Manipuri traditional music (click)

On the extreme left is a rare photograph from a forgotten corner of India.  This is Imphal, the capital city of conflict-scarred Manipur in the North-East. The day, 26 January 2009.  On this day,  in 1950,  the   Constitution  of  India  came into force replacing the   Government  of  India Act 1935.  Since then,  Indians celebrate 26 January as the  Republic Day when India became a Sovereign Democratic Republic with a Constitution to guide her destiny.  It is a   national  holiday  in the  country.  Most people watch the  Republic  Day  Parade that takes place at the Rajpath in New Delhi  on television.  Every state also has its  own version of the parade but what  would you do if you had to catch a morning flight out of Imphal  on 26  January?  Militants in Manipur ritually boycot the Republic Day. Predictably on this day (26 January 2009), they had declared  a general strike , and no taxi or bus could ply on the road .

There were limited options. You could curse your dumb travel agent, and travel agents in general , for having landed you in this mess; you could curse yourself for having trusted a travel agent in the first place; you could try try walking   from your hotel to the airport undaunted by the prospect of being stoned en route,  or you  could simply give the flight a miss and take the risk of  losing money. OR, you could do what I did.

Desperate times call for desperate solutions and though I have never fancied myself as “actor material”  lacking all the three essential ingredients —  looks, star presence and acting skills, this was one occasion when I readily accepted a suggestion from a wise local. Even militants  make allowances for a medical emergency. A friend who had a  van,   a tenuous connection with a hospital, and therefore a badge,  advised me to lie down in the back seat pretending to be a patient in excruciating pain. The good thing about being a patient in pain is that you would not be expected to talk much incase the vehicle was ambushed.And so we made it to the airport. On arrival, we found the airport was locked because  the airport staff was required to be present at the  flag-hoisting  ceremony inside the  high security  airport  grounds. The airport would be operational and the flights would  take off  once the ceremony was over, I was informed.   Around me were a curious bunch of people in folk costumes. I was trying to figure out whether they were part of a  tableau for the airport Republic Day ceremony when a bemused local  set my doubts at rest.   Militants also exempted  people who had to attend religious functions.  Therefore, locals who are in the loop, and who had devised their survival strategies to combat strikes and hartals,  donned their ceremonial robes, on top of  the regular shirt and pant,   or sarees, and travelled to the airport. Once inside  the security zone,  the folksy clothes would come off.  It was  quite entertaining watching the drama  and I almost forgot I had to catch a flight.  My reverie was broken by a  lady  who came up to me and offered me a sweet from a plate. That, she explained, was part of the Republic Day celebrations. It was delicious and memorable  because noone, in any airport, anywhere in the world., had ever offered me a sweet simply because I  was there.  I was glad to be an Indian and in Imphal that day. A tourist could not have pulled off that trick .  The flight finally took off… and all ended well.

These are  some photographs that were taken  during  the visit to Manipur. I was there  on a field trip to research material on  AIDS orphans ( for my book, Hopes  Alive, Surviving AIDS and Despair, published  by  FXB India Suraksha and released by Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen in Kolkata and Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari in Delhi in 2009) .  Sadly, this breathtakingly beautiful border state,  has effectively become out of bounds for tourists because of the constant threat of  violence and strikes.  These were some rare moments snatched from the working days which let me  taste the colours, the sounds and smells of  everyday Manipur. I was lucky to have Khoi , a Manipuri social worker,  as my guide.


One thought on “Having fun in a conflict zone — a slice of India’s North-East

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