Spectres of Violence

Piecing together a history of extrajudicial killings in Manipur

01 September 2019
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IN THE OPENING sequence to his photo book 1528, Rohit Saha is quick to set the tone for the narrative that follows. It opens with a grainy black-and-white image of a man’s face, framed such that it cuts right under his eyes, his unflinching gaze directed at the viewer. This injects the work with a confrontational tone that resurfaces time and again over the course of the book.

The photograph on the following page shows a piece of cloth strewn on the ground, a chair in the middle of the frame and a single window on the far right. Two bars on the window ominously block the view to the outside. The scene is reminiscent of depictions—in cinema and other forms of visual culture—of interrogations in prison cells. Despite the absence of people in the photograph, it conjures up images of hostile questioning by authorities. Often in these scenes, such interrogations are followed by torture, possibly alluded to here by the piece of cloth on the ground.

Saha’s book, which has been in the making since 2016, was launched alongside an ongoing exhibition at Art Heritage, a gallery in Delhi, on 30 August 2019. When he was researching for his degree project at the National Institute of Design, he came across headlines about Irom Sharmila breaking a 16-year-long hunger strike by tasting honey. Force-fed during this period through a nasal tube, she had undertaken the strike in protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA, in Manipur. In 2016, she decided to end the fast and join politics.

At the time, Saha knew about Manipur being a “disturbed state,” and was aware about the presence of AFSPA in the state, but not the extent of political turmoil that had culminated in Sharmila’s momentous decision. Despite his father’s attempts to dissuade him from going to Manipur because the state was “under curfew,” Saha was spurred on by the forcefulness of Sharmila’s resolve. He decided to begin a photographic work following her journey to the elections, starting on 18 October with Sharmila announcing her political party, the Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance, in Imphal.

When Saha began reporting, his research led him to the incident that prompted Sharmila’s fast—the Malom Massacre—a shooting of ten civilians by army troops, in retaliation against an attack on an Assam Rifles convoy in November 2000. The book traces Saha’s journey in informing himself about the political reality of an unfamiliar place—he was born and raised in Kolkata, and his association with Manipur began through this work. 1528 contains text that runs parallel to the images, in which Saha describes how his relationship with the state evolved over the course of his research and the making of this work. Early on in the book, he writes, “I came to Manipur thinking Malom Massacre was the worst that had happened here.” To see “what remains of the incident,” he set out to meet the families of the victims of the massacre, in order “to look at the present and compare it with the past.”

Rohit Saha is a visual artist from Kolkata. He works with photography, illustration and animation. He was awarded the Magnum Foundation’s Social Justice Fellowship in 2018.