Manipur: Where have all the flowers gone?
The embattled north-eastern state is a place where many flowers have bloomed, literally and metaphorically. An excerpt from Nandita Haksar's 'Shooting the Sun' spotlights just a few
The stories of Manipur that this book tells are violent, cruel and infused with unadulterated savagery. The hate and rage in them is tangible and there is no way to make the stories any less brutal.
The reports coming out of the state since May 2023 have eclipsed everything else there is to know about this magnificent place, its cultural as well as biological diversity.
Almost as if wanting to remind us of these aspects of its beauty, three new species of flowers revealed themselves in Kakching.
Manipur is a place where many flowers have bloomed, literally and metaphorically. More than five centuries ago, Charairongba (1697–1709), a Meitei king, wrote a book called Leiron (lei means flower). He describes more than a hundred flowers, edible plants and medicinal herbs, and relates stories associated with each plant. Here are some descriptions of the flowers he gives:
Lei Kabok: It is a white flower that remains ever fresh and is not eaten by worms... an ideal present for boys and girls to give to each other to show their love.
Nongleishang: This flower grows in an enchanted forest in the remote hills and is associated with folk stories.
Santhong Maiba Lei: It is believed that this flower was a gift of the gods... it seems to be sprinkled with silver dust and it has silvery sword-like leaves... used by ancient priests and priestess[es] for religious offerings.
Kusum Lei: This flower was brought to Manipur by the Muslims... the petals of the flowers look as if they are made from gold and the leaves resemble the teeth of a tiger.
Singut Yenga Lei: This is a flower associated with a story of friendship and love of two women who turned themselves into two reeds so that during the dry season they may be burnt together and become ash, and they may rise to the sky in the form of smoke.
Thambal: This is the lotus in the Waithou Lake and is believed to flower which grows from the pit of Nongda Lairen Pakhangba’s stomach.
The description of the flowers includes information about the plants from the hills as well as the valley, and those associated with folk stories of tribal people and also of the Muslims in Manipur.
I learnt much about Meitei culture when I was living in Manipur from 1988 to 1991. It was Maharaj Kumari Binodini, the daughter of the Manipur Kingdom’s monarch, Sir Maharaj Churachand Singh, who told me of the pre-Hindu Sanamahi religion and even took me to meet a famous maibi, a woman priestess.
I was in the state to represent the Nagas in a case of large-scale human rights violations committed by the Indian security forces in the Poumai Naga-inhabited areas of Senapati district during the counter-insurgency operation codenamed Bluebird (1987). M.K. Binodini mobilised many well-known artists and writers in support of the case and campaign against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.
A Meitei sub-divisional officer, N. Surendra Singh, gave me all the relevant files from his SDO’s office. [These] documented the human rights violations being committed during Operation Bluebird. (Many of these documents were field reports sent by him in the form of telegrams to the district administration.) He paid with his life for his act of courage.
The superintendent of jails was a man from the Kuki community. He helped me, among other things, by allowing me access to my clients in jail. He also came to my aid when I took up the case of the Burmese refugees who had started coming into Manipur after the military crackdown in Myanmar in 1988.
Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis were all extremely sympathetic to the Burmese refugees who had crossed to Manipur in the wake of crackdown. It was quite inspiring, because I knew there had been long wars with Burma in the past. I was deeply moved once again when I went to the Manipur High Court in 2021, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, after a gap of more than two decades, to once more represent some refugees who had fled to Manipur after the military coup in Myanmar in February that year. I was overwhelmed by the support, for both me and the cause I had taken up, by so many of my old friends and acquaintances (again, across communities).
This is not to say that I was, or am, not aware of the divisions and conflicts between the communities living in Manipur. After all, I was still called a mayang (a derogatory word for ‘outsider’). There have been deadly conflicts between the communities many times in the past. What we saw in 2023, however, was different. This time, even the security forces were divided down ethnic lines, with the Manipur police and commandos identifying with the Meiteis, and the central forces, especially the Assam Rifles, identifying with the Kukis. There were even clashes between the police and the central forces.
The violence affected everyone in Manipur, from schoolchildren to those dependent on the internet for their livelihood, and from cultivators to lawyers. But it is clear that the violence was overwhelmingly directed at the Kuki-Zo.
The Kuki group of tribes in Manipur includes the Gangte, Hmar, Kom, Paite, Thadou, Vaiphei and Zo. With the exception of the Thadous, all the other communities have disowned the term Kuki and call themselves by their own names. Many prefer to refer to themselves as Zomi. The Thadou Kuki are numerically the largest community and have played a dominant role in Kuki politics. In Manipur, the Kuki-Zo are concentrated in the Churachandpur district, which has the highest literacy rate in the state, although they have villages in all the Naga-majority areas as well as the Valley.
The term ‘Kuki’, we may note, is an exonym. It was likely used by the Bengalis to refer to the tribes living in some of these regions of India and Myanmar.
During British rule, all communities and tribes that were not included in the Naga group of tribes were called Kuki. They divided the Kukis into ‘Old Kukis’ and ‘New Kukis’, the former having largely identified themselves with the Naga group of tribes in the years since. Kukis on this side of the border are called ‘Chins’ by the Burmese. Although the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zo group of tribes are recognised as separate tribes, they have many similarities of culture and language.
This affinity has been at the root of accusations against the Kuki-Zo of being ‘outsiders’—accusations which came to be thrown around with disturbing conviction as Manipur erupted like a volcano in May 2023.
Peace can only return if the truth is acknowl- edged. But there isn’t one simple and straightforward truth that needs to be acknowledged. The story is complex.
The title of this book refers to Numit Kappa or ‘Shooting the Sun’, the oldest Meitei epic written in the period of the earliest monarchs of the Ningthouja dynasty of Manipur in the first century AD. It speaks of a time when there were two suns in the sky but one was shot dead and the other hid himself in a cave and plunged the land into darkness.
Then the people prayed to the sun to come out of the cave, and it finally did, shining over the land once again.
Title Shooting the Sun
Author Nandita Haksar
Publisher Speaking Tiger
Price Rs 399 (paperback)