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New Novel About Operation Bluebird 1987 In Manipur Talks Of Wounds Yet To Heal

The novel brings focus to military excesses in Manipur

I grew up in Manipur during the 1990s, and if there is one word to describe the condition in which people lived, it has to be Kafkaesque- a world that is characteristically bizarre, oppressive and nightmarish. Manipur used to be a state plague by insurgency and although insurgency has been successfully subdued today, the Kafkaesque experiences refuse to leave one’s mind. Often we would be shaken up from our sleep in the morning because the military personnel wanted to check the house. And after school we would see another band of personnel walking up and down the streets with their face covered as if in anticipation of something to happen. We just did not know whom to fear—the state army or the insurgents. And often there would be outbreak of firings at night. For ordinary people the only option was to hide under the bed and pray that they survive the night.

On one of these nights, I being still a child, slept while my family prayed and an aunt struggled to control her bowel movement trigger by fear. Such was life for us even as the rest of world continued to live their ordinary lives like in an ordinary day. The violence from both sides was nightmarish for us common people. The Indian historian Ranajit Guha has captured the nuances of state conflict through his theory of counter insurgency in which the state machinery portrays armed militia as terrorists. Counter insurgency gives no agency to the people in the margin as the narrative is construed around the rationale that the state is justified in violent action against the “terrorists”.

One such military operation that flamed into an inferno was Operation Bluebird conducted by the Assam Rifles. The operation was conducted in Oinam Village and 30 other villages in Manipur in July 1987 and it lasted for three months. The memories of the operation continue to haunt and traumatize the people who survived it. Often, people have reenacted the scene to dramatize the incident in their quest for justice that is in a limbo. The latest recounting of this incident has been done in the form of a novel Waiting for the Dust to Settle by Veio Pou. Pou teaches English literature in the Department of English, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi. In what follows is a conversation with the author of the novel.

Veio Pou teaches English literature at the University of Delhi

1) For most of the citizens that grew up in Manipur especially in 1980s and 1990s, there was always a cloud of uncertainty about life and governance. Can you elucidate on your experience growing up in a zone torn by insurgency and military rule?

Actually, I didn’t realize how life can be so different depending on where you grow up. I grasped this truth only when I moved away from my home state to pursue higher studies. The last two decades of the twentieth century in Manipur was marked by many upheavals where the common folks were often forced to live on the edge. The antagonism between the Indian armed forces and the Naga undergrounds was a key reason for this. But as you rightly pointed out, the state forces, empowered by AFSPA (Arms Forces Special Powers Act), would impose a sort ofmilitary rule, especially when they are on their counter-insurgency operations. I’ve seen situations where they would overrule the civil administrations and get away with human rights violations.To add to all the uncertainties, the state also saw the eruption of various conflicts between the ethnic groups and the wounds continue to fester even today.

2) National narrative and Bollywood movies have romanticized the military domain especially the state army and bunkers by showing them as protecting the innocent people from antinational groups. What is your opinion on that?

Well, it’s often easy to stereotype a region on some sensationalized images that the media circulates. Like few other regions, the Northeast of India has also suffered this syndrome. And it’s disheartening when Bollywood also end up making movies that don’t quite show the other realities. It’s not that the entire region is prone to violence and conflict; there are lots of peaceful places and states where violence is quite sporadic. For a highly militarized region like the Northeast, it’s often the case that roads along the borders are built only for army patrolling convoys and not for common people to use. Yet again, when the army help build such roads; they tend to project them as though they’ve done a great service to the people. On the contrary, what ordinary citizens need is a road to their villages and good paths to their paddy fields.

3) Operation Bluebird has not really captured the imagination of India like Operation Blue Star. The latter was even broadcast on television. And although the former has received little attention, people like Nandita Haskar and Sebastian M. Hongray have come up with the book The Judgement That Never Came. Why have you emplotted Operation Bluebird in your historical fiction, Waiting for the Dust to Settle?

I think the Operation Blue Star of 1984 attracted greater attention because it also led to the assassination of the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, and subsequently caused the anti-Sikh riot across many cities. It’s one of the most unfortunate events in modern India. The nation’s attention was drawn to it rightly because the action in the aftermath of the operation got transferred to the heart of the country. In contrast, the Operation Bluebird of 1987 occurred in a part of the country which was obscure to many Indians and the victims were largely ordinary citizens. Now-a-days people have become more aware of the happenings in the Northeast, but it wasn’t so in the eighties. Yet the impact of the Operation Bluebird continues to mar the memories of the people who are staring at justice being denied. I decided to write about it because incidents like that shape the community memory of the recent past. I also wrote with the hope that people would be aware that such incidents shouldn’t happen to anyone anywhere.

4) Has the dust storm, that your book title and cover suggest, really settled? Can people really see India in Manipur on a clear bright day?

The metaphor of the dust is applicable to many issues in the novel. Yes, one of the matters relate to the Operation Bluebird. But that incident is closely tied to the larger Naga movement for self-determination. Unfortunately, as it stands today, the movement seems to be in a stalemate, and the dusts have grown thicker that we can’t quite see that lies ahead. Your second question is quite interesting because a state like Manipur still seems too “peripheral” for most people from the “mainland” to be in their imagination. Perhaps, the dust still clouds the sky for a clear vision!

5) What is the politics of publishing houses when people send manuscripts on themes that are not friendly to the state’s narrative on nation building? And how are such texts received in the body of Indian literature in English?

Well, it takes courage for a publishing house to produce works which are counter-narrative to the state’s notion of nation building.I cannot speak for others, but my experience has been that many publishing houses are a bit wary of stories based in the Northeast because of various sensationalized political issues. But they would put it in nicer ways and say that they are not into publishing such themes and doubt marketability or something of that sort. But I think there has been a slow and good reception of literary works from the region, though I feel there is a need to get rid of the psychological gap and dismissive attitude among many intellectuals.

6) Many literary works from Northeast India revolve on the issue of insurgency. Likewise, Bollywood have also made movies on it. For instance Anek that was released recently. Do you think such Bollywood narrative like Anek has the anxiety to make Northeast more India that it has to bring in the theme of patriotism and national integration?

Just because there are literary works on insurgency, it doesn’t mean that the people are only talking about it. Undeniably, however, the political unrest for many decades has shaped the realities of the region. Though many parts of the region do not see active insurgency today, talking about it is also a way of dealing with the past and how to move on. It is just as how partition has shaped many present day narratives in the eastern and north-western parts of the country.

And yes, I think India has a larger anxiety of not being more homogenous in its identity construction. Though the nation’s motto declares the celebration of its diversity, in practice there is always an effort to project the idea of India which is quite foreign to many smaller people groups. This is played out quite ostensibly in the Northeast because of the troubled past following independence. I think there is a “conquered” sense of joy in many people’s mindset when they’re able to project the region with a tinge of patriotism, and Bollywood seems to have played into the game. But wanting to paint the region with a different colour or chant certain slogans or parrot another’s language is nothing more than colonialization.

7) What should be the future trajectory of Northeast literature and India’s approach to the Northeast?

There cannot be a one way road but a multi-dimensional approach to this. Of late, there have been recognitions of the contributions of literatures from the region to the larger gamut of Indian literature. Of course, we’ve a good repository of literature in Assamese, Bengali and Meitei (Manipuri) languages for a long time now. But the recent surge of interest in the writings from the Northeast is largely focused on English writings and translations into English. And they deserve attention. It’s good to note that many universities have incorporated works of many writers from the region into the syllabus and many research scholars have taken interest in the area. This is a positive way forward. And literature can be a good medium to understand the culture and history of the people written about. I’ve come across lots of people taking interest in understanding about the region after reading literary works. I think that’s where the power of literature lies. The key to understand each other better, especially for a vast and diverse country like India, is to read more about each other’s culture and history. The ignorance of many Indians about the Northeast is also because they have read too little about the region in school. I’ve seen that most students from the Northeast are much more informed about the rest of the country than vice versa. There is a fault line in our education system that needs to be addressed. I remember, some years back the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, B.B. Acharya, made a biting comment that the people of India know more about America than the Northeast. Perhaps, a truth lies there. It needs redressal, not dismission.

About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.


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