A golden-orange shade begins to spread out from beyond the silhouette of the Nongmaiching hills overlooking the valley from the east. From Sanjenthong Bridge, one can see a layer of mist floating over the waters of the Imphal Turel (river) below. The pre-dawn chorus of the roosters is giving way to the short, sharp chirps of the sembang (swallows) coming out of their cupped nests. The spotted doves balance the act with their low-pitched, muffled calls. Other domestic players like the sendrang (sparrows), geese and mynas, too, join in and the orchestra is complete. These winged creatures soon become omnipresent across the valley, flitting about lanes and streets, chasing each other through groves of bamboo and banana trees, hovering over backyard pukhris (ponds) and orchards, invading into mud-walled and brick houses, manoeuvring through keithels (market places) and over neighbourhood grounds, and gliding above the waters of the three turels (rivers) passing through Imphal.
As we move northwards from the bridge, the early morning walkers and joggers start filling up the pavement of the Kangla Park, which runs along the outer moat of Kangla, the ancient citadel. Nearby, children and young men climb up a railing and sneak inside the Imphal pologround, or Mapal Kangjeibung, the oldest polo ground in the world, to play football amid polo ponies grazing in the grass.
For all these creatures, it’s business as usual. But for the rest of the people in this mountain-ringed valley – not so much.
The sun appears from behind the hills, and perches atop a peak like a crown jewel, lighting up the valley below. By now, the roads should have been choking with traffic, and the bazaar bustling with humanity. Instead, few vehicles can be seen here today. Near the northern gate of Kangla, a few female vendors are sitting by the roadside with bags full of bottles. What’s in those bottles? What are they selling on a bandh? I move closer to find out. Is it honey? There is a petrol pump behind them – shut down for the day. A motorcyclist halts and buys a bottle. I move closer still to ascertain - they are selling bottles of petrol!
The heart of Imphal wears a deserted look during a bandh.
The Nambul River, flowing into the city from the west, takes a sharp southward turn beside the Khwairamband Bazar (the famous all-women Ima markets), a few hundred metres west of Kangla. At this point lies the most important junction of the city, with roads and markets leading out in all directions. On non-bandh days, the area forms the living, beating heart of the city – vibrant chaos of customers, vendors and traffic. The sheer variety of edibles sold here alone is mesmerising, let alone other items.
Today is different. Even during a bandh, it’s the first time I cannot find tea here. There’s little activity, but many people are present – standing in the sun, reading newspapers, and simply watching.
On one of the over-bridges on the Nambul River, a dozen security forces’ vehicles are parked. The Superintendent of Police (Imphal West) along with a team of commandos from India Reserve Battalion is surveying the area. All across, teams of the local police and paramilitary forces are camped – geared up with shields and helmets; armed with assault rifles and batons; and alert.
Nearby, a group of middle-aged women, clad in phaneks (Manipuri sarong) and phi are on a round. They are led by a tall, heavyset woman who carries a bamboo stick and beats it authoritatively on the ground as she walks. She spots a woman vendor from afar and shouts out a scolding at her. The apologetic vendor, already packing up, mutters an explanation and hurries off.
Sometime later, the watch-group spots an empty auto parked on the 2nd Khwai Bridge over the Nambul. They reach the auto and knock it with their sticks. A man suddenly appears and gets confronted. He, too, gets inside and drives off hurriedly.
Three cane-juice vendors along with two newspaper sellers are the only ones allowed to operate by the powers that be. I buy a paper and stand leaning against the parapet of the bridge. A paan vendor forced to stay idle for the day joins me, and we begin to read.
Imphal Free Press – an 8-page daily. Most of the news items are related to the ongoing movement - Strikes, rallies, meetings, angry leaders. Other front-page news includes a water supply scheme in Thoubal, and a polo match. Weather: ‘24 to 6 degrees. Plenty of Sun.’ There is also a quote by Mark Twain – “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
Not everybody is unhappy. A few young dogs seem to have discovered the desolate roads for the first time and are running back and forth in delight. The kids are out in large numbers. Cycling or playing football, badminton and cricket. The otherwise swarming and teeming streets of Kakhulong, Paona Bazar, Governor’s Road and Thangal Bazar become playgrounds for the day.
“That’s why it’s also called Bandhpur. Even if a hen dies, a bandh is declared here,” remarks a Class XI student, half in jest and half in exasperation. He’s from Komlakhong village, around an hour’s distance from here, and is one of many outstation students staying in hostels in the area and taking coaching classes for various entrance examinations besides attending school or college. He adds that for at least a quarter of a year, an educational institution in the state remains closed due to vacation, festivals and bandhs/strikes. Additionally, last year, the Manipur University remained closed for nearly three months at a stretch due to agitations. All its affiliated colleges were affected, too.
Out on the main roads, something is brewing. Three women holding a sit-in protest on a roadside pavement get up and start walking towards the bazaar. One of them carrying a hand-held horn loudspeaker starts announcing something in Meiteilon (Manipuri language). I can only catch a few words, such as “citizenship bill” and “meira paibis”. (Literally meaning ‘women torch-bearers’, meira paibis are guardians of civil society. Meera Paibi was a social movement against alcoholism and drug abuse that began in the 1970s when groups of women carrying bamboo torches would patrol their localities at night, catching and shaming alcoholics and the like. Later, it evolved to include agitations against human rights violations and other socio-political issues).
Two groups of women protesters, about 20-30 each, block the DM College road using bamboo stems, dispersing the little traffic that was there. Kids come out in large numbers to make use of the barricaded section to play football matches. Similar blockades are being put up all over the city.
One of the protesting groups is sitting in the shade, chatting and laughing. A youngster on a KTM Duke motorbike comes whizzing down the road and tries to slip through the barricade. But somebody blows a whistle and the women rush to block the motorcyclist. He is confronted and forced to retreat.
Sometime later, a woman on a scooter, presumably a reporter, stops by and asks them to pose for a photograph. They get up animatedly and huddle together, chanting slogans and raising a banner. After the photo-shoot, they return to their place in the shade and light laughter continues.
Children make the most of empty roads.
In a few hours, the numbers of the protesters swell up, and all major roads are blocked. Only hospital-bound or emergency vehicles are being allowed through. All leikais (local neighbourhood communities) are holding their protests, blocking even the side streets. Women wearing saffron phaneks and white shawls are sitting in large groups at various points, after placing ritual pots in front of them. At some places, effigies are being burnt and all types of movement in public places is now restricted. Nearly all the protesters are women.
(In Manipur, agitations, revolts and blockades are often led by women. In 1904 and 1939, women led the Nupi Laan or the women's wars, a historic rebellion movement against the British. Examples from recent times include the Nisaband or Meira Paibi campaigns, ‘Indian Army Rape Us’ nude protest and the hunger strike by Irom Sharmila).
After a flurry of activity, the sembang retire to their nests, as do the doves and the nightingales. Up in the heavens, a few stars begin to appear, as the final streaks of white are chased away towards the west. I head out of my lane towards the Silchar Road, half-expecting to find agitators blocking it. Instead, at the spot of agitation, I find the squatting figure of a familiar-looking man in the darkness. Mr Pratap calls me over. His presence lends a feeling of normalcy to the air. As usual, his breath reeks of alcohol and tobacco as he rambles about his ancestors and relatives, his marriage and separation, drug abuse in Manipur, dogs and cars – everything but the ongoing bandh.
In the bazaar area, a mirthful mood seems to have set in. Policemen and policewomen are sitting in groups, some over fires in tin cans, cracking nuts and jokes. Even on non-bandh days, Imphal shuts down by 6 - 6.30 pm. But judging by the wobbly walks of some people around, I have a fair idea where I might find some activity.
Outside a narrow lane between the Paona Bazar and Pologround Maning, three people are trying hard to walk, but only manage to enact a strange type of dance form. Inside the lane, there’s a din of voices and laughter. The shutters to the shops are partly open, while there are plenty of snack-munching patrons standing outside, waiting to refill their glasses. Bandh or no bandh, life here is in full swing!