Manipur protests: How police and army bullets catalysed a movement for tribal rights
Outside the morgue at Manipurʹs Churachandpur District Hospital last week, mourners had gathered under a marquee. A woman addressed the crowd, talking about faith. They were mourning the nine people who had been shot by security forces in protests that broke out after the state government passed three contentious bills about residence rights and land ownership. That was two months ago, on September 1. Many of those killed were teenagers, the youngest only 11. But they are yet to be buried.
In Manipurʹs tribal areas, custom dictates that family members keep vigil with the dead until they are buried. Local philanthropic organisations support the bereaved with money and other kinds of assistance. But in Churachandpur, a ritual that should have lasted a few days has stretched into months. Youth organisations from several tribes have come together to form a Joint Philanthropic Organisation, which has set up office at the district hospital, collecting over Rs 73 lakh in assistance for the families of the victims as well as for those injured and in hospital. Hundreds of visitors pour in every day to keep vigil with the relatives of the dead.
Chinkhohat Gangte says it consoles her, this vast outpouring of grief. She lost her son, 18-year-old Henlalson Gangte, in the firing. Henlalson married young and had a baby girl who is now about four months old. He had supported his wife and daughter by doing manual work. ʹHe never stayed away from home long,ʹ said Chinkhohat. ʹBut on the 31st [of August], he went out to join the protests. We had heard gunfire so when he did not return, his father and I thought he had stayed over at a friendʹs house. At 4.30 am, we went out to look for him.ʹ
They were told that their son was in the morgue. He had been shot in the abdomen. Henlalsonʹs mother said she keeps imagining his last moments, how he must have been in pain and crying for help. She keeps imagining him looking for her. She canʹt forget that she wasnʹt there. Now she must come to the morgue every day. ʹIf I donʹt, my son will ask why his mother didnʹt come.ʹ
In Churachandpur, a private bereavement has turned into a collective mourning, cutting across tribal divisions. The collective mourning has turned into an act of protest: withdraw the three bills or leave the stateʹs hills areas out of it, or we wonʹt bury our dead.
As a consequence, Churachandpur town has become the epicentre of a new agitation that brings old faultlines into focus, between the hills and the valley, between the politically and numerically stronger Meitei people and the tribes that also inhabit the state, between the Manipur government and the autonomous district councils that are meant to govern the hill areas.Keywords : Manipur protests, police, army, bullets, movement, tribal rights
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