Basanta and Ranjeeta are upbeat. It’s just after seven in the morning. The day is sunny and crisp, the damp of monsoons a memory. Even the battered Bolero off-roader of Human Rights Alert has stopped its wrenching sighs; the engine growls without missing a beat. To get out of Imphal is always a pleasure, the relief of breathing clean air, smelling it the way nature intended.
The valley, so narrow to the north towards Senapati, opens up in the south after Singjamei as Imphal’s encompassing hills fall away. We pass the landmarks, small towns and smaller towns: Wangoi, Mayang Imphal, Sekmaijin Bazar. There’s paddy everywhere, some green and young, some ripening with grain. We pass stray huts and picture-postcard lotus ponds, some tranquil cattle, and villagers engaging with their day. We pass the posts and patrols of Central Reserve Police Force—the 109th battalion—and Assam Rifles: there they are, resting along the paddies; at a roadblock ahead, keeping watch from the sandbagged rooftop of a commandeered telecommunications outpost, eyries of India in a place deliberately made alien.
It reminds us why we are on the road. Basanta and Ranjeeta work with Imphal-based Human Rights Alert. We’re all off to see Vidyarani Chanu: they for their work; me, because it made me both angry and curious when I heard about her situation.
Vidyarani is 11. She was recently arrested.
We press deeper into Bishnupur district, edging towards its borders with Thoubal district and beyond. At Sekmaijin Bazar, we turn right to follow the gently twisting python of a sluggish brown river, the sun sometimes to our right, sometimes to our left. It is disorienting, but we do know we are now south of Loktak lake. We push in five, ten, 15 kilometres, always following the river.
This place is poor. Few houses are of brick. The roofs are weathered aluminium sheeting, but the walls are little more than mud and thatch applied to skeletons of latticed bamboo—some walls are so worn you can see the frame. The signs for NREGS—the grandly named and corrupted National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme—on walls of houses and shops gradually lessen.
Some walls have signs that urge differently: ‘Get Out India. Long Live UNLF’.
Rushes of jobakusum—hibiscus in rich red, peach, white—that adorn the tiny yards or entrances of nearly every home offer bizarre counterpoint, careless beauty in the face of fear and death.
We are lost in this land of slippage. Basanta and Ranjeeta need to ask for directions after Phouakchong Bazar. We are past a small community of Meitei Pangal, and back on Vaishnavite territory. Some locals have killed a pig, and are cooking it by the river in a pit fired with straw and bamboo. It’s a pre-wedding feast, Basanta explains. Children walk and skip towards the gathering, some holding large grapefruit, a few balancing on their heads fruit larger than their faces.
Everyone has heard of Vidyarani. We get directions, and these take us past the village of Khordak Ichin and, after more bone-rattling minutes on a road that has for long deteriorated to an impossible track, to Nongmaikhong Mayai Leikai, Vidyarani’s home village. A resident tells us her house is across the river. After half-an-hour or so of shouting to people across, explaining our purpose, a neighbour arrives with a flimsy boat, just planks nailed together. It can take two at a time, crouched low. Basanta goes across first; I follow.
But she is not at home, we find. The house is shut; the worn wooden door is locked. The walls painted a pistachio green show the mud layer through a peeling of time and weather, the tiny raised porch with a floor of mud has a rickety bench to the left. A tattered reed mat, what I know as madur from a childhood in Bengal, lies on the floor. A naked electric bulb, lit, hangs from a ceiling of wood slats and thatch. I step past a bush of red hibiscus to the porch to get a better look at a row of posters placed above head height on three sides of the porch. They are a quite typical mix of religious and Asian School of Sugary-cute. A small blond girl wipes her eyes; the message by her side proclaims: ‘Without you my world is lost’. A buxom southern Indian shepherdess with goats in the background forms the next exhibit. A large poster of the goddess Saraswati follows. Then the door, with a ‘YOU ARE WELCOME’ invitation between two painted earthenware lamps, followed by an ageing poster, again of Saraswati, but this time with her sister Lakshmi and brother Ganesh. Thus embellished, the tiny house stands mute to horrors that have visited it.
Vidyarani’s grandfather Salam Ningthemba Singh arrives after ten minutes or so to inform us the girl is at school. It’s on the opposite bank, the one we had only just left. People were reluctant to tell us where she was, he apologises by way of an explanation, until they had vetted our purpose. There’s a larger boat half a kilometre from the house, he offers, and we can all return together. We do, crouched low as before, but without the imminent fear of toppling into water, as Salam expertly pulls us along a cable with rings on it. That is how we finally arrive at Immanuel Grace Academy.
Its exterior has the same rundown feel of the neighbourhood, simple dignity hobnobbing with poverty. Like the houses around, the school is straw, thatch, mud, and tin roofing. The mud walls have posters advertising telecom services from Airtel, the movie Titanic, the heavy metal band Scorpions, the Orchid Textile Centre in Yangon, Myanmar. The rusted gate is welcoming with a slightly relaxed variation of a saying from the Bible, the Book of John, 6:37: ‘The one who comes to me, I will never drive away.’ And so, Immanuel Grace Academy in all takes 30 boarders and 300 students from nearby areas.
We are welcomed by Ningthoujam Ongbi Memcha, who describes herself as the wife of the founder of the school; he isn’t around. Her description doesn’t sound self-important, merely matter-of-fact. We are shown to a room at the northern end of the courtyard, around which are classrooms. The blackboards must have at one time been black, the benches and tables new. A wing houses a decrepit two-storey hostel, with separate dormitory rooms for boys and girls. The room we enter boasts a worn sofa, where we sit. In front is a chipped table of plain wood, on the other side a bed with faded covers. To the right, there’s a clutch of oversized, ancient microphones. We’re all quiet as Vidyarani is escorted in by a young lady staffer at the school.
Vidyarani’s head is lowered. The straight, lustrous black hair typical of her people covers her face. She sits on the bed. She wrings her hands. When she doesn’t do that, the hands cover her face. As a comfort, her grandfather strokes her hair. But Vidyarani’s hands never stop moving.
As Basanta prepares to question her, for a few seconds I’m overcome with emotion before I regain control. Watching Vidyarani is a wrenching experience. She is the same age as my daughter. She is of the same height. She attends the same class, 6. But my daughter has thus far not been abducted by police and detained illegally because the state is upset with her parents.
The document Basanta pulls from his backpack is a template from South Asia Forum for Human Rights, a Kathmandu-based organisation not—unsurprisingly—on the list of favourites of the region’s powers that are. ‘Understanding Impunity,’ goes the long-winded title, ‘Failures and Possibilities of Rights to Truth, Justice and Reparation.’ Highlighted by the peculiarly detached yet verbose manner in which such documents are described is the chilling and necessary purpose of it: ‘A unified database design to capture human rights abuses committed by State and non-state actors and failures of guaranteed rights and the justice system contributing to impunity.’
The sections are straightforward. The first is to explain the principle of ‘Informed Consent’, all too often missing in India’s due process across governance and business alike. The next records ‘Respondent Information’. Another queries the details of ‘Searchand Seizure’. Things begin to warm up, as it were, from here.
Was search and seizure carried out with or without a warrant? Were witnesses present? Which agency in a bewildering array carried it out: the Army? Border Security Force? CRPF? SOG (Special Operations Group)? Assam Rifles? State police? UnifiedCommand/Joint Operation? Or, ‘Others (Please Specify)’? The following section pertains to ‘Arrest and Detention’. And the next, ‘Investigation’, has a sequence that queries 26 separate kinds of torture, including choking; electric shocks; forced disrobing; forced ingestion of non-edible substances—not excluding faeces; forced to assault and/or sexually abuse members of the family, friends or associates; leg stretching; mock execution; pulling off nails or hair; sexual assault; the relatively moderate slapping, kicking, or punching; stubbing lit cigarette butts on the body; suspension by rope or cord; and the ever flexible category of ‘Others (Please Specify)’.
And, of course, there is Section IX, which deals with the chilling holy grail of human rights nightmares: ‘Enforced Disappearanceand Fake Encounters’.
As Basanta explains what his organisation does, what the document is meant for, Vidyarani hunches, draws in her knees, and assumes as foetal a position as possible for a seated person. I can’t any longer see the message on her faded pink T-shirt—‘Don’t believe the type’—or the crucifix around her neck. The toes of her bare feet are tightly curled. The trembling of her crushed cotton capris suggests acute fear.
When were you born? Basanta asks her in Meeteilon.
“Ninety-eight.” Her voice is barely above a whisper.
Basanta fills the rest with the help of her grandfather, turns some pages, a skip-to-next-question-if-these-don’t-apply sort of thing. He is practised at it. He tries to coax replies from Vidyarani, but she freezes.
What community are you? He asks after a while.
For five minutes or so she replies to pro-forma questions, gently urged by Ranjeeta and the calm presence of her grandfather. But then she stops, spent, replying nothing at all to Basanta’s stream of conversation and query in soft tones, an attempt to soothe her nerves as he traverses the geography of human rights fact-finding. Vidyarani looks now and again at him, then at me. She is terrified, and neither her grandfather’s hand, which she clutches, nor the stroking of her hair by Memcha help.
Attempting another approach, Basanta decides to reintroduce himself, and tells her what he is doing and why he is here. He tells her that I am writing a book, and I am not a policeman; don’t mind the close-cropped head of hair or Indian face. It helps. She resumes talking; her replies, though still halting, come more clearly. She still keeps her eyes lowered.
The “caman-do” took her away, she says.
What do you study in Class 6? Manipuri?
Basanta turns to me after ten minutes or so of taking her through the section titled ‘Arrest and Detention’. Her grandfather and Memcha having done most of the talking. Do you have any particular questions, he asks me.
Yes, I say, many. But first will you please tell her that I have a daughter who is as old as her. Grandfather Ningthemba and Memcha nod acknowledgement. When I go back home, I will tell my daughter about this day, about meeting Vidyarani.
And I want to ask her: when she was in custody, what was she doing, what was she thinking. Did she pray to God? Did she pray for her parents? What did she tell herself to keep her strength going?
“I wanted to see my parents,” Vidyarani whispers. Her composure, such as it is, begins to crack.
“Tell, nothing will happen,” Memcha gently urges.
“I was very scared.” Pause. “I sometimes thought that the police will go to my house when I am not there. I thought if my parents got arrested they would be tortured. I was afraid for my two younger brothers. I was scared the police would arrest them.”
How old are her brothers? I ask, hating myself for taking Vidyarani back to the place she looks unlikely to escape from for years, perhaps never, a dark place where her mind now lives.
“One is in class 4,” she says, “the other in class 1.”
Do you remember where you were kept? Did it look like a jail, with bars, or was it just a room?
Were you alone?
Basanta now explains: her two grandmothers were with her. They came to ask for her release, but when that didn’t work, they asked to remain with Vidyarani.
I resume: Did the police tell her anything when they took her—when was it? Day or night?
In the morning, Basanta now takes over. Vidyarani has stopped speaking.
Did the police…
She was preparing to cook, Basanta says while consulting his notes, when she heard police commandos arriving. She was very scared. One of the commandos pointed his automatic rifle at her and at the grandmother. Since they could not find her parents, suspected of associating with the People’s Liberation Army, they took Vidyarani.
Vidyarani is crying silent tears. Grandfather Ningthemba gently wipes her eyes with a hand, then gives her a large light-blue handkerchief he has kept in the other hand all the while, as if knowing she would need it sometime during the interaction. The little girl clutches the piece of cloth.
She suddenly gets up and rushes out of the hut. The young lady who brought her in rushes after her. Memcha rattles off in Meeteilon, and Basanta translates, his matter-of-fact tone almost formal. “She feels like vomiting.”
Memcha talks some more. “She worries that if she speaks the truth something bad will happen to her parents. They are still in custody. So she is afraid to speak.”
“I understand,” I say; and it’s partly a lie. I can understand why Vidyarani is afraid to speak, but I can never understand the degree of her trauma. We remain silent for a while. A young lady brings us small glasses of warm milk.
When did this happen? I ask. What was the date?
14 August 2009. A day before India’s independence day. The school was on holiday from the twelfth, so Vidyarani had gone home to her parents. When the staff of the school heard Vidyarani had been arrested, they rushed to her home. Why had she been arrested, they asked. Memcha takes the story from here. She says that when they saw Vidyarani, she was unconscious. They were told she had fainted. Memcha wanted her taken to hospital. The police declined—“denied that,” Basanta adds. They then insisted “women police” arrive and, sensing the mood of the people, the raiding party decided to acquiesce. When the police finally tried to take Vidyarani, the people insisted they would first have to issue an “arrest memo”. Memcha says she told them not to take the “baby” because they could not find her “mama” and “papi”. The police then told her that Vidyarani’s parents should surrender. Memcha and others still held on, asking the police if there was any law by which they could arrest a child.
How dare you talk like this, Memcha says she was asked. Who are you?
I’m the wife of the founder of the school where the girl studies, she replied. If you are taking her, she insisted, you should take at least one member of her family, the grandfather or grandmother. She said again that they would all try to arrange for the surrender of the parents, but they should leave the child alone. That didn’t work.
How many police were there? I ask.
“It was a combined force of Assam Rifles and Manipur Police commandos. They came in Gypsies.”
Vidyarani was released on the evening of 18 August. She first went home. She reached Immanuel Grace Academy a day later. Before her release, the police had already picked up her parents—which was why she was released. They came out of hiding to surrender, driven to panic with what might happen to their child.
What was she like when she arrived at school, I ask Memcha. Would she talk? Would she keep to herself? Avoid other children too?
When she reached home, Grandfather Ningthemba says, now wiping some tears of his own, she got off the vehicle and fainted.
“I’ve seen a lot of change in her,” Memcha says. “When we ask her to do something, even the simplest thing like cutting vegetables, she does not pay attention to that work.”
On 20 August they took her to RIMS in Imphal.
What was she like before her arrest? Was she a smiling, happy child? Was she playful?
“She was so active.” Memcha smiles in recollection. “She loved to be with her friends. She had a good presence of mind.”
How do you see her now, after all this?
“She doesn’t like to talk. She doesn’t want to talk. She is afraid of other people.”
What are you trying to do to help her come back to normal?
“We keep telling her to not worry, that her mother and father will be released from custody some time.”
Does she ask often about her parents?
“She keeps asking if she can go to meet her parents.” The mother is in the central jail in Imphal, Basanta offers; just behind the main police station. The father is in Sajiwa jail to the northeast of the Valley, on the route to Ukhrul.
The two younger brothers, one four, the other nine, also have changed since their parents were taken away, Memcha tells us. They preferred in the beginning to stay at home; but now they stay at school as boarders. The school is now both family and sanctuary for the three children. The grandmothers visit as often as they can.
The boys arrive then. First into the room is little Sanamatum, the youngest. How old are you? Basanta teases him.
“I don’t know how old I am,” he smartly replies. Everyone bursts out laughing, and the boy laughs with us.
Which class? Basanta persists, ruffling his hair.
Sanamatum rescues us from gloom; we laugh and cry as our hearts simultaneously warm and break. I turn to look for the other brother, Malamnganba.
“He is afraid of us,” Ranjeeta explains. The boy waits outside, reluctant at the calls to enter the room. It’s okay, I say, don’t force him.
He comes in anyway after a few moments. “Class 4,” Malamnganba timidly announces by way of introduction. “I am nine years old.”
Does Vidyarani talk to you both?
“Sometimes she cannot talk,” he says.
Do you try to get her to spend more time with you?
“Mmm,” he says, and stops. He lowers his head. “I see a lot of change in my sister. She used to play with us. Study with us. Now she always speaks of our parents.”
Then he starts to cry.
Ranjeeta takes the boys out to the yard. As Basanta and I leave after a few minutes, we see them seated on some steps by the entrance. She hugs both the boys, all the while speaking softly to them.
I ruffle the younger brother’s head, and for it I get a smile which lights up the day. I accord more dignity to the older boy and shake his hand. His grip is firm.
“Good luck,” I manage.
“Thank you.” He smiles. His eyes look directly, even defiantly, into mine. There’s a sign by him, in the charming grammar of Immanuel Grace Academy. It’s another saying from the Book of John, this time 10:11: ‘The good shepherd give his life for the sheep.’
Extracted from Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land, 4th Estate, Harper Collins, Rs 450
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and the novels Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings and Once Upon a Time in Aparanta