Jogendro Singh Kshetrimayum
Collective Concern for Violent Death and Non-Violent Protest in the Midst of Armed Conflict in Manipur, Northeastern India
A portion of the funding for this grant was provided by donors in honor of Åke Bjerstedt.
Certain forms of death are considered ‘violent’ or ‘abnormal’ in many parts of the world such that special funeral rites are performed for these forms of death (Hertz 1907; Bloch and Parry 1982; Goody 1959; Morris 2008; Klima 2002). Although the individual instances of what counts as violent forms of death may vary cross-culturally, there is a general underlying idea that these forms of death are considered ‘untimely’ (Bloch and Parry 1982). Death during childbirth, death by drowning or death by any other unusual accident may be counted as ‘violent death.’ In Manipur, the special funeral rite associated with such deaths is Chup-saba. Violent death requires special treatment precisely because it is outside of the normal. But what happens when the very idea of the normal is thrown into a crisis? What happens to the performance of the special funeral rites when crisis is the norm? This can happen in cases of war, armed conflicts of long duration, epidemics, and natural disasters etc. Can the challenges posed to the normative funeral practices trigger social responses that have political implications for resolving the ongoing crisis? These are some of the larger questions that this project seeks to explore and understand in the context of the ongoing armed conflict in Manipur, India.
Northeastern India is a region represented by the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim. The region is connected to the rest of India (or mainland India) by a narrow stretch of land. Surrounded by Bangladesh in the southwest, Nepal and Bhutan in the northwest, China in the north and the east, and Burma in the southeast, the region has always had an uneasy relationship with the IndianState. Many kingdoms and ethnic based political entities in the region lost their political sovereignty under the rule of British India. The independence of India from British rule in 1947 did not translate into complete recovery of the lost sovereignty for most in the region. Thus began the more than half a century of armed struggle for sovereignty by various, often ethnic based, separatist groups in the region.
This ‘undeclared war’ in Northeastern India is perhaps the longest ongoing armed conflict in South Asia (Baruah, 2005). Manipur, one of the states in the region, is deeply affected by the prolonged confrontation between the armed forces of the Indian state and the various separatist groups operating in the region — PLA (People’s Liberation Army), UNLF (United National Liberation Front), KCP (Kangleipak Communist Party), KYKL (Kanglei Yaol Kanna Lup), NSCN (IM) (National Socialist Council of Nagalim ‘ISAAK-MUIVA’), among others. The intense militarization of the region, the imposition of AFSPA [Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958], internal conflicts within the separatist movement, intermittent periods of ethnic tension, and their overall impact on the economy and the socio-political life of the region have been the subjects of recent scholarship (Oinam 2003, 2008; Akoijam 2001; Akoijam and Tarunkumar 2005; Chenoy 2005). The social condition under long-term, low intensity armed conflict in Manipur has produced a sense of living (for many Manipuris) in a suspended temporality outside of what is normal. This research seeks to understand the collective concern for the violent death in the midst of this crisis and how this concern for the death is intimately linked to the emergent non-violent movement in the region.
The brutal murder of Thingnam Kishan, a Manipuri administrative officer, by cadres of NSCN(IM) in February 2009, came as a complete shock for many in Manipur. Thousands of Manipuris took to the street in protest against Kishan’s brutal murder. This collective concern for the violent death of Thingnam Kishan framed preliminary research on the topic. The investigator’s reflective article, “Shooting the Sun: A Study of Death and Protest in Manipur,” based on this preliminary research, was published in the peer reviewed Economic and Political Weekly. Reflecting on Thingnam Kishan’s death provoked the realization that in most cases of violent death in Manipur, not just in the case of Thingnam Kishan, there is often a strong disapproval and resentment of the particular manner in which someone is killed. However, not all cases of violent death provoked public outrage or protest; when “corrupt” officials, drug abusers, or drug dealers are shot dead by militant members of the separatist groups, there are hardly any public demonstrations of resentment or protest.
Since the late 1990s there has been a dramatic increase in the number of public demonstrations of resentment of violent death in Manipur. These non-violent, public demonstrations of resentment, often described as Ninda-taoba in Manipuri, are directed against the excesses of both the armed forces of the Indian state as well as those of the militant separatist groups operating in Manipur. Ninda-taobaoften takes the form of ritual mourning, with the protesters sitting together quietly in a designated public place, dressed in white (the color of mourning for the Meitei Manipuris). Participants often observe abstinence of food and water during the protest. Usually, the photo of the victim is adorned with flowers, and incense is burned. The somber atmosphere and the reflective mood of ninda-taobarepresents a profound critique of violence and it’s excess. The investigator suspects an intimate and inherent link between the dramatic increase of ninda-taoba of violent deaths on the one hand and the emergence of non-violent movement in Manipur on the other, represented by the more than a decade long hunger strike by Irom Sharmila (Mehrotra 2009) and organizations like Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network and Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace etc.
Based on the findings of preliminary research, the investigator has identified three categories of research questions that the current project will respond to.
1. How do people relate to violent death under social conditions created by armed conflicts of long duration? How do the funerary rites in cases of violent deaths caused by armed conflict differ from those performed for death under normal circumstances? Here, the focus is on the details of ritual. For instance, is the special funeral rite of Chup-saba performed in all cases of violent deaths?
2. What are the social and cultural circumstances under which these death rituals take the form of social protest and vice versa? Who participates? Here, social protest is being used in the sense defined by Fox and Starn (1997), located somewhere in between everyday forms of resistance (Scott 1990) and outright revolution. Social protest can also be distinguished from other forms of “contentious politics” (Tilly 2008; Tilly and Tarrow 2006) in that social protest often makes moral claims with or without the associated claims of legal rights. Non-violent, public demonstration of resentment (Ninda-taoba in Manipuri) of violent death in Manipur is a form of social protest. For example, most peaceful sit-in protests against violent death take the form of mourning. In this section the investigator will examine the interrelationship between death rituals and social protest.
3. What is the nature of the critique of violence that non-violent protest of violent death in Manipur posits? Why is ninda-taoba absent in certain cases of violent death? Here the focus will be on the presence or absence of social protest in each case of violent death. What is the relationship between these forms of death rituals turned protest and the non-violent movement in Manipur? For instance, do the human rights organizations seek out, participate or offer assistance whenever there is ninda-taoba of violent deaths?
Manipur is one of the Northeastern states of India, which shares an international border with Myanmar (formerly Burma). The population of Manipur represents a mix of various ethnic, cultural and religious groups. The majority of the population is concentrated in the valley at the center of the state. The Meiteis (60%) are the dominant ethnic group and are settled mostly in the valley area. Surrounding the Meitei valley are hills populated by communities of various ethnic groups, the Nagas and the Kukis being the two most prominent of these groups. While the Meiteis are split in terms of religious affiliation (59% Hindu, 30% Christian, 8% Muslim), almost all of the various ethnic groups inhabiting the surrounding hills converted to Christianity by the turn of the twentieth century. This research will primarily focus on death rites of Hindu Meiteis who make up the core of the non-violent protest of conflict movement in Manipur.
Much of the fieldwork for this project will take place in ImphalCity, the administrative capital of the state of Manipur. Imphal is the historic, economic and administrative center of Manipur since most of the major public demonstrations take place here. Apart from the government offices, most of the major human rights organizations in Manipur are located in ImphalCity. Imphal is also home to all the major local newspapers, the Manipur State Central Library and the Manipur State Archives. In addition to the accessibility of organizations, institutions, and individuals important to the research, Imphal also offers better infrastructure and safety.
Research Strategies and Timeline
This research will be primarily based on a three month long period of ethnographic fieldwork beginning August 20, 2013, during which time the investigator will take up residence in ImphalCity. The researcher will make use of traditional ethnographic approaches that combine observation of everyday life with semi-structured and open-ended interviews. However, since the investigator of this project was born and raised in Manipur, he will also engage with his unique position as an ‘outsider within’ (Collins 1986) to bring critical insights into the research. Formal and informal interviews will be conducted with Maibas/Maibis (shamanic figures), priests, physicians, human rights activists, family members of victims, government officials, students and other locals. Some of the respondents may represent individuals with whom the principal investigator has developed rapport during the preliminary research as well as personal acquaintances and family members. The principal investigator is affiliated with People’s Museum, Kakching and Manipur Women Gun Survivors’ Network, who have expressed their support for this project.
Manipur Women Gun Survivors’ Network, Imphal (WMGSN) is a local NGO that has been working with the survivors of gun violence in Manipur since 2004. With initial help from WMGSN, the investigator will begin by interviewing the family members of victims of violent death, and studying the testimonies already documented by WMGSN over the years. From previous work with People’s Museum, Kakching the investigator has established good rapport with Maibas and local experts on ritual practices. Individual and focus group interviews will be conducted with these individuals. This method of investigation will be employed until a recognizable pattern in the funeral rites of violent deaths is significantly established.
Another set of data will be collected through archival materials like newspapers, documented testimonies, official reports (available in the public domain) and reports compiled by local human rights organizations. Information contained in this data set will not only facilitate discussions during interviews and focus groups but will also be useful in the critical analysis of the data provided by the descriptive accounts.
Direct observation will be an integral part of the research at every step of the fieldwork. The researcher will carefully observe as many funeral rites as possible and will audio and video record whenever permission is granted. Comprehensive fieldnotes will be maintained on a daily basis.
This research will produce descriptive accounts of the practices surrounding different types of death. The descriptive data thus generated will undergo rigorous textual analysis, where relevant and recurrent words or phrases will be flagged. The descriptive data along with the data from secondary sources will be categorized and organized according to themes related to the research questions. A typology of funeral rites will be developed based on direct observation, expert opinions of priests and detailed accounts of family members, with careful attention to innovations in ritual practices. The analytic model developed will be very useful in accessing not only the social and cultural impacts of long-term, low intensity armed conflict at the level of ritual practices but also how the challenges in the normative ritual practices have profound political implications.
Bibliography for the Project Proposal
- Akoijam, A Bimol. 2001. “Manipur: How History Repeats Itself”, Economic & Political Weekly, 36(30): 2807-12.
- Akoijam, A Bimol and Th Tarunkumar. 2005. “Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958: Disguised War and Its Subversions”, Eastern Quaterly, 3(1).
- Baruah, Sanjib. 2005. Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast IndiaNew Delhi: OxfordUniversity Press.
- Bloch, Maurice and Jonathan Parry. 1982. Death and Regeneration of Life. New York: CambridgeUniversity Press.
- Chenoy, Kamal Mitra. 2005. “Nationalist Ideology, Militarisation and Human Rights in Northeast”, Eastern Quaterly, 3(1).
- Collins, Patricia Hill. 1986. Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought. Social Problems, 33(6): S14-S32.
- Desjarlais, Robert and Arthur Kleinman. 1994.Violence and Demoralization in the New World Disorder. Anthropology Today 10(5): 9-12.
- Fox, Richard and Orin Starn. Editors. 1997. Between Resistance and Revolution: Cultural Politics and Social Protests. USA: Library of Congress.
- Goody, Jack. 1959. Death and Social Control Among the Lodagaa. Man,Vol. 59 (Aug., 1959), pp. 134-138.
- Hertz, Robert. 1960. Death and the Right Hand.New York: Free Press.
- Klima, Alan. 2002. The Funeral Casino: Mediation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand. Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press.
- Kshetrimayum, Jogendro. 2009. “Shooting the Sun: Death and Protest in Manipur.”Economic and Political Weekly. October 3, 2009.
- Mehrotra, Deepti Priya. 2009. Burning Bright: The Struggle for Peace in Manipur. Delhi: Penguin.
- Morris, Rosalind C. 2008. Giving Up Ghosts: Notes on Trauma and the Possibility of the Political from Southeast Asia. Positions: east asia cultures critique, Volume 16, Number 1, Spring, pp. 229-258.
- Oinam, Bhagat. 2003. “Patterns of Ethnic Conflict in the North-East: A Study on Manipur”, Economic & Political Weekly, 38(21): 2031-37.
- ____________. 2008. “State of the States: Mapping India’s Northeast”, East-West Centre Washington Working Papers No 12, November.
- Scott, James C. 1990. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: YaleUniversity Press.
- Tilly, Charles. 2008. Contentious Performances. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.
- Tilly, Charles and Sidney Tarrow. 2006. Contentious Politics. Boulder: Paradigm Press.
Relevance to the IPRA Foundation
This project is directly in line with the goals and mission of the International Peace Research Association. The current project offers an innovative approach towards the understanding of peace processes in the midst of armed conflict. As it connects ritual practices on the one hand and political processes on the other, this project draws insights from the works of political scientists, anthropologists, historians and folklorists. Most importantly, the project recognizes that, at least in the context of Manipur, there are inherent socio-cultural mechanisms that put a check on the excess of violence even in the midst of a political crisis. These socio-cultural mechanisms are intimately linked to the emergence of non-violent movement for peace and reconciliation in Manipur.
As described in the project proposal, I will be working very closely with the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, Imphal, which is a local organization at the forefront of peace and reconciliation in the Northeast of India. Throughout the field research I will be constantly sharing information and insights with this organization. The findings of my research will be published as articles in domestic and international English and Manipuri language journals. This research will contribute to the recognition of socio-culturally specific mechanisms of non-violent conflict resolution which are crucial to peace processes both at the local and the global level. First, it demystifies the inevitability of “the vicious cycle of violence” which does not allow much hope for people living under conditions of long-term armed conflict (see, for example, Desjarlais and Kleinman 1994). Second, it reminds peace activists and scholars to be sensitive to, and inclusive of, culturally specific methods for promoting peace and stability that are not always overtly political in form yet hold tremendous potential for peace and recovery.
- Desjarlais, Robert and Arthur Kleinman. 1994.Violence and Demoralization in the New World Disorder. Anthropology Today 10(5): 9-12.