The suffocating presence of the Indian Army on the Manipur University campus

21 October 2018

On 16 October, six teachers and eight students of the Manipur University, who had been arrested nearly a month ago following a complaint from the vice chancellor’s office, were released from the state’s Sajjwa Central Jail. They were arrested in relation to an agitation seeking an investigation into allegations against mismanagement and financial irregularities against the vice chancellor AP Pandey, which has been ongoing at the university since May. On 21 September, over 90 students and teachers had been detained after a midnight raid at the university’s men’s hostel, though most were released the next day.

Manipur University has witnessed a long history of student agitation. At present, it is one of several universities across the country swept by a wave of student protests, from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, to the University of Hyderabad in Telangana. In her first book, The Ferment: Youth Unrest in India, writer and journalist Nikhila Henry studies the protests, agitations and marches across India universities. Henry argues that these incidents are not isolated or sporadic, but the consequence of a fractured and discriminatory society. In the following excerpt from the book, Henry discusses the presence of the Indian Army at the Manipur University and across the state, and its impact on the lives of students. One of the students asked her, “This is the only university which has an army camp on its campus. What does that tell you?”

Sixty cement steps up a winding stair. That’s all that separated Manipur University located in Imphal, Manipur, from the army camp. When Peter and I started our ride from the students’ union office of the university, it was 5.30 pm Indian Standard Time and the last light of the day was already upon us. “Do you know of Chittaranjan?” Peter asked as we took the campus tour. His Honda Activa vroomed past the hillock that held both the Assam Rifles camp and a Durga shrine. A board at the foot of the hill displayed a reminder of the past:

Langthabal [Konung] Ching (A Hillock): On top of this hillock, a temple and its mandapa constructed during the reign of Maharaj Churachand Singh who established here a summer palace complex.

Armed men in uniform stood guard atop the stairs that led to the palace-turned-army camp. “This is the only university which has an army camp on its campus. What does that tell you?” Peter asked. As he turned the bike towards the Humanities wing of the residential campus, he returned to Chittaranjan, whose death had much to do with decades of army presence that reinforced restrictions in Manipur. “He was from Bishenpur. He killed himself demanding [the] repeal of AFSPA,” Peter said.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, imposed in Manipur, gave the country’s security forces impunity for actions. Twenty-eight-year-old Pebam Chittaranjan had set himself ablaze in 2004. Chittaranjan was Manipur’s young martyr. In a land where youth felt exposed to battalions of soldiers who were a formidable presence in localities were schools and residential settlements thrived, Chittaranjan’s name was legendary. Peter, like many other youth, remembered Chittaranjan as the young man who shouted slogans against Indian oppression in Manipur, right before he died. “He succumbed to burn injuries a day after he set himself on fire,” said Peter, a Meitei (non-tribal) and elected member of Manipur University Student Union, who took me to all campus buildings except to the army camp.

Not many students of Manipur University (MU) climbed up the hill. For them it represented a line of control, like many such in the geographically defined maps of states in Northeast India. Besides, the day Peter and I met in that university, was just a fortnight away from an insurgent-sponsored Improvised Explosive Device (IED) blast in front of the adorned university gate; a reminder of armed resistance in the army-controlled land. “Would you like to go to a peaceful place?” Peter asked somewhat ironically. He was talking about the well-maintained lawn where some students had gathered for fun. Thorny rose thickets grew everywhere in the garden. A small pedestrian bridge built over a pool in which ducks swam connected a student hangout which looked like a domed chapel. A band was playing there. Some strummed guitars others sang “The Home is Burning” of Imphal Talkies, a Delhi based Manipuri folk-rock band that rose to popularity in 2009.

What is India doing to Sharmila?
The raped and killed Manorama
No one remember Chitaranjan
Everyone saw it wide open … And the home is burning.

A girl wearing a floral printed dress walked in when the band’s practice session picked up rhythm. She sat near me gasping for breath as the waiter brought her a glass of water. She introduced herself as Esther and said that she was from Chandel, referring to the south-west district of Manipur that shared its border with Myanmar. Pointing to the army-governed hill, she said, “It reminds me of my brother. He went missing three years ago.” Esther’s words caught everyone’s attention. Between 2005 and 2015, a total of 2,456 youth had disappeared from Manipur, which is under army lock down. The testimony of just one person prompted others to share stories of insults and injuries.

In Manipur, every two kilometres there is a check-point and locals were frisked in their own land. Even an educational institution, Manipur University, was a site of constant army raids. Students were arrested frequently. In 2017, represented by a public interest litigation, a total of 1,528 cases of extra judicial killings of youth in Manipur had come for hearing in Supreme Court. AFSPA in the state meant more than curfew because the tough law and order situation drove youngsters to mistrust, agitation, and insurgent camps. It was difficult to kill separatist movement as sovereignty also meant an escape from humiliation. A walk up the hill revealed the gravity of army control in Manipur.

In the dark, it was difficult to see the men standing guard on the shady hillock. Only the slight movement of their guns set them apart from the shadow of trees which grew along the pathway to the camp inside MU. Climbing 60 steps, I reached the first check point at the foot of the camp. The gate was manned by three men who asked me what I was doing there.

I explained I am on vacation. Down below, I could see Peter and his friends dispersing to their hostels.

The check gate opened.

The winding path was covered with white flowers and dried leaves. At the second checkpoint I was asked, “Permission hai?”

I nodded. The guard confirmed by telephoning the first officer I met at the curb. The cross verification revealed who had real control in this institution of higher learning—it was the Indian army.

A pink light beamed through the tin door that covered one side of the Durga shrine on top of the hill. The goddess faced a mantap where ivy crept up the pillars. Down below, on the other side of the university, Imphal city glimmered with night lights. Soon enough I was asked to leave.

When I returned, the last of the army trucks had pulled over for the night. Only one guard remained at the first check point.

“Where are you from?” I asked him

“Mizoram.”

“Do you feel at home here?”

“It’s okay. But I miss home,” Zauva, the guard who identified himself as a Delta-company man, said.

Ethnic lines never blurred in the Northeast. Here any institution, including an army camp, was a site of contradictions. The next day I had scheduled meetings with students who championed battles for separate homelands. There were many warriors in Manipur University.

This is an edited excerpt from Nikhila Henry’s book, The Ferment: Youth Unrest in India, published by Pan MacMillan in September this year.

Nikhila Henry has been reporting on education, youth affairs and social welfare for over a decade, while working with the Times of India and The Hindu. She edited and compiled, Rohith Vemula's online diary, Caste is Not a Rumour. The Ferment is her first book.

Keywords: Manipur student protest Manipur University AFSPA Indian Army universities
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