Cecil Thounaojam

Cecil Thounaojam

Cecil Thounaojam has been a freelance writer for Imphal Times and currently working as an in-house journalist for Imphal Times. He has completed MBA and worked as a copywriter for 5+ years in digital advertising agencies. Cecil is from Nongmeibung, Imphal East and he can be contacted at [email protected]

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Imphal, Jan 21

The concerned citizens of Manipur came together to again stage another Anti-CAA protest while silence prevailed in the whole of Manipur. They gathered at the ground of Laimanai Multipurpose Hall, Yairipok, and met up with the locals. From there, the concerned citizens along with various artists started performing the protest song ‘Hougatlo Hougatlo’ they composed to make people wake up and stand up against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Joined by the locals, the group proceeded singing songs like ‘We shall overcome’, chanting ‘No to CAA’, ‘Down Down CAA’, and holding placards that read ‘No to Settler Colonialism, No to CAA’, ‘Long Live Indigenous People of Northeast, and with banners reading ‘Meeyancha gi Khundalam Natte, Yelhoumee gi Leibakni’, and ‘Respect Indigenous Existence or Expect Indigenous Resistance’. They also showed solidarity to the indigenous people of Assam and Tripura, holding placards that read ‘Assam-Tripura gi yelhoumee na yaifare’ and ‘Release Akhil Gogoi’. However, a large number of police personnel stopped them on the way from moving forward. After negotiating for a while, the protesters had to turn and march in another direction. 

At a time when people’s voices are constantly suppressed, Phamsak at The Foothill - A Community Art Space in Khongampat on 11th January, 2020, comes to the rescue as a breath of fresh air as two folk-rock bands - Pebet and Imphal Talkies - get together, bringing back the culture of Phamsak while the fear of losing the indigenous culture is taking its seat. According to the organizers: “Derived from “Pena Phamsak” which is a way of storytelling-performance we bring you back the culture of Phamsak for the new generation. Phamsak are by nature intimate. And here we plan to bridge the gap between artists and audience.” At a foothill, with fields and lush greenery on the outside, the space has a setting with indigenous cultural ambience. The interior has small yangkok on the windows as backdrop complemented with long and slender longup capped with yempak. Four low height tables form an arc for the artists to sit down and deliver, facing rows of phak for the audience to sit down and absorb. On the side, there is a memorabilia - a board from the age-old adult movie cinema hall Imphal Talkies - a reminiscence for many. Some letters from the board are missing yet its essence is intact, like how the cinema hall does not exist yet it does exist. The audience and artists all arrive and as the clock hits around 4 pm, Akhu Chingangbam of Imphal Talkies calls everyone to come inside as the storytelling-performance is about to begin.  
Opening the session, Pebet delivers stories of the working class life and struggle, just like what the organizers say “to give you an idea of contemporary music scene of Imphal and the politics within the bands.” Strumming their guitar strings, beating the pung and cajon drums, and teasing with pena and shakers, Pebet sings songs of their struggle for wanting to be artists yet being born in a poor family, experiences of police harassment as they go for their gigs (khut hekta thangatlo hairak-e, camera hekta kapke hai), wishes to continue singing and tell stories of indigenous class struggle that Lamyanba Hijam Irabot initiated (sur yaodrabasu sakke esei taru laowo), critique of the leaders (noidi houdong lamboiba olhoure, meeyanchana pebet ollaga paikhre), how family members have told them how good is chengi chabon among many stories of the working class. Every song has an echoing sing-along from the audience, making the story echo in all corners of the hall.
Following this act is Imphal Talkies with their seasoned performances. Apart from the pena, guitars, and drums, they also have a refreshing voice of Chaoba Thiyam with his folk singing. They narrate stories of Manipuri diaspora in Assam from their last visit and a different perspective of Manipuri patriotism.
With songs like Barak turel torband da Singerband gi khulda ningkhairaba torbanda khangpoksang sing leihou-e, Imphal Talkies tells stories of the lives on the river banks of Barak, their hardship, and how they still preserve the indigenous way of living. Picking up the beat and energy in the room, they revisit some of their songs like Qutub Minar, When the Home is Burning, Lullaby, etc. that speak volumes on the struggle and suffering of the people of Manipur because of mass militarization and killings. The audience cheers upon and echo along with the artists every word of the songs, which seems like syncing the emotions.
Another aspect that makes this Phamsak one of its kind is how friends and well-wishers lend their hands to volunteer in organizing the event. Some help in preparing snacks (kanghou, bora, changang), some in catering, some sponsor an electric generator for light. It gives a sense of community building with the common inspiration to build each other up, offering a safe space where everyone is free is express.
Words that people would have feared to voice out in public and on the streets, the audience sing-along those words with the artists in this space that is so enclosed, yet so free. There is dialogue, there is singing along, there is expression with no barrier, there are resisting voices, all coming together within the four walls, however, has it bridged the gap between the storytellers and the audience? - A question that lingered as people get up from the phamsak.

A group of artists has come together with other concerned citizens of Manipur in the series of protests against CAA. In a short conversation with the participating artists, some of them expressed their views on the role of artists in the current issue of CAA. Cultural dancers and langden performers, Nirupama and Telish also participated in the protest. Nirupama said, “The people of Manipur have been worried that the indigenous community is at the verge of disappearance.” She further added, “As artists, we have a huge role to play. The implementation of CAA is a threat to our culture, language, and tradition, which we, as artists, have been trying to preserve.” Tellis said, “Apart from the usual forms of protests, art should be used as a medium to reflect the issues of the state and educate people with a touch of entertainment, just like sumang leela.” They requested all artists, cultural activists, and teachers to come out and protest against CAA. According to them, “We should boycott to participate in any kind of festival organised by the state, only then the central government will show interest in finding out the reason. Otherwise, it will be like us agreeing to the implementation of CAA.” Akhu, singer and songwriter of Imphal Talkies, said, “As per my understanding, the creativity of an artist stems from the soil of their land and surrounding, be it a poet or singer or any artist who has been my inspiration.” He further added, “This time, it is very fortunate to have independent artists come together and even write a song for the protest. It is rare, but I believe it has strengthened the bond among us artists and also has helped in making each other aware of the political situation of Manipur.” He said that art has always been inspired by his environment. “As a responsible citizen and an artist, I want to express our happiness and sorrow using art as a medium.” Another singer, Silheiba said. “Everyone has their own interpretation of art, but before being an artist, we are humans living in our society. For me, I do not ascribe to the idea that art should not offend anyone and should focus only on its beauty. We should all voice out whenever there is any kind of oppression or suppression in our society.”

By - Cecil Thounaojam

Ever since the Indian armed troops started pouring in Manipur in the pretext of Naga peace talk issue and as the winter session of parliament was slated to commence from November 18, people of Manipur had speculated if the downpouring was a preparation for what was going to come next as the passing of Citizenship Amendment Bill. It was certain that the Bill would be passed this time, given the BJP’s manifesto, its assurances, and the absolute majority it enjoyed in both houses in parliament. At the same time, people were mentally prepared for the protests that were to come and follow, as it was what they had witnessed the last time. It was as if the people and the government made the same calculation, and the preparations were done on both sides. 

Manipur People Against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 (MANPAC) announced a series of protests against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 which would commence from December 8. MANPAC also announced to join the NE-wide protest by imposing shut down from 1 am on December 9 till 3 am on December 11. Following this, All Manipur Students Union (AMSU), a component body of the North East Student’s Organisation (NESO), called for 15 hours total shut down in the state of Manipur on December 10 in support to the total shut down called by NESO. Two more students’ bodies – Democratic Students’ Alliance of Manipur (DESAM) and Apunba Ireipakki Maheiroi Sinpang Lup (AIIMS) extended support to the intense agitation announced by MANPAC. It seemed like there was going to be a massive uprising that Manipur had never seen before. 

December 9, CAB was introduced in Lok Sabha and Amit Shah re-introduced ILP in Manipur, too. Hell broke through. For a matter of fact, CM N. Biren Singh had already announced for a celebration, unofficially, claiming that Amit Shah had assured him over the phone for the implementation of ILP in Manipur. People of Manipur had already started panicking then, leaving MANPAC in a state of confusion. Soon after assuring the people that the agitation should continue, MANPAC suspended its agitation against CAB. BJP supporters celebrated the announcement with thabal chongba and bursting crackers. Manipur government grandly celebrated the announcement in Bheigyachandra Open Air Theatre and declared holiday, too. However, AMSU announced to go ahead with their 15 hours total shut down. Soon, 5 student leaders of AMSU were arrested.  

Following these series of events, an extraordinary Gazette notification in the regard of extending ILP in Manipur has been issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. In no time, CAB was passed in Rajya Sabha and NESO announced Dec 11 as Black Day. 

Despite many opposition, Citizenship Amendment Bill had become an Act with the assent of President Ram Nath Kovind late on Thursday night. MANPAC announced to conduct a review meeting soon, but was postponed in no time. Nevertheless, they held a review meeting and re-affirmed to intensify protest against CAB. MANPAC organised a protest, but it was stopped by the police. A deafening silence prevailed in the state of Manipur against CAA while the rest of northeast, especially Assam and Tripura, were burning. 

NEFIP also called to intensify the protest and organised a candle light vigil in front of Western Kangla gate. NEFIS and MUSU also organised protests against CAA in Manipur University, with mass arrest of NEFIS members. 

Meanwhile, a group of citizens of Manipur from different walks of life came together and protested in front of Western Kangla gate, supporting the anti-CAA movement and showing solidarity with Assam and Tripura. The group continued to protest at Kangla and Khwairamband Keithel in the following day. There was also strong criticism from the people of Manipur on social media regarding the silence of MANPAC in terms of anti-CAA protest. On the other hand, CPI, Manipur State Council, announced for a general strike on December 19. While addressing a crowd for organising a successful and peaceful general strike, L. Sotinkumar was arrested. After CJM Imphal West released him on bail, he was re-arrested by Manipur police on December 21. L. Sotinkumar along with other leaders and activists were slapped with sedition charges. In another case, a YouTube vlogger, R.K. Echanthoibi was arrested for criticizing Chief Minister N. Biren Singh in a video for unfairly claiming the credit for ILP in Manipur. Recently, a transgender rights activist was also threatened by Manipur police to delete her post about criticizing CM N. Biren Singh regarding the extension of AFSPA for six more months and post an apology on social media. 

Amid all of this, the group of citizens of Manipur came out again and staged another protest against CAA in Iroishemba and Khwairamband Keithel, singing protest songs, holding placards, and chanting slogans. The very next day District Magistrate (Imphal West) imposed Section 144 of the CrPC in Imphal West for 2 months. Surprising it may sound, BJP - Manipur Pradesh also announced for a rally in support of CAA on December 29 as a part of the pan India campaign.

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