section of the Manipuri society off what could have been a harmless but more patriotic practice emanating spontaneously sheer from their human nature, with no name given to it. In utter contrast to what is otherwise always the case, the too many revolutionary “patriots” of the day instill a nauseous feeling in the civil population, and this disgust phenomenon etherizes and numbs them as the poem, Imagidamak (Eina Touningba Ama) (For Mother (Something I Want to Do)), says

Mother! What’s left for me to do—
Your sons maddened by love for you, intoxicated
For you
They pour out of their homes with swords, and guns in hands
They are patrolling every street and alley, guarding you.

My legs can’t be pulled free as if in sleep
My deadened organs,
But mother, this is not a dream—
I feel lethargic
Feel don’t like doing aught for you, mother (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 89).

At the same time every person who obviously loves his native place quite consciously (no matter whether he is different from the revolutionary patriots), not differently in kind from the way a normal Bengali in Calcutta may love West Bengal, or any other person from anywhere in the country may love his or her own native place, is looked at with some degrees of suspicion by the state agencies (especially the army), and his movement will be kept under surveillance. Theoretically, as anyone is free to lead the democratic life they want to live, choose whatever career they like and deserve, a person should also be free in Manipur to just live a civil life and spend his/her daily life doing nothing but loving his own native land, however old-fashioned or parochial it may sound. Manipur’s political climate of the moment is so unsympathetic to this sort of people that they always undergo an identity crisis which may land them in either (self-)exile (Robin S. Ngangom, for example (Bhattacharjee, 2013, pp. 136, 137, 237)), or discontented, compromised life in the state or a some form of state-prosecution most cases of which are extrajudicial. Thus, in Ima Ningba (Loving Mother) Mr Thingnam writes:

Mother!
Your land
Where loving you is prohibited
Where worshipping you is prohibited
I have immigrated from there I dislike
Determined to love you freely
In peace here in this foreign land.

Here in this foreign land
I can chant your name aloud.

(To love mother—should mother be loved stealthily?
We must love to the heart’s content.)
……………………………………………
There at your place
Even loving you quietly in one’s own heart
To say your name quietly

Pushes one underground (Thaingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 90).

Despite angry and powerful protests, Mr Thingnam’s poems in both of the collections are more of a moan and helpless cry than a coherent and self-conscious political trajectory with a sharp vision or an alternative ideological formation. In fact such a shocking political-poetic situation is not the case with just Mr Thingnam—as the state’s socio-political limbs have been stuck into an impasse, with the best of (poetic or otherwise) minds of neither the state nor the country being able to break it, all other contemporary political poets, young and old, also write invariably with varied degrees of confusion. Despite this confusion or lack of vision, and though probably each of these poems, because of this confusion and lack of vision, is not remarkable by itself, they as a whole release a cumulative historical and political energy of high/great magnitude, in the same way the hundreds of almost continuous small rebellions and uprisings before and after India’s first major independence struggle of 1857 cumulatively posed a massive resistant force in their totality against the British (Chandra, Mukherjee, Mukherjee, Mahajan, & Panikkar, 1989, p. 44).


Notes

[1] Including the Second World War in spite of its marginal nature and limited devastations.

[2]During the Seven Years Devastation the Burmese occupying forces pierced the palms of the hands of the defeated Manipuris and chained them through these holes. The colonial forces killed so many people—women and children unspared—in various inhuman ways including burning pepper in closed rooms that in the seven years the population of Manipur decreased to its half.

[3] In his introduction to Manipur: A British Anthology, Prof. N. Sanajaoba, the former Dean of Law, Guwahati University, argues—“The British colonial rule of Manipur from 1891 to 1907 had been followed by presence of British shadow government till 1947, notwithstanding the de jure rule of Manipur Maharajah in the entire territory of present Manipur. There could be some confusion about the de facto British intervention in Manipur administration from 1907 to 1947. However, in legal terms Manipur Maharaja ruled Manipur during these 40 years of unwarranted British intervention.”

[4] Considering the political climate of the time in which Manipur’s politics was quite influenced by the political winds of India whose post-independence national consolidation was ongoing, it is quite confusing what sense the Constitution Making Committee and the builders of Manipur State Assembly had of “state” in both “Manipur State Constitution” and “Manipur State Assembly”, respectively.

[4] The writing of the Indian Constitution was officially in progress in 1949 while Manipur-India merger was being sealed, and it was enacted in 1950. However, Manipur was neither consulted in writing the Constitution nor asked for its approval of the Constitution.

[6] Imphal municipal area was denotified in 2004.

[7] In his first poetry collection Mr Thingnam is said to be born in 1989.

[8] Translations of Parsuram Thingnam’s works quoted in this essay are done by Thoithoi O’Cottage.

[9] Loken and Lokendro were picked up by army personnel on 23 December 1980, and C. Paul and C. Daniel on 10 January 1982. Bijaykumar was picked up by suspected army personnel on the night of 5 June 1996, and Sanamacha by 17 Raj Riffles personnel on 14 February 1998. These are among the reportedly 20,000 Manipuris in the conflict situation. Some other disappeared people are also named here: http://www.hueiyenlanpao.com/headlines/item/8939-extrajudicial-killings-cases-of-mamorama-bijoy-kr-sanamacha–oinam-among-33-up-for-fresh-review. See also note 15.

[10] AFSPA gives nearly absolute protection of any army personnel executing under this Act against prosecution even for killing. These army personnel, even when they kill illegally, are not subject to normal codes of criminal procedure.

[11] See note 15.

[12] sambrei is a sweet-smelling herb usually used previously (and still in rural areas) in preparing chenghi the smell of which is found sexually appealing to some.

[13] home-made shampoo prepared using raw rice-water and some sweet-smelling herbs, and is usually used by women.

[14] a very sweet-smelling flower, culturally valued very much by the Manipuris. Takhellei was usually used my women to decorate their buns and to make their hair smell sweet.

[15] Justice Santosh Hedge Committee on the AFSPA, appointed by the Supreme Court of India on 4 January 2013, reported (30 March 2013) that the government maintained “no official record” of the number of civilians killed and injured by the state forces. Some human rights organization submitted a list of 2,713 cases of extra judicial deaths at the hands of the state forces during the last five years out of which only 13 have been charge-sheeted, while the rest (2,700) are still under investigation. The committee made a thorough inquiry in the first six cases of these, and found all these to have been innocent and killed in fake encounters (Hedge, Lyngdoh, & Singh, 2013, pp. 1, 99). However, unofficial sources report more than 20,000 such extra judicial deaths, as many cases of disappearances and hundreds of reported rape cases since the beginning of insurgency in the state.

Works Cited
Bacon, J. (2011). Political Poetry as Discourse: Reading John Greenleaf Whittier, Ebenezer Elliot, and Hio-Hop-Ology. Quarterly Journal of Speech , 97 (3), 352-356.

Baruah, S. (2005). Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India. New Delhi, Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.

Belsey, C. (2002). Critical Practice (2nd ed.). (T. Hawkes, Ed.) Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Bhattacharjee, K. (2013). Che in Paona Bazaar: Tales of Exile and Belonging from India’s North East. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan.

Chandra, B., Mukherjee, M., & Mukherjee, A. (2000). India Since Independence (2008 ed.). New Delhi, Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

Chandra, B., Mukherjee, M., Mukherjee, A., Mahajan, S., & Panikkar, K. N. (1989). India’s Struggle for Independence. New Delhi, Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

Chandra, S. (2007). Understanding the Problem of Northeast India. India Review , 6 (1), 46-56.

Hedge, N. S., Lyngdoh, J., & Singh, A. K. (2013). Justice Hedge Committee Report on AFSPA in Manipur. Supreme Court of India.

Jameson, F. (2002). The Political Unconscious. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Leonard, A. M. (2010). Political Poetry as Discourse: Rereading John Greenleaf Whittier, Ebenezer Elliot , and Hip-Hop-Ology. Lanham, MD, USA: Lexington Books.

Lorentzen, L. A. (1993). Our Poetry will Inhabit this Land Forever. Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice , 5 (2), 217-223.

Mills, S. (2007). Discourse. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

(2005). Report of the Committee, headed by Justice (Retd) B.P. Jeevan Reddy, to Review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 -Part-IV Recommendations. New Delhi.

Singh, N. J. (2002). Colonialism to Democracy: A History of Manipur, 1891-1972. New Delhi, Delhi, India: Spectrum Publications.

Singh, N. J. (2005). Revolutionary Movements in Manipur. New Delhi, Delhi, India: Akansha Publishing House.

Thingnam, P. (2011). Ei Amasung Eigi Ima. Kakching Khunou, Manipur, India: ALAMKHOL.

Thingnam, P. (2007). Meegi Machu. Kakching Khunou, Manipur, India: ALAMKHOL.

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