by THOITHOI O’COTTAGE
AFSPA reveals that it is an act of legitimizing the involvement of the military in the domestic space, and that it does not supplement but supplant the ‘civil power’.
Bimol Akoijam & Th. Tarunkumar, Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958: Disguised War & its Subversions
Is the ‘revolution’ over or has it been hijacked and made petulant by whimsical, self-centred interpretations of it? These are some very pertinent questions, but one that people dare not ask openly.
Pradip Phanjoubam, Widening the Human Rights Debate
Milton: Pressure. It changes everything. Pressure. Some people, you squeeze them, they focus. Others fold.
Lemkin & Gilroy, Devil’s Advocate
Silences shape all speech.
Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production
All artistic productions in Manipur, the most serious among India’s troubled north-eastern states forming one of South Asia’s most contested spaces (McDuie-Ra, 2009), have greatly and forcibly been shaped by the socio-political ‘others’ threateningly ubiquitous in all spheres of civil lives in the state. The contest in the state takes political roots in the Merger Agreement of 21 September 1949 between the hitherto independent princely kingdom and the then just independent India and the consequent merger of the kingdom into the Indian Union in the middle of the following month (15 October) during the latter’s conscious legal political nation construction just after independence in 1947. The legality of the Merger Agreement has been contested by armed opposition groups (AOGs) that started to appear officially on the scene at different points of time during the last 60 years since as early as 1964 fighting for a sovereign Manipuri nation state, and in their refutation of the Indian state they have reactively opposed whatever Indian element present there starting, besides fighting the Indian Army, from banning of Hindi language and Hindi films (since 1998) to killing of migrant workers and businessmen from the country’s mainland.
The heightened struggle between the Indian state army and the AOGs had already reached a very dangerous stage by late 1970s that the Government of India in 1980 declared Manipur a disturbed area thereby introducing in it the infamous counter-insurgency mechanism of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (1958) (AFSPA) part of the Section 4 of which reads:
The Section 6 of the Act protects the army personnel acting under this Act:
A replica of the British Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance (Human Rights Watch, 2008) enacted in colonial India to counter the Quit India Movement of 1942, AFSPA bestows upon the military personnel unlimited powers to act according to his whim without any culpability, and the struggle between the Indian nation-state armed forces and the AOGs on the background of this Act has killed more than 20,000 people (Asian Centre for Human Rights, 2004) and caused the disappearance of over 20,000 other people (Majumder, 2010) besides hundreds of rapes, thousands of tortures, displacement and detentions in the last three decades.
This situation of Manipur (and six other states in the region) being considered as an abnormal place which no normal legal infrastructure can contain is an extreme example of what Carl Schmitt (1922) calls the ‘state of exception’ where the constitution and judicial order are suspended (Agamben, 2005) or the law operates by being suspended (Baishya, 2011). In a state of exception the sovereign state extends the military authority’s wartime powers/biopolitical powers into the civil sphere who, by regulating human bodies, whimsically decides who to live and who to die just as the gods in the Manipuri legend of Henjunaha do. With the state operating by erasing any legal status of the individual thereby producing a legally unnamable and unclassifiable being (Agamben, 2005), any individual (militant or not) captured in Manipur has the status of neither a person charged with a crime according to Indian Penal Code (IPC) or Code of Criminal Procedure (CCP) nor even a prisoner of war defined by the Geneva Convention, but is simply a detainee subject to a pure de facto rule (Agamben, 2005). It was against this catastrophic, traumatic lawlessness driving people into varied degrees of madness that the 12 women hysterically stripped naked and marched in July 2004 to the gates of the Army Headquarters at Kangla Fort demanding justice against the brutal killing of Manorama and discarding her corpse out on the pavement, her genitals mangled beyond the point of recognition.
There have been no known studies on the differences in the complexes of attitudes, behaviors and emotions which Indian military men who have served in any of the ‘disturbed areas’ not less than three years show upon entry into the areas, discharge and entry back into service in any other places in the country or into civilian life. Such a study will definitely reinforce the intensity of the psychologically traumatizing and dehumanizing effect of the AFSPA even on the offenders (leave alone the victims) as will be evident from the difficulties of various natures they undergo while negotiating their new military or domestic environment.
At the same time, besides their offensive and defensive measures against Indian state army, the AOGs have also assumed a de facto regulatory authority of the socio-political life channeling the state’s existential dynamics off those of India which involves imposition of several express and unexpressed dos and don’ts upon the public any noncompliance with which meets the insurgents’ intolerance.
Film being an influential media, the insurgents keep a special, vigilant eye on it and following the release of a few Manipuri films arguably modeled on Bollywood films the KCP (P) (one of the factions of the KCP) announced in September 2005 the blanket banning of shooting and screening films and music videos in Manipur for one year and the permanent banning of film Dr Yaima (2005) and music video Star (2005) threatening:
Aany body who were found filming or screening digital film and album in defiance of the diktat would be given capital punishment without giving any prior warning (Chanu, 2005).
The ban came along with a few strict regulations:
Such express regulations among other unwritten and unspoken (hence indefinite) guidelines which are to be understood as corollaries of the winds of the times, and what one will incur through any nonconformance with the diktats bespeak another ‘other’ who declares a non-state state of exception the indefinite power-rules of which are to be honored and feared for life. Writing in Eastern Quarterly, Pradip Phanjoubam (2005), editor of the Imphal Free Press, daringly observed:
These straightjacketing, extremely localizing pressures imposed on the tiny Manipuri film industry (to speak of only film) on the contrary form a bonsai of the industry clipping its expanding roots and branches not only disabling it to reach even the fringe of a global market but also threatening its very sustenance within the state’s geo-political boundaries. If by doing so the insurgents do not impose their propaganda on the film industry for it to be film messages, they have curtailed the freedom of the arts in the state and have not tolerated any content in film (or any other products or art) which goes counter to their objectives.
Thus, caught between the oppressive armed forces and the oppressive armed militants and between rival factions, and exposed perennially in the narrow space in between to their violence, the people naturally fearfully regard both the state army and the AOGs as others encroaching upon their spaces, forcing them to undertake struggles that have little prospect of success but invite a complete rethinking of the forms resistance can take (McDuie-Ra, 2009).
Made in such an environment, Mami Sami (2008), literally meaning ‘murky’, while having to be strategically silent about many things and greatly minimalize the screen space to a safe extent in an attempt to daringly address what is ailing the state, has given an innovatively appropriate aesthetic response to the pressures, which is never an easy thing to do. This essay examines how the state of exception both the state and the non-state have wreaked like havoc on the civil spaces blocking virtually all modes of normal artistic expression has necessitated a new and more sophisticatedly subtle way of expression immune from easy invalidations which I loosely for now term screen minimalism to symbolically voice what has been minimized and left out through minimized dialogue and the ensuing long pauses, avoidance in conversations of references to the socio-political problems which have ended thousands of lives and destroyed families, silence and reticence of the newspaper editor Wangthoi, absence of on-screen struggle between the opposing forces, unpopulated spaces, rains, wintry fogs and mist, etc. I also argue in this essay that this minimalist aesthetics is an artistic bypass necessitated by the socio-political forces in the state of Manipur.
While there have been a few films which at best make some timid-if-honest, indirect reference to the state?insurgent encounters problematizing the state, Ningthouja Lancha, if not the first, has addressed the issues with the most single-minded seriousness. The inability of older generation and other contemporary filmmakers to address these problems staring them most starkly in the face is itself due at least to their inability to formulate a way of a nuanced artistic expression; however, a genius’s art is too powerful energy to keep contained in a confining canister because in a genius’s hand art in constant search of ever more effective expressive means/escapes takes a very slippery, elusive form in difficult socio-political times acting as a powerful catalyst to minds potent to think contagiously and release powerful, regime-changing energies. Mami Sami with its expressive formulation of the silenced subaltern existence, thus, is an infallible artistic response to the suppressing forces.
With the actions in the film spanning beyond the frames, the film is more like the viewfinder of a news TV camera selectively following just a line of actions in a mob leaving other related happenings out of frame while these off-frame realities are never strands cut off from the in-frame events. Rather what happens off-frame shapes the attributes of in-frame events in the film—the fates of the on-screen population, particularly of Tayal and also of Tombi and Wangthoi.
Most confrontations that feed the tension of the film happen off-frame—we just hear the sounds of gunshots, gunfights and bomb explosions, or are told of people being killed and markets being dispersed; and these off-frame events drive the in-frame people crazy—they make the people run back home breathlessly from works, run in tensed silence to collect dead bodiesof innocent people discarded by warring forces, or propose to one another if they should go find somewhere to live leaving their ‘bewitched spot’ which one can no longer call home because something ‘other’ has appropriated and usurped it (Rapaport, 2005).
What mysteriously happens to Tombi after the bullet has left him unconscious in the waters of the Loktak lies totally beyond the frames’ coverage until his ghost-like return at the end of the film to verbally demystify the mystery destabilizing Tayal’s reconstructed realities, traumatizing her and driving her back to relapse. To cinematically express this, Ningthouja Lancha uses open framing (conceptual and physical) in most scenes as if he is recording, while randomly panning the camera across a field, just a few bodies lying dead or fighting in a battle which is characteristic of war movies. Using open frames here is significant in that the technique by dint of its general association with (though not limited to) war movies not only successfully forms a connection between the images of the secret, unofficial or disguised wars (Sahni, 2011; Akoijam, 2005; Akoijam & Tarunkumar, 2007) being fought there and our collective optical unconscious but also archive these images into the collective psyche.
This abscission of actions from the screen imitates the off-screen realities lived by the people of Manipur where many acts of violence are perpetrated in dark mystery the effects of which are left for the people to suffer out in the open while they cannot reason why such absurdities keep happening. Everything about their life, their fates is indefinite, murky and bleak, and their fates seem more to be determined by these unfriendly forces than their own karmas or some almighty God. The situation Tombi finds himself in is never one in which he can play almost a role in shaping his own destiny. The violation of human rights in the maddening theft of his bullet-hit, unconscious body and his transportation/trafficking to Burma (today’s Myanmar) without his wife’s knowledge by the Wanglen faction of an insurgent organization, their giving him no opportunity to go back to or at least to communicate with his wife, his five-year term in a prison after a Burmese army crackdown—these are the series of events that have shaped his destiny against or contrary to which he can do nothing but bear with silent patience before total conditioning of his mind though the irony/inconsistency keeps consistently staring at him—what has destroyed his family is the bullet from the insurgents, what has trafficked him from his maddened wife are these insurgents, but he in no way can defy or escape them but serve them rather as a programmed mastermind just as a fish in poisonous water cannot defy or escape the water it is in. The playful hands of these alternative determiners of destiny haunt homes, break families, separate husbands and wives, drive wives crazy, make husbands homecoming from disappearance see their faithful wives live in marriage with other men.
These unbearable pressures squeeze them constantly into mysteriously impossible shapes beyond what generally called life can contain keeping everything about them in the bleak, murky shadows. This sense of faintness/indefiniteness is accentuated by the film’s constant low-key lighting, and rainy and misty atmosphere. All crucial events in Mami Sami occur at nights or on rainy or misty/foggy days or in very poorly lit rooms making it at times too difficult to tell one thing or person from the other and make out what is happening. At times as it is too dark due mainly to the state’s literal and symbolic power supply failure, they have to light candles or oil lamps for their faint life to go on in their faint light. However, such candle lights cannot show what happens to those who the state forces turn to after letting go of Wangthoi and the women in the opening sequences though we sense from the sound something not less than torture is being done.
While open framing has strategically abscised from the screen events epitomic of miseries the Manipuris are undergoing thereby lending a disguised silence to the film to conversely liberalize the frame so as to bring what it has left out within its undemarcated limits, silence itself is also one of the dominantly vocal devices Ningthouja employs in this film and this operates at least on two levels—first, minimized dialogue and the resulting long pauses in conversations; second, avoidance of references to the socio-political problems causing sufferings the people are living through.
Compared with the average ratio of a film’s runtime to its talktime (time all talks in the film take together), Mami Sami’s talktime is much below the average thereby leaving a good amount of silent moments scattered across the runtime space. In Mami Sami these silent moments are never quiet (especially in Wangthoi’s presence, and between him and Tayal), the obvious tension being strained even tighter at times by the avoidance of non-diegetic sounds. This unquiet silence strategically contrasts and connects to the noise the state army personnel’s hatefully threatening shouts on the soundtrack when they confront and manage to forcibly silence the protesting public using guns, batons and tear gas while the opening credits are rolling out on the screen with Wangthoi’s printer swiftly churning out freshly pressed sheets of newspaper. We do not know what has particularly happened this time to lead the people to a protest of such a great scale, but it is not essential to know this for such provocative things and the resulting protests are more or less events of daily frequency that have long failed to surprise the people, and this protest and clash between the public and the state forces is just one insignificant event of them. On the soundtrack the people’s angry din is overdinned by the state forces’ offensively threatening cries, firing guns and explosions of tear gas canisters.
Ningthouja Lancha intensifies the silence of less speech with his politically strategic avoidance of references to the socio-political problems which have plagued the state. In the context of the state’s bleak socio-political realities, an honest discourse is profanity, blaspheme, a taboo or an offensive language and it never goes with impunity. Thus, Ningthouja’s necessary minimalist handling of these unspeakable issues is like discussing some offensive topic without naming it while you consistently keep it hanging loosely but with nuanced care in the audience’s consciousness.
There is still another dimension of silence in the film manifesting itself in Wangthoi’s person. Wangthoi is by nature a silent and reticent person and this silence and reticence are even more deepened after he has become a newspaper editor through whose fingers the sadly pulsating stories of the state’s civil lives flow every day. But what does his silence mean? Is this his failure to react to the events in any practically useful terms as they, as Gaikwad (2009, p. 310) puts about the 12 naked women ‘leave us absolutely speechless’? Or is this silence a resistance, or both? If it is a resistance, who then is he, representing the thinking minds in the population, resisting?
Wangthoi’s silence shapes Ningthouja’s discourse of silence through which he can say a lot of things. In the off-screen political context, Wangthoi’s voice would change the scheme of things thereby hijacking the whole plan for a loud action movie which will fail to address its raison d’être, and would end up being banned if it does not do the opposite of what it intends to do as in the case of many films which preceded this one. Mami Sami’s apparent silence is not to be misunderstood as its failure to address its agenda. In spite of his apparent choice to remain silent about currently irresolvable issues it would be unwise and unsafe for one to think aloud of one’s own desired solution(s) to, Wangthoi’s position about these issues is implicit in his behavior, speech and activities, while there are a few things where apparently conflicting things can be brought at peace with each other which the film works toward.
Wangthoi speaks much through his silence; his silence is louder than his voice his censored subaltern vocal chords can produce under perennial surveillance. His silence thus is a resistance. The significance of his marrying the mad, widowed Tayal goes much more than just love, it is also an act of construction and protection against destruction which will have very deep consequence in his life when Tayal’s husband reappears long after his disappearance (assumed death) which makes her relapse into madness.
The small family of three—Kala, Randhoni and their son, Krishnamani—in spite of their apparently comic relief-like appearance enables Ningthouja to work out a synthesis between two souls—the Manipuri and the Indian—through the harmonization between initially mutually misunderstanding indigenous music loving father and his Hindustani sangeet loving son (whom his mother encourages) who always is protective of his symbolic harmonium which his father always tries to break. Kala imposes that his son should live for indigenous music forms like khulang eshei and pena, while his harmonium holding son is adamant to go on with his Hindustani sangeet. It is only when Wangthoi convinces Kala that one can do indigenous music with the harmonium that the comic but serious conflict ends. This harmony is Wangthoi’s contribution and it is toward such a harmony of a larger scale that he is working. R.K. Birendrajit’s music score itself is a fusion between Manipuri indigenous music forms and Hindustani sangeet with the incorporation of western and Chinese elements.
These general, comparatively less harmful issues of silence, on the other hand, cover a traumatic situation which particular, even more silent traumatized lives live in. Here, the camera looks rather like one panning across Moirang stopping at a hut on one of the Loktak’s foomdhis (floating grass islands) with the incidents it has captured in this slight movement showing the virtual impossibility of deciding who the ultimate culprit is—the state or the AOGs? The first appearance of the AOGs on the screen starts to eat into the calmness of Tayal and her husband Tombi’s poor but happy family by their peremptory request for help and their consequent befriending of the couple taking advantage of the grudging help thereby involving the unwilling couple helplessly in situations operating beyond their ability to draw back from, but sliding gradually then sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand they fear. Tayal and Tombi are rocked by splits in the AOGs into factions and their internecine fights, and consequently sense the insurgents’ growing manipulation of even their lives dictating to them whom to be friends with and who to be their enemies—regulations imposed on the couple’s personal space disrespecting which would lead to nothing good.
It is while the couple is caught in this inescapable, sticky situation that the state police who are supposed to help, rescue and protect civil lives come to the couple’s hut to arrest the husband accusing him of turning his hut into a militant camp. Bluntly refuting Tayal’s defensive answer against this incriminating accusation saying that her husband is a civilian and therefore innocent, the police officer sarcastically says ‘all militants are civilians, innocent’. This politically significant statement bespeaks the state’s convenient blurring of the boundaries between ‘civilians’ and ‘militants’ which the AFSPA’s Section 4a quoted above sanctions. The state argument is the couple or any other civil families harbor the militants, feed them and doing this is to support them and hence legally culpable, while Tayal or any civilian’s answer is ‘how can we resist if they come to stay?’, because their sugar-coated request is always peremptory, which can be no legal excuse.
This state merger of ‘civil’ and ‘militant’ boundaries is also clearly evident in the opening sequences in which the armed forces shout in utmost bitterness to ‘drop your weapons’ and rush in a warlike maneuver to whomever coming in the van. The point of view in this part of the scene from those the audience identify themselves with, i.e. editor Wangthoi, his rubber-bullet hit wife Tayal and four other women who are on their way back home after treatment at hospital for injury in a public protest dispersed by the state forces as we hear from soundtrack as the opening credits roll out, shows the threatening maneuver in an absurd and ridiculous light because we know they/we are innocent. What the state, represented by the police officer and his attendants who are never protective of the civilians, does is never the protection of civil lives, but to manage to wipe out the militants, their rivals whom they fear, by killing as many of them and fast as they can anywhere, anytime in any way while their glaucomatous eyes blur the boundary between civilians and militants.
Now, on the other hand, the insurgent infighting kills Krishnamani, who (as the narrative is from the civil point of view) we know is clearly innocent, for ferrying a rival faction’s members in his childish/immature pleasure in ferrying whoever requests him across the lake. Tombi has always loved Krishnamani’s childish simplicity, and his death shocks Tombi out of his fisherman’s life. Throughout the film till this moment we have seen Tombi almost always in his farming/fishing gear—his fishing net, towels and the coolie hat, but Krishnamani’s death separates Tombi and his farmer’s gear—we see them discarded hanging on a pole, wavering in the wind silhouetted against the blue sky. We never see him using them ever again after this event. Krishnamani’s death is soon followed by Yaiphabi’s killing and disposal of her body at the foot of the hills as in the case of Manorama, this time by the insurgents. But nobody can raise a voice. It is death and deterioration alone that’s happening but no birth at all, no sign of regeneration. Tayal’s marriage with Tombi is without a child, her four-year marriage with Wangthoi is childless. This is a land of death, not of life.
This acute irony of protectors in principle and those who claim are protectors killing to protect reminds one of Dany Boyle’s political allegory zombie movie 28 Days Later (2002) in which the army contingent led by Major Henry West, frightened by the mysterious ‘rage-virus’ which has devastated the rest of London, the only organized society left on earth after the great devastation, kills in the protected domain of life whomever showing a likely sign of infection. In both films bodies are the site of political power struggle, and gaining control over bodies and what they do become essential for winning the contest. This is the utmost cruelty of a state of exception, no matter who makes it exceptional—be it the state or the non-state or both.
In a state of exception people are strangers in their own lands, homeless in their own homes. When the internecine insurgents and the police haunt their house, their home is not a home any more, but a ‘bewitched spot’, in Benjaminian terms, which is no more a home because a very inhospitable and repulsive other has appropriated, usurped and rendered it unlivable. When Tombi sees police approaching, he swiftly steps into the boat and sails away from home to evade them. He is not at home at home—he runs away from home where the ‘others’ live and act actively, confidently in. He feels guilty for no guilt he has done.
This unstable home is uprooted from the floating ground when his bullet-hit, unconscious body disappears, and his floating island and the piece of field are sold to pay for his maddened wife’s treatment which will wake her up in the midst of loneliness and homelessness which she would not be able to bear. When he returns home after at least six years, his hut, land and wife are no more there to be seen but finds himself in utter homelessness, groundlessness which makes his homecoming impossible.
When Tayal recovers from the trauma she finds herself in an even more insulting loneliness and homelessness. And with Wangthoi’s feeling drawn toward her in growing awareness of his inability any more to let her go in that feeble condition besides his love for her threatening, as a result, his impending marriage with her doctor, and with Wanthoi’s father and sister having opened up against her threatening stay, she can no longer bear to stay in that house. In utter shame and anguish she runs one night from the house; however, she has no home—nowhere to go, nowhere to live but the quiet, bare, unpopulated spaces which disturbingly cut a couple of times in the smooth run of the film’s narrative. She stops on a bridge, approaches the parapet and (seemingly) considers committing suicide, but she has no place to die as well—her suicide will defame Wangthoi’s family.
Whose gift is this homelessness? This is an unwelcome gift forced upon them accepting which will drive all their senses off their minds. This is the unquiet silence haunting every ‘bewitched spot’ which they can neither live in nor leave—a wall-less cell in a wall-less dungeon.
However, India rather than struggling to solve these ramified problems of insurgency/militancy manages all it can to cover all these ugly scenes from the international community by not accounting for such tragedies on the destabilized grounds while making is sure to lend the balance sheet a positive look in their annual reports which define the situation as a low intensity conflict (Ministry of Home Affairs, 2010-2011) in which fatalities are over 100 but less than 1,000 per annum amounting ironically to more than 20,000 deaths since 1980 which shows their accounting for just the decreased number of security forces personnel casualty over the years implying their concern for the safety of their own personnel only rather than whom they are supposed to protect.
In this essay we have seen that Ningthouja Lancha, using screen minimalism, manages to portray the euphemized shadows of ghost-like others and their maddeningly haunting activities thrown on the dark walls thereby showing the under-cover nature of the state-enacted AFSPA and the equivalent but nameless draconian diktats devastating the civil space in the state. This minimalism and euphemism are his aesthetic response to the pressures of the time squeezing in from various directions, but for which the very life of the filmmaker would have met the same fate of one of the characters in his work.
 I do not appreciate the wide-scale use of ‘Northeast’/‘North-East’ as a proper noun for the marginal states in India’s north-eastern region which stemmed from mainstream India’s marginalization of them as evident in this wholesale generalization and grouping of the varieties in the region into one reductionist taxonomy.
 There has been no sanction given so far.
 Writing on Youth Ki Awaaz: Mouthpiece for Youth in April 2011, Basu quoted official sources saying more than 25,000 people have been killed till date.
 This is a case of mutual misunderstanding born of prejudice and generalization of particular cases that the Meitei fundamentalists think the mainland Indian culture (including Bollywood films) is morally loose as most mainland Indians think the same of those hailing from Manipur and other states in the north eastern region.
 In this report, the number of civilians/security forces personnel killed in 2010 was 367 reduced from 659 in 2009, and the arrested, surrendered and killed insurgents were 1,626.
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