Monday, 2 January 2017

Swimming against the tide -- life and times of Tamils in Manipur


The past several weeks have been really harsh on all of us here in TN with demonetisation, demise of former CM Jayalalithaa, and Cyclone Vardah thrashing us in consecutive waves even as we cope with the new realities and struggle to move on. But all these troubles faced by 78-odd million citizens of TN amount to very little when compared with that faced by the hundreds of Tamil families stuck in the landlocked state of Manipur. 


Situated in the scenic Kabaw valley bordering Myanmar right on Asian Highway 1 and dubbed as the gateway to the SE, is the tiny trading town of Moreh. Bright sunshine, lush green vegetation interspersed with tall teakwood trees, small-framed men and slender women with well-defined noses and cheeks smeared with thanakha, a tree-bark paste -- the local equivalent of sunscreen lotion -- welcome visitors to the border town.

Although Moreh spans across merely three-square kilometres, this piece of land is home to virtually all the major communities found in the country, including Tamils, Punjabis, Bengalis and Nepalis, not to mention the Meiteis, Kukis and several other hill tribes who have settled here in phases over the past several decades.

Until a few years ago, more than 3000 Tamil families lived in Moreh and the community was among the most influential and prominent. The Moreh Tamil Sangam, the cultural and social organization here that has been active since the mid-1960s when the town was little more than a handful of shops and teakwood cabins, is the oldest association here and continues to run free schools besides engaging in other charity work.

With decades of insurgency and economic slowdown continuing to strangle the north-east, the Tamil population in Moreh has dwindled to a mere 400 families, most of whom have migrated from Myanmar in the 1960’s after General Ne Win came to power and order expulsion of all non-indigenous people from their country.  These 400 odd Tamil families that remain in Moreh have been put to untold misery of late due to an economic blockade that has been going on now for over 50 days now with no end in sight.

According to Khaja Mohideen, media coordinator of the Moreh Tamil Sangam, the economic blockade has completely choked the lives of all residents of Moreh including the Tamil families. “The prices have risen so much that it is impossible to purchase even essential commodities. A kilogram of salt costs Rs. 50/- while a litre of petrol now costs around Rs. 350/-. We have been paying more than Rs. 3000/- for an LPG cylinder. While the huge surge in prices is a concern, what is more worrying is that there is a huge shortage of goods even if one is willing to pay the price,” Khaja says.

A lifelong resident of Moreh, Khaja lives with his wife and children close to the international border that India shares with Myanmar and runs a retail shop selling utensils and other household items.

Not just Khaja but a vast majority of the Tamils settled in Moreh are businessmen. The economic blockade has been especially harsh on the Tamil population who are unable to export or import goods as the only two major highways leading to Imphal and then Moreh have been blocked by the United Naga Council, who have been protesting against the state government’s proposal to create seven new districts in the state.  Over the past few weeks alone, at least 50 private vehicles transporting goods from outside the state to Imphal have been torched bringing goods movement to a complete halt.

Khaja says that with the two arterial roadways blocked, they are unable to bring their goods from Dimapur in Nagaland, which is the closest railway station, by road. “Goods worth several lakh rupees are stuck in Dimapur while we are struggling for want of essentials,” he says.

The most recent economic blockade and resulting violence, however, is not the first occasion when the state of Manipur has been on the boil. The people of Manipur, especially the Tamil community in Moreh, are used to all this.  “When people talk about the suffering of Tamils, only our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka are remembered whereas we have been going through so much trouble since the 1960’s and have weathered all the storms that came our way,” Khaja says.

Among the earliest settlers in Moreh, the first Tamil families that moved here arrived from different parts of Myanmar during the 60’s. Their ancestors had been living in the country formerly known as Burma for generations and had migrated to the SE Asian country mostly during the early 1800s when Myanmar also came under the combined British administration. The first group of migrants were primarily government servants who were posted in the country and worked for the British. They were soon followed by the businessmen from central and southern TN who set up business establishments and prospered until the 1960s when they were expelled from the country. Upon returning to India, most of these Burmese Tamils found it hard to cope with the changed business environment in TN and decided to settle down close to the Myanmar border in Moreh. With help from friends and relatives who still lived in Myanmar, they set up shops in the border town and made a life for themselves. Over the years, cross-border trade – both legal and clandestine – thrived in Moreh and its Tamil settlers began to prosper.
Sree Angala Parameswari temple

But, life has never been easy in their adopted land. As the Tamil and other businessmen from different parts of India began to prosper and control much of the trade along the Indo-Myanmar border, they faced stiff resistance from the indigenous tribes including the Nagas, Kukis and dozens of other communities who had always been warring with each other and were less prosperous.  Violent clashes have broken out between the Tamils and the Nagas, Tamils and Kukis in which several people were injured, homes were razed to the ground and businesses were destroyed. When the situation continued to remain unsafe, a majority of the settlers shifted out of Moreh and settled down in their hometowns in TN.

Presently, only 400 families remain in Moreh and continue to run their businesses despite the unstable environment. The economically strong Tamil community has also built a huge TN-style shrine called the Sri Angala Parameswari Temple, the second largest south Indian temple in the entire North East region.  The temple, which spreads across approximately five acres of land sits right on the international border and was being renovated when this writer last visited Moreh in 2015.

Secretary of the Tamil Sangam, Subramani who is also a lifelong resident of the border town then said that the Sangam was insistent on building a solid, massive structure as after a few decades, the temple might be the only remaining monument to prove that a vibrant Tamil community once lived and thrived in Moreh. With the latest imbroglio posing yet another challenge to the Tamil populace in Moreh, Subramani’s prediction might turn out to be true sooner than he had anticiipated.

But, despite the odds Khaja remains defiant and hopeful. “We are used to all this and will survive. We have seen and overcome so much that this is nothing in comparison,” he said.

Until the economic blockade is revoked, Khaja and his friends in Moreh depend on the open, porous border with Myanmar for their survival. “We can move freely between the two countries and will get our essentials from our neighbouring country till this is all over,” he says.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Book Review: Patang is a racy, page turner where a notorious serial killer is tracked by an sleep-depriveddetective

Any book on a notorious serial killer is bound to be intriguing. When the killer is extremely intelligent and is tracked down by a tireless and brainier detective, the premise makes for a racy plot with plenty of twists and turns. In that sense, Bhaskar Chattopadhyay’s Patang does justice to the genre. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

My book 'Mullaperiyar Water War: The dam that divided two states'


My first book ‘Mullaperiyar Water War’ which has been in the works for so long is finally out. I had originally planned an official launch by late January or February but had to give it up as I could not get a chief guest to preside over the function. The politicians, bureaucrats and even activists who know about the dam enough to speak about it refused to participate as they did not want to get themselves involved with this complicated issue. So, I decided to do away with a formal launch.
The book is available in most book shops and also on on Flipkart, Amazon and all other websites.
 When the riots broke out in Cumbum and Kumily over the safety of the Mullaperiyar Dam in 2012, I had been working as the City Editor of our Coimbatore edition and had been assigned to cover the violence. During the few weeks of reporting that I had done in Cumbum and Kumily in Kerala, I had witnessed extreme hostility from both Tamils and Keralites as I am a Malayali born and brought up in Chennai. Hence, neither group trusted me.

I had shared some of my experiences with a literary agent with whom I had been working on a different book upon my return from the riot coverage and the idea for this book was born then.
The book ‘Mullaperiyar Water War’ explores the 115-year-old history of one of the oldest and strongest dams in the country, the various conflicts and legal battles that have taken place between TN and Kerala over the safety of the dam through the past century, besides exploring the possible solutions to the conflict.

Looking back: A day in the life of a newspaper reporter

The bane of being a newspaper intern is to suffer through the mundane ritual of covering events and filing reports that seldom make it to the pages of a newspaper. It was one such routine event – a
review meeting organized by a handful of NGOs working for rehabilitation of tsunami victims in January 2007.

As is customary in such occasions, no journalist worth his or her salt decided to cover the event leaving this scribe, just three days old in the profession then, as the only ‘celebrity’ media person at the venue.
Tsunami victims from the Kasimedu area who had been rehabilitated at temporary shelters in Tsunami Nagar, Ernavur walked up to the podium and narrated the ordeal that their lives had become since the killer waves tided their lives.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The passionate and restless Traffic Ramaswamy

For the nth time, Traffic Ramaswamy went to jail for a public cause and has stormed out in his imitable style.

Barely 12 hours after the Madras High Court granted bail to Traffic Ramaswamy, the octogenarian activist is back in his dingy little one-room office behind the kitchen of the Ramakrishna Lunch Home in Parrys doing wha
Traffic Ramaswamy
t he loves -- preparing PIL petitions to be filed at the HC over the week.

“I am preparing a petition against the city police for unlawfully arresting me without even informing my personal security guard. They think I will be intimidated but such acts only make me stronger. I am going to ensure that the police officers who arrested me face the music,” says Ramaswamy sitting behind a large computer screen and piles of files dumped on his work table. His secretary Stella Yogambal sits behind another computer screen at the other end of the room sorting letters and documents sent by well wishers and fans.

Going to jail for a public cause is nothing new for this frail, bespectacled man. “This is my ninth jail visit. I see this as a vacation. Since I never take any rest, jail visits ensure that I take a break from work,” he says.

The last time Traffic Ramaswamy went to jail was in 2008 during the DMK regime when he threatened to file a petition in the Supreme Court seeking dissolution of the state government citing a law and order failure. He had to go on an indefinite hunger strike forcing CM Karunanidhi to order his release. Ramaswamy still recalls that incident with pride.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

In lighter vein: A quest for the most eligible man for the 'Balls of Steel - 2014' award

As yet another year comes to an end, let's take a look at who have made it to the 'Who's who' list for the year 2014.

If there is one person who qualifies unanimously for the man with 'balls of steel' award in TN for 2014, it has to be none other than the slender, mischievous-looking judge from neighbouring Karnataka, Justice Michael D’Cunha. 

In a year which saw the most macho police officers, matinee super stars and even six-pack flashing youth icons take up the practice of worshipping the ‘mother’ as means to a prosperous life, the Karnataka judge, a native of Gurpur Kaikamba, about 18 kilometers from Mangalore, has shown people in TN that it is still possible to stand up for what one believes in and even get away with it, thus increasing his popularity manifold in the state.  

The judgement that he delivered on September 27 convicting Jaya and three of her associates for a four-year prison term besides a huge fine running into several crores, is rumoured to have provided an androgen boost even to the nanogenarian DMK patriarch M Karunandhi who could finally see some light at the end of his dark, family-feud filled tunnel. 

Chief Minister O Panneerselvam who is again back in the top seat, has however not yet thought it appropriate to physically rest his rear end in the coveted seat. He continues to keep his head down and spirits high.  Despite trying his best to not do anything besides maintaining a mournful appearance, he has been celebrated by sections of national media as a go-getter CM, deft at handling state affairs staking his claim as a strong contender for the award.  

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Were the Prasad sisters victim of an internal scuffle within the Sri Aurobindo ashram?

December 2014

Survivor speak

Just a day after the shocking mass suicide attempt by the seven member family in Puducherry on December 17, the eldest daughter of the Gadadar Prasad from Bihar still remains dazed at the bleak future staring at her.

Lying in the hospital bed in medical ward number 108 at the Pondicherry government hospital with a woman police constable guarding her, Jayashree does not seem to mourn the death of three of her family
members nor their decision to commit mass suicide.

"If we are chased out of our homes, where else can we go. I am 55 and have spent the last 35  years of my life here," she says."We are not in touch with any of our relatives and have nowhere to go."