'Non-locals must not own businesses': the Sunday headlines in one of Imphal's prominent newspapers aren't a pretty sight. Much like the Kashmir valley, the Imphal valley is also best described as 'tortured beauty': surrounded by verdant hills and a rich history, but wrestling with dark demons within. It's a land which has produced great writers, artists, sportspersons, film-makers, but one where an entire generation is being pushed into an abyss of hopelessness.
The statistics my hosts -- the all Manipur working journalists union -- ply me with are shocking. Seventy per cent of the state's youth are educated but unemployed: high literacy but no productive employment. In a state with a 28 lakh population, as many as eight lakhs, or almost 30 per cent, have registered on the employment exchange. Is it any wonder then that 'employment' options are often limited to getting any government job, or then maybe even seeking benefits from joining the ranks of the insurgents? An army officer tells me that there are as many as 58 insurgent groups in the state, riven by factionalism, but united by the gun. When the state collapses, when private enterprise is absent, the gun fills a vacuum.
My hosts have an even bigger grouse: the 'national' media doesn't cover Manipur. In the last month, several parts of Manipur have been flooded out. No headline. A little water-logging in Delhi or Mumbai and there are screaming breaking news flashes. No such luck for Manipur. In the last month, the city of Imphal has been virtually shut by blockades and curfews over the contentious inner line permit issue: simply put, Manipuris would like the influx of 'outsiders' to be regulated with a permit system. A youth has been killed, every night there are candlelight marches to seek justice, schools have been closed for forty days. No coverage on the 'national' media. 'When 18 Indian soldiers die in Chandel in an ambush, you will make it a big story for a week, when Manipuris die, you won't touch the story. Don't we count?' a journalist friend asks. It's a narrative I have heard in the Kashmir valley too. Guess conflict zones breed alienation. The 'tyranny of distance' leaves parts of this country feeling isolated and unwanted. And pushed into a vicious cycle of permanent victimhood.
I try and ease the pain by pointing out how a Mary Kom is now a superstar, how Manipur has been the number one state in the national games, how it's footballers have become crorepatis at the soccer league auctions, how the service sector like airlines and hospitality offers new opportunities for young English speaking Manipuris. "Yes, yes, but there is more to us than just sports and Marykom!' is the refrain.
At a programme on All India Radio, Manipur, I offer a solution: 'why don't we push for a exchange programme by which one journalist from a national channel/newspaper comes to Imphal or any north-East state capital on a one year assignment and vice-versa.' A smile breaks out on the face of the pretty and talented radio jockey interviewing me. "Will you give me a job?" she asks hopefully. I nod my head non-commitally: "I will try!"
Post-script: a few years ago, after a nearly 100 day long blockade over the contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the price of a gas cylinder shot up to nearly Rs 3000 in the black market in Imphal. That is when the blockade made it to the national headlines for the first time. "Do you want the price to go up again for our agitation to echo in Delhi?' one young man asks me angrily. I have no answer. Like many others, I am guilty as charged: 'we' the 'national' media have betrayed Manipur and the North-East.