The Manorama rape case, the Mothers of Manipur protest, Sabitri Heisnam’s rendering of Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi, the implementation of the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act in Manipur less than a decade after its independence from British colonialism, an alarmingly high rate of fake encounters. This sentence covers more or less the extent of my limited awareness of anything related to Manipur. So when the Anne Frank: A History for Today exhibition was finalized for Saikul, Manipur, I fell into a tizzy. Should I plunge into the ethnographic and socio-political history of a region I have so little idea of, do I try and look up everything I can find on the education system there, what section of the education system, which of these first, none of them?
ccccA couple of days before I was due to leave I learned that there were tensions brewing in Saikul over the commemoration of the centenary of the Anglo – Kuki war — a war none of my better informed peers in Kolkata or I had even heard of—that might affect/unsettle the preparations underway in Saikul, a Kuki-majority town. I left for Imphal on the morning of October 21, feeling deeply ignorant and a little nervous-excited.
Day 1: 21 Oct, 2019
An hour and a half’s drive from Imphal, I reached Saikul hill town, dumped my luggage and walked into the Inside NorthEast office — the local organization we were collaborating with, only to find a long row of teenagers chatting amongst themselves. A whole 90 minutes before we were due to begin. Fifteen minutes in, I discovered, in chronological order, that:
- the actual exhibition venue would not be ready or accessible until the next day for reasons directly related to the political tensions over the Anglo-Kuki War centenary commemoration;
- none of the 17 students/potential peer guides who had gathered from schools in and around Saikul, had heard of Anne Frank — 2 said they’d read about the second World War in their history textbooks
- I could not use the film as an introduction to Anne Frank and the workshop in the office itself, like I had started considering, because the morning had begun with a power cut that continued to persist
With little other choice, I decided to get chatting. Over the next two hours, beginning with different degrees of reticence from all the students, we set off on a question-asking spree, played the dubiously named theatre-coordination game Big Bully, that got them to (not so gently) percuss their bodies out of the silent tenseness I had walked into some time ago, discussed understandings of discrimination among the students while some of them opened up enough to educate me about Saikul and its everyday socio-political culture.
ccccDid any of them maintain diaries? None did. Some of the girls however sheepishly admitted they have facebook accounts and occasionally share thoughts on it, even if in the form of photo captions. This allowed me to build on the audience they imagine they write for, linking it to Anne’s attitudes to making entries in her diary before and after she discovered that her diary may face the possibility of being published at some future date, which would mean the realization of her dreams of becoming a writer. This, I think, was the first ‘personal’ connection any of the students were able to make with the subject of the exhibition since we began interacting. When talking about discrimination, one student brought up interethnic tensions in the context of the very recent Anglo-Kuki war centenary commemoration—details I filed away to hopefully return to/ try to address in the subsequent workshop days with them. Over this chatting session I discovered that the community the students (all of whom are Kukis) belong to, is a closely-knit, practising-Christian one. Taking full advantage of their common sunday-school background I found myself using the Bible to give the students a familiar reference framework to talk about the Jewish Holocaust, which a few of them immediately connected to a biblical history of Jewish persecution. Surprisingly, two hours had passed and we had managed to not only get a little more comfortable with each other but to also talk about discrimination, anti-semitism, expression and its suppression — a lot more than I anticipated at the beginning of our interaction.
Day 2: 22 Oct, 2019
At 10 the next morning we reconvened at the freshly and hastily tidied town hall, the venue of the exhibition. The students seemed quite upbeat — whether at the prospect of beginning the workshop or the football match taking place adjacent to the exhibition hall as part of Sports day, I didn’t try to find out. I decided to believe at least some of it was the former and launch straight into demonstrating the installation procedure. As we moved the cases from tables to floor, some of the boys stood around looking and grinning: ‘ These look like weapon cases’. We then got to tackling the ‘weapons’. In just about two hours, the students had set up the entire exhibition, with barely any help asked of me. I encouraged them to step out and walk in from the entrance like visitors, go through the exhibition and tell me what inconveniences they were facing. A few rounds of this over the next hour and we had managed to design the exhibition keeping in mind factors such as natural light, readability, and the students’ aesthetic sense. The physical work of setting up the exhibition had achieved the near-impossible task of keeping their minds more or less off the soundscape and visuals of the football match next door—with it done, they began to gravitate towards every hall-window facing the field. So we took a break.
ccccPost-break, with power supply intact, we screened the film for the students. They sat watching, carefully following the words. After we finished, I wanted to probe a little the silence that had set in. I asked them to share what they wanted to know more about after watching the film, what they liked about the film and what their thoughts were. Drew a blank. The students said nothing. Hejang Misao, the founder Director of Inside NorthEast who was present for the screening, broke the two whole minute-long silence, bringing up a connection the Kukis have with Israel—they had recently been declared one of the ten Biblical lost tribes, with some even moving to Israel. Slowly, a couple of students joined in to fill me in on the details and this seemed to shake off the blankness and the quiet. I again asked the students which parts of the film they liked watching and this time, thankfully, most of the students started muttering to each other in small groups, trying to come up with what moment to pick. In a few minutes I had received a handful of responses. ‘They bombed that swastika sign when the other side won the war’, ‘ Her friends were taken away to die’, ‘ She wanted to be a writer’, were some of the points in the film that had stuck with them. Locating these responses in more or less chronological order, I re-played the relevant sections, pausing to discuss. For more than an hour we discussed the moments they picked, stringing together a narrative of Anne’s story and its historical context. Two things that bothered/left an impression on many of the students were: how it might feel to survive when one couldn’t stop one’s best friends from being taken away/killed, and what it must be like to hide and be forced to live like a ghost—both of which we discussed at length and used as windows into the rest of the story. When the discussions led to talking about discrimination, why difference is a source of terror and how much/what kind of difference is ‘tolerable’, the students became a little more hesitant. Their stands on tolerance and support in the face of difference were starkly different for when they were talking about members of the Kuki group and people in general, and when they were talking about whether they would extend the same to any Naga group. This was an embolism too deep-set in specific histories that I had little grasp of, to be addressed with any impact over such a brief interaction.
Day 3: 23 Oct, 2019
So did you think about any thing we watched or talked about after you went home yesterday? Want to tell me about it?
Silence. I was beginning to get used to how the students approached questions and decided to get them started on familiarizing themselves with the content of the panels and later resuming my probing. With (another) football match going on in the background, assigning such a task was a bit of a risk, but necessary. When the 90 minutes I had given them was close to ending, most of them were still closely absorbing the words and images on the panel and wanted more time. Refreshingly, they were full of questions for me —
‘This image has a slogan saying ‘our’—does that mean the nazis or the communists, are they similar?’, ‘Can you explain the racial laws more?’, ‘How were people moved from one concentration camp to another? ‘ What are extermination camps? Did people know about them?’
The thought of having to know what the panels contain and bearing the responsibility of being peer guides seemed to have provided an effective push/jump out of their reservation.
ccccAt the end of an intensive 2 hours of reading/ browsing, we closed for a short break before meeting again to discuss what they had taken in, what reflections they had. More students now had queries to make about the contents of the panel and we went from this panel to that, led by their questions. One of their primary anxieties seemed to be that they might be asked the meaning of a word that they might not be able to tell. I assured them they would not have to act as dictionaries and asked two members of Inside NorthEast to come and be visitors to the exhibition, so they could be guided around by the peer guides in Kuki, their mother tongue, and then interpret for me what the students were saying/how they were responding to questions. The peer guides were restless and some giggly, with nervousness, but they began. The hall’s central location between the local market and the football grounds had earned the exhibition and the goings-on within, a lot of curiosity from people in Saikul, a few of whom hovered at the entrance. Welcoming them in and asking the peer guides to take over from there became rather effective, as the guides now had a sense of pride in how they would help shape the experience of the exhibition visitors. After nearly an hour and fifteen minutes of busy peer-guiding, it was time to conclude for the day. Many of the students were still a little intimidated at the thought of the opening, but far better placed than they were before they had the chance to ‘rehearse’ with members of the community.
Day 4: Opening, 24 Oct, 2019
The hall looked almost unrecognizable. A bright, cheerful shamiyana had been set up between the market and the hall, the hall had been cleaned, new bulbs installed, red carpets laid out to line the floor. Despite the drizzle and the suppressed but palpable tensions of the looming Naga resolution decisions that had already made their presence felt across the state and not just in Imphal, people began to arrive for the opening. By 11.15, we had nearly 200 audience members, with more than half of them being students. The opening included brief speeches around the need to be effective ‘instruments of peace’, by chief guest Thangjakam Misao, Chairman ADC Saikul; Pu Lalseh Chongloi, Chairman, Hill town committee; Pastor Paongam Chongloi, founder of Zion orphanage home and Ishita Dutta, Coach, TFIx, and had wonderful performances—music and dance, by students from schools across Saikul. With a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the exhibition was opened to the public.
Opening to an audience of nearly 200, largely comprising students, the exhibition had over 180 students from various schools in and around Saikul visiting in batches over its duration. Clear records could not be maintained of non-student visitors owing to the immediate political climate, but an estimated audience of 40, many of whom were senior citizens from surrounding villages who strolled into the hall outside which they had set up a dharna, visited the exhibition. The number of tradeswomen from the market who dropped in, is not recorded. The exhibition closed on October 30, a day earlier than planned, on the eve of a day-long state-wide strike.