The Massacre in Manipur that Prompted Irom Sharmila’s Fast-Unto-Death Sixteen Years Ago

09 January, 2016

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.

The Child Welfare Department wanted to keep its records updated, so every year a letter came in the last quarter of the year, asking Chandramani about his welfare, studies and which of India’s two most coveted professions he was keen to join—medicine or engineering. The letters were answered for a few years. But for some years now there had been silence. They reopened old wounds. Not that Chandrajini wanted closure. For six years now she had resisted any attempt to wipe out the memories, keeping each of her son’s belongings safely. The letters brought with them memories of young Chandramani, rushing to his private physics tuition in Sagolband where his teacher lived, a forty-minute bus ride from Malom. Chandrajini would give him ten rupees; eight were spent on the bus fare, and the rest were his savings.

Before he left every day, Chandramani would come to his mother for blessings, she would put her talisman on him, gently bite his palm and smell his hair. One day, she forgot.

She sent her child away without her protection.

On the 2 November 2000, a damp, chilly winter morning, Chandramani had no school. Shortly after breakfast, he went to the market in Malom to buy himself a new sweater. His elder brother, Robinson, and his mother spent much of the morning taking their aunt to the doctor. They had come back home, eaten their lunch and were all resting, when Chandramani came in with his new cream cardigan. Already late for his tuition class, he put aside his sweater, picked up his books, his identity card, had his glass of milk and rushed to the bus stop where his friend Shantikumar would be waiting. Both went for the physics tuition every day around three in the afternoon and were back by six.

The Malom bus stop, a structure you would hardly notice, is on Tiddim Road, down NH 150, a smooth highway that flows out of Imphal, passes through the hills and then curves into the Burmese town of Tiddim. Next to the bus stop is a roadside altar of black stone and tile, an arched gateway that leads to the Ten Innocents Memorial Park where every anniversary, pictures of the deceased are put against the walls that have their names inscribed. Women in pale pink phaneks and white enaphis, clothes of mourning, offer flowers. A different kind of memory also casts its shadow on the road. In 1943 this crucial, newly-built road took a two-way traffic of thousands of heavy military vehicles, including tanks and trucks carrying guns and howitzers. Japan’s powerful Commander General Mutaguchi had planned to attack Imphal and Kohima via the Tiddim road and destroy the seventeenth India division. From there he intended to march to Delhi accompanied by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose of the Indian National Army. Even today the main arterial road is of great strategic significance, heavily used by convoys of the Indian Army.

That afternoon in November 2000, at 3.20 pm, a three-vehicle convoy of the 8 Assam Rifles was passing by when there was a loud explosion. The first vehicle, a 3-ton, bore the brunt of the attack. Its front suffered damage, exposing parts of the machinery. The two men sitting in front were injured. Before the jawans sitting in the trucks behind could get down the insurgents had escaped. They had been waiting for the convoy.

Reprisals are seldom proportionate. Villagers, just on the other side of the Tiddim road in Malom, had heard the sound and felt the reverberation of the explosion. But before anyone could do anything, staccato gunfire filled the air. The government troops panicked and struck back hard, firing randomly at passersby who were running for cover after the explosion. A few minutes later all was quiet. And then the firing began again.

Chandrajini heard the gunfire as well, but she had hoped her youngest would have boarded the bus by now and would be well on his way to his tuition, while the elder one, Robinson, who had just taken his scooter out to drop their aunt to Kabowakching, would have certainly not reached the bus stop and would keep away.

The soldiers shot two people on a scooter, bystanders waiting for passenger jeeps, local government employees and the two young boys waiting to go to their private tuition. In one stroke, Chandrajini lost two sons and her sister. But she remained unaware of the tragedy till the soldiers entered the village, beating up people, trying to find the insurgents who had threatened to finish an entire convoy. The village marched at gunpoint to the Malom bus shelter and then lay prostrate.

Chandrajini too had walked, dizzy, perhaps more eager than the soldiers to reach the spot. It wasn’t far. As she moved closer to the road her steps were slower and tentative. She wasn’t sure what had happened. Men in uniform, some still at the bus stop, were getting into their jeeps and leaving. The convoy had passed leaving a trail of fuel smoke. The local police, it seemed, had just arrived to take the bodies, but did nothing else, only walking up to the bodies and making notes. The soldiers were going to hold an entire village hostage. Nothing was clear. Who had died and why? There were bodies lying around them, preserved in their final movements, a raised arm, a twisted torso. The entire village saw the dead. One body had its eyes turned up. Neruda’s lines could have been written for Malom that afternoon:

“And the blood of children ran through the streets without a fuss like children’s blood.”

This land had many such rivulets.

“My sandal caught something sticky. I later realised it was blood. Blood is sticky…” Chandrajini would remember. “I had to sit down on the tarred road. I couldn’t see my sons or my sister. We were all made to sit in a line by the road. There was no help, there was going to be none. The road to the airport was shut and kept closed well into the night and the next day. The troops were dragging away the corpses. It was hard to see how many were being thrown into the back of a truck.”

Until the soldiers left that night, the villagers of Malom had their faces to the ground; they spoke, but only in whispers. Voices attracted the butts of rifles. When she returned past midnight, with the rest of her family, Chandrajini still wasn’t sure what had happened to her two boys and her sister.

As Malom went to sleep that night, Chandraijini’s house felt empty and haunted.

It was only the next day that the village head told her about the loss of three family members. The bodies came back one day later, on 4 November, wrapped in white cloth that the villagers had taken to the morgue. Curfew across Imphal and its peripheral towns had meant that even getting to the morgue of the RIMS hospital had been a task.

Chandramani had died of a bullet injury in his neck. Blood had dried on his torso and had stained the 180 rupees found in the pocket of his black and purple shirt. His elder brother Robinson, in a blue shirt, and aunt Sana had also died of bullet wounds. Malom had lost five. The others were from neighbouring areas.

Since that day nothing really shocked Chandrajini. She went through the motions of motherhood but nothing brought her joy. She said little and when she did, words came out tonelessly.

“I am sure he must have told them who he was, a student. I am sure he must have shown them his identity card. I am sure they didn’t hear.”

The events of that afternoon were so apocalyptic that at one time it seemed hard to imagine that they would ever fade away or that Chandrajini and the others would ever be able to forget them. Her instinct had been to consolidate what was left, to hold it together. The house suddenly seemed quiet but the humdrum of daily life was a great sponge, soaking away the silence bit by bit. In the first few months everyone would hanker for the ordinary, the sound of the weaving loom, or the careful digging up of the soil in the kitchen garden. It was some relief. But then a letter would come to remind Chandrijini how nothing was the same. She was a mother to five now.