Cultural Resistance in Times of Rising Authoritarianism in India: A Dossier

The Imphal Talkies N The Howlers: From the Hills and Valley of Manipur

, by GURLHOSUR Geetanjali

In the conflict-torn state of Manipur, where children have grown up amid the violence and terror of the Indian state and non-state actors, The Imphal Talkies N The Howlers, a folk-rock band, has been raising their voice against state atrocities, asserting their ethnic identity and searching for peace.

It’s been decades since you colonised us.
Now you want to take away my kingdom.
You shot my brothers in the streets of Tripura,
Now you wanna arrest Dr Hiren Gohain.
You book people under NSA for speaking out
How big is your prison, I wonder.
How big is your prison, I wonder.
You been killing us with AFSPA,
How big is your morgue, I wonder.

— Excerpt from song Stand United Against CAB
Written by Akhu Chingangbam
(AFSPA- Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1985, NSA- National Security Act)

In December 2019, when the Indian government legislated a highly contentious, anti-Muslim, anti-indigenous Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, it was opposed by political parties, students’ associations, cultural activists, artists and civil society organisations alike. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) not only sought to serve to actualise the dreams of Hindu-supremacist paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) but also threatened the culture and land rights of indigenous groups in north-eastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland. During violent protests, well-known intellectual and Sahitya Akademi (a literary honour conferred for outstanding writing in Indian languages) awardee Dr. Hiren Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta were charged with sedition for their speeches.

Akhu Imphal Talkies

Intellectuals and political activists were not the only ones speaking against the oppressive nation-state that has historically internally colonised the indigenous people in north-eastern India. Political poets, singers and other cultural artists took part in the people’s movement against the new citizenship bill. Among these was indigenous Manipuri singer Akhu (also known as Ronid) Chingangbam and the alternative folk-rock band called The Imphal Talkies N The Howlers. In 2019, he wrote a rap song called Stand United Against CAB, which called out militarisation and the historical violence perpetrated by post-independence Indian State in Manipur.

Like other anti-establishment speeches, writings and art, The Imphal Talkies’ song did not go unnoticed by Hindu-nationalist outfits in the country. Akhu and the band’s rapper Irom Singthoi soon started receiving threats from internet users, especially on Facebook, for their protest song. An astrophysicist, songwriter, composer and singer from Imphal, Akhu, told me on a Zoom call, “There was even a campaign demanding that we take down our song against CAB…This is what comes with what we sing.”

Manipur in north-eastern India, bordered by Myanmar (formerly called Burma), has had a history of freedom struggle against first the British colonisers and then the post-colonial Indian state. To counter insurgencies and movements for autonomy within the country, the first Prime Minister of India had enacted Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in 1958, then called the Armed Forces Special Powers (Assam and Manipur) Act. This law was drafted on the lines of similar legislation of 1942 British India to curb the Indian independence movement. At first, confined to “disturbed” and violent areas, AFSPA was extended to almost all of Manipur and parts of other north-eastern states since 1980. The Act provides the Indian army, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force and the state police in these areas with the discretion to kill with impunity “for the maintenance of public order”.

Between 2000 and 2012, the Indian army and Manipuri police allegedly staged/fake encounters and killed 1,528 people in the state under the pretext of anti-militancy operations in “insurgency prone areas”. The Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur (EEVFAM) and Human Rights Alert (HRA) filed writ petitions in Supreme Court in 2012 seeking justice. In 2018, the Imphal Talkies dedicated the song ‘Fake Encounter’ to the families and friends of those killed in the staged encounters. The band released this song of grief for the victims and their families, accompanied by visuals of media reports of human rights violations and the protests that ensued in Manipur. ‘Fake Encounter’ questioned the conscience and pride of the Indian army.

Few independent artists in Manipur today are singing in their native tongues and in English about the turbulent history, post-colonial ethnic conflicts and the militarised streets of the state. Like many young people in the state’s capital city of Imphal, Akhu grew up thinking the news of security forces, terror, disappearances and extra-judicial killings of ordinary people was “normal”. It was only after moving to Delhi University to study science that he realised the rest of India did not live under the constant terror of the armed forces. While militarisation is not a “normal” in New Delhi, racial discrimination and violence are. This is especially true for those coming from North Eastern states, people with mongoloid features. As a student, Akhu was shocked that people passed racist remarks at him because he looked “different”.

It was at this time that Akhu began reading radical poetry and expressing his identity by writing and playing music, he told the author. When human rights activist and paediatrician Dr. Binayak Sen, who worked for years in rural tribal areas, was arrested on charges of sedition in 2007, Akhu joined the streets protests with his guitar. “We also sang for the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka in the late 2000s. That was the time I realised I wanted to take up music seriously,” added Akhu.

Sitting in his home in Imphal during a post-pandemic lockdown and curfew, on a Zoom call, the 39-year-old Akhu reminisced about the start of his band. “In 2008, I came back home to Imphal to record eight songs in the studio. I formed a band for these recordings and called it the Imphal Talkies. I added the ‘the Howlers’ because I am a fan of Allen Ginsberg’s poem called Howl.” To Akhu, the band’s name represents a nostalgic feeling of living in Imphal, of his childhood in Manipuri city.

The folk-rock songs that Akhu and the band recorded in 2008 were released in 2009 as their debut album titled Tiddim Road, named after the road that connects Imphal with Myanmar. The road also leads to Loktak Lake, the biggest freshwater lake in north-east India. In a research paper on the circulation of resistance songs in Manipur, Priti Laishram wrote in 2020 that Manipuris living outside India connect with Akhu’s songs sung in the Meiteilon language (a dominant language in the valley of Manipur) as it reminds them of their home back in Manipur.

The Imphal Talkies’ second album also resonated with many who grew up in militarised Manipur. Titled ‘When The Home Is Burning’, the album has 13 soulful tracks, almost half of which are in English and the rest in Meiteilon. According to Akhu, most of these are protest songs about important issues. Some of the tracks go by the titles: When The Home Is Burning, Ode To Loktak, I Wanna Go To Moscow, India I See Blood In Your Hands, Mr. President Is Coming, Ei Seeragey (which translates to ‘I Want To Die’). Akhu wrote these songs in the late 2000s, but the album was released in 2014, the year Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies marked an emphatic victory in General elections, and Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India.

The lyrics of Mr. President Is Coming is based on personal experiences of band members who were beaten up by the Imphal East police in 2013 for simply being outside when the president of India was visiting the city under curfew. The song lists places in Imphal which were blockaded by the police for security purposes. The song takes a jibe at the Imphal security forces that curtail civilian movement and lists all the places where one can get alcohol in the ‘officially dry state’. In the song, Akhu asks: “The nights we know are dark, the days we survive are bloody. How can you ask me not to drink?” Manipur is ranked third in the country’s rankings of state-wise alcohol consumption. However, the sale and consumption of alcohol are prohibited in the state, including the local brews in many places.

Single track Qutub Minar, one of Akhu’s own favourites, which is about the journey of a man who carries the iconic 12th-century minaret of Delhi in a train to Manipur and carves on it the names of the Manipuris killed by AFSPA.

Apart from Allen Ginsberg’s raw poetry, Akhu’s song-writing is also inspired by writings of Sahitya Akademi Award winning Thangjam Ibopishak and Yumlembam Ibomcha, popular in Manipur for their political poetry of the previous century. Ibopishak’s ‘I want to be killed by an Indian bullet’ narrates an encounter with the Indian army and how he escaped death by “being fastidious” about it. An excerpt from the poem translated by Robin S Ngongam:

I heard the news long ago that they were looking for me; in the morning, in the afternoon,
at night. My children told me; my wife told me.
One morning they entered my drawing room, the five of them. Fire, water, air,
earth, sky – are the names of these five. They can create men; also destroy men at whim.
They do whatever they fancy. The very avatar of might.
I asked them: “When will you kill me?”

Laishram writes on the history of songs of resistance in Manipur: “Ordinary people, through their everyday practices, can negotiate with the dominant structure. (E)veryday acts of ‘making or doing’…are tools that the weak and subordinate use. Songs here become part of the tactics both artists and audience/listeners use to address their experiences of living in a conflict zone.”

Imphal talkies album cover

After their third album Maria And The Flower Child, the band’s latest release Emagi Wari in 2019, takes its listeners back to 1819 when the Burmese invaded Manipur and the following “displacement, migration, resettlement, struggles… of Manipuris in the Barak and Surma valleys”. The music album, funded by Indian Foundation for the Arts, began with Akhu’s research in communities of Manipuri origin in Assam and Bangladesh. The stories from these communities formed the basis for seven songs arranged in chronological order of events. What resonates through the songs is the perseverance of people to live and pass on their culture beyond borders. ‘Emagi wari’ in Meiteilon means ‘stories of my mother’.

The album songs are arranged with sounds from acoustic, electric and bass guitars played by Sachidananda Angom and Karnajit Laishram, ukulele played by Akhu, pena (a bowed mono-string Manipuri instrument made of bamboo, a coconut shell and animal skin) played by Chaoba Thiyam, cajon (a box-shaped Peruvian percussion instrument) played by Irom Singthoi and drums played by Sunil Loitongbam, to tell Manipuri history of migration and resettlement. The album concludes with the song Angangba Korou which translates to ‘red sun’. According to Akhu, the song signifies the beginning of a revolution and calls for love, hope, and unity beyond borders. Growing up in a conflict-torn state, Akhu, who belongs to the dominant ethnic community of Meiteis, has heard enough stories of the long protracted ethnic conflicts between the ‘hill tribes and valley tribes’ of Manipur.

The binary of valley tribes and hill tribes in north-east India is a colonial construct that contributed to “the larger politics of colonial expansion and control on the frontier”, states Dr. Yengkhom Jilagamba in his paper ‘Beyond the Ethno Territorial Binary: Evidencing the Hill and Valley Peoples in Manipur’ (2015) for the journal of South Asian Studies. He writes that ‘ethnic-tension’, ‘ethnic clash’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ are “part of the everyday vocabulary of the region” today because valley-dwelling Meiteis and hill-dwelling clans of Nagas and Kukis were placed “in the civilisational hierarchy”. Thus, a geographically determined divide has led to socio-economic, cultural, political development and non-development in the region.

Thus, singing about a shared past, peace, and reconciliation is just as important to Akhu. He strongly believes that there is a shared history among the various ethnic groups in conflict and that it can be studied through the commonalities in their folk instruments. For example, the pena, bena, ra or tingtelia among the Nagas are only “slightly different” depending on which community makes it. Having travelled extensively across the hills and valley of Manipur, Akhu is curating a museum of different folk instruments. The artist has already collected about 17 so far. However, the museum could not be opened yet due to the pandemic.

“I am trying to look at these instruments anthropologically because Manipur has a history of ethnic conflict. So, I wish to look at the cultural similarities between the communities that have hated each other for so long,” said the artist whose attempt to bring peace and harmony through music does not stop here. In the summer of 2015, he initiated a music and art project for HIV-infected children of conflict areas at an orphanage. The project, called ‘A Native Tongue Called Peace’, produces music in collaboration with children from different ethnic communities. The first song of this project, ‘All We Need Is Love’, was produced in 2015 with the help of musicians Rudy and Keith Wallang from Meghalaya.

The Manipuri artist and activist are interested in fusing folk tunes with contemporary political, social and cultural issues. To do this, he also set up the Foothills community art space in Imphal in December, 2020. For Akhu, the freedom of expression is what makes his band the Imphal Talkies N The Howlers.