The journalist and writer Anubha Bhonsle is an executive director with CNN-IBN. Over the past decade, she has reported extensively on conflict areas in India, such as Kashmir and the northeast. She previously worked with the newspaper, The Indian Express, and with the news channel, New Delhi Television (NDTV). In her book, “Mother, Where’s My Country?”, Bhonsle examines the history of Manipur and much of the northeast, a significant part of which has been ravaged by multiple insurgencies and counter-surgency operations, as well as corrupt state machinery and ethnic violence. She investigates the effects of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 which granted heightened power to military forces in areas of conflict, exploring what happens to “the texture of life that went on despite extra judicial killings, month-long blockades and a thick shade of political apathy.” In the following excerpt, Bhonsle tells the story of the “Malom Massacre,” in which ten civilians were shot and killed while waiting at a bus stop in Malom, a town in the Imphal valley in Manipur. The massacre prompted the activist Irom Sharmila Chanu to begin a hunger strike, which is still ongoing. The tale is told through the eyes of Chandrajini Sinam, a resident of Malom, whose life was changed irrevocably after the firing.
Around midnight, Chandrajini gets out of bed and lights a candle. She checks on her children, all asleep, all five, she has to remind herself. She still continues to think of herself as a mother of seven. She walks to the other room, the one with the old trunk. She puts the candle in an alcove and sits down to open the trunk. She brings out a black and purple half-sleeved shirt. A bloodstain has stiffened the collar. Sitting on her haunches she takes out another shirt, this time a blue one, with a gold medal placed on top of it. She lifts the shirts to her face and inhales the smell of her children. Next, a few academic certificates, photographs and newspaper cuttings, wrapped in a polythene bag. Finally, a stack of letters bound by a rubber band. This latest letter will go at the bottom of the pile.
The letters came every year, roughly the same time, in the months of September-October. All from the Child and Welfare Department, Government of India, they began with the same salutation and were addressed to Sinam Chandramani, recipient of the National Bravery Award in 1988. As a four-year-old he had saved another child from drowning and was given the bravery award by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Chandramani was the pride of Malom. His picture in a maroon blazer with navy blue pants and new black shoes that his father had bought him just before their trip to Delhi had made it to all the local papers. He had ridden on an elephant down the majestic Rajpath along with other children during India’s Republic Day celebrations. While the entire nation watched, very few in Malom had seen the parade.
The first trip to Delhi, for both father and son, had been a mixed experience. Delhi’s biting cold that 26 January hadn’t agreed with Chandramani. He had fallen ill and missed his mother even more. But the excitement of an elephant ride and gifts of sweaters, tea leaves, shoes and twelve tins of condensed milk had made him more cheerful. The condensed milk had lasted barely a few days after their return; the siblings relished its creamy texture. The Sinam family was happier about the Indian government’s help for the boy’s education and the free train travel to any part of India.