How Oro Bruk’s Monpa Clothing Responds to Climate Change

Arunachal Pradesh entrepreneur Tenzin Metoh reinterprets the Monpa tribe’s traditional attire with weather-conscious textiles, fresh colours and symbolic motifs 

Growing up in Bomdila, a hill town in Arunachal Pradesh, Tenzin Metoh remembers winter mornings meant waking up to taps jammed with ice, rooftops lined with icicles, and a yard knee-deep in snow. Naturally, Metoh and her family — belonging to the Monpa community of Arunachal Pradesh — dressed for the season: jackets and wraps of warm, thick yak wool, part of the traditional attire of the Himalayan tribe. 

But with increasing global temperatures, Metoh feels the heat too. Back home, it is still a reasonably cold winter, but the snow, according to Metoh, reaches “only her ankles.” In Itanagar, the bustling capital of Arunachal Pradesh where she is now based, summers can now get “hot and sweaty”. “The weather is changing everywhere, and it’s very unpredictable,” she says, adding with consternation, “In Bomdila, some households actually have a fridge.” 

Metoh — a former Miss Arunachal beauty pageant winner, and now a consultant to the state government’s Public Health Engineering Department, — responded to this change in a manner she knew best: sartorially. Since 2019, her apparel brand, Oro Bruk, has adapted Monpa outfits to suit the changing weather: replacing yak wool in khanjars (woollen jackets worn by men) and tengnakema (apron-like cloth women tie around their waists) with lighter textiles. “Oro Bruk is a direct outcome of global warming,” reads the brand’s concept note.  Metoh elaborates: “People realised that the climate was changing—it was hot, and impossible to wear our traditional attire anymore. But nobody was really thinking about fabric.”

This article was originally published in The Voice of Fashion in January 2024. Full article here.

Children of Assam’s NRC: ‘Will They Take Me Away?’

This article received a Special Mention at the RedInk Awards 2021, and was originally published in The Indian Express in February 2020. 
Assam National Register of Citizens list hangs in a limbo. So does the fate of children out of it.

Gaari, Gaas Gujali, fuler bagan (Cars, trees and flower gardens)!” says Fatima, 12, her face lighting up at the memory. That morning, more than a year ago, her 15-member family hired three autos for a trip to Boitamari. It was Fatima’s first time outside her village. The furthest she had ever ventured was her school, a 3-km walk from the family’s small thatched house in Borpara village, in Assam’s Bongaigaon district. Sitting by her side was her niece, neighbour and best friend, Narzina, and they watched paddy fields fly past the window over a 30-km journey that took nearly two hours.

The evening before, the girls had been told by their elders to answer every question clearly. “What if they catch you there itself? Don’t make mistakes,” they were warned.

Narzina and Fatima giggle at “the great time” they had at the National Register of Citizens (NRC) hearing. The grim purpose of their visit — to prove Narzina is Indian — hasn’t registered, though the 10-year-old is acutely aware of the value of the plastic folder holding her “nothi potro (documents)”.

On January 6, Attorney General of India K K Venugopal assured the Supreme Court that children excluded from the Assam NRC will not be sent to detention centres for now if their parents feature in the list.

This month, answering a question in the Lok Sabha on the status of such children, Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai said they would “not be separated from their parents and sent to detention centres pending decision of their application”. Rai also mentioned that the Supreme Court had directed the government to file a reply. “The next date of the hearing is not fixed,” he said.

To Narzina’s parents, such assurances mean little. The final draft of the Assam NRC came out more than a year and a half ago, and included Narzina’s parents, grandparents, but not her and her younger brother, 7. The family attended four hearings in four different towns. At each, officials assured them “it will be okay” — rules say parents who are in the NRC need to only give “oral/written” testimonies for children under 14. But Narzina or her brother didn’t figure in the final NRC list, published on August 31, 2019.

Narzina’s mother recalls that night of August, Narzina waking her up. “Will they take me away?” she sobbed. Her mother, who is in her mid-20s, says she did not know what to say. “I just hugged her and we slept.”

***

Nearly five months later, the narrative has moved on to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and a possible nation-wide NRC, even as the fate of the Assam list lies tangled in politics.

In Borpara too, the NRC has been pushed away into an uneasy corner. The village is one of 146 in Boitamari Revenue Circle, 70 per cent of whose population is minority. Borpora’s 150 households are equally divided between Muslim and Hindu families, with the Muslims mostly Bengali-speakers, the group most vulnerable to the NRC exercise.

“Most people in our village are in, but those out worry,” says Ahmed Toweb, 29, an engineering graduate who is out of the NRC too. The NRC Seva Kendra in Chalantapara (2.5 km away) has been shut since August 31, Tawab adds. “No one from our village has been sent to detention but 5 km away, in Jogighopa and Kochudola, there are several.”

For Narzina and the others, this means no end to the uncertainty. Any day could bring them rejection slips, making their exclusion official, followed by summons to the overburdened Foreigners’ Tribunals (FTs), and maybe even detention camps.

The NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), whose petition led to the government assurance in the Supreme Court, listed 61 cases of children across Assam who were out of the NRC even as their parents had made it. There are no confirmed figures regarding how many of the 19 lakh out of the NRC are children. As per an Assembly Question Hour reply, at least one minor, 45-day-old Nazrul Islam, died while in detention (his mother was later held to not be a foreigner).

Assam Chief Secretary Kumar Sanjay Krishna directed all queries on the matter to NRC State Coordinator Hitesh Dev Sarma. Sarma said he had given his response on the CJP petition to both the Central and state governments. “At this point, all I can say is this.” Sarma also claimed that they were in “the final stages” of readying the rejection slips and would issue them soon.

Narzina’s father shrugs when told of the Centre’s promise to the Supreme Court. “Every day someone says something new. I am uneducated, I do not understand this,” he says.

Narzina and Fatima go to government-run lower primary schools nearby and, later in the afternoon, to a madrasa for Arabic lessons. After that, their days are free, to play doura dori (catch) or utha boha (sit-ups).

It is here that Narzina says she is often reminded of the NRC. An elder child may tease, “You and your brother are out. Uthai loi jaabo (They will pick you up).”

Fatima says often Narzina bursts into tears and runs back home. “What if they really do take her away to that place?” she asks.
For the two, “that place” is Bangladesh — wherever that may be. “We have not learned about it in school,” explains Fatima.

***

Across the field, Khadija, 10, is the only member of her family out of the NRC. Last July, when she accompanied her family to a hearing at Jogighopa, 30 km away, the officer asked her her father’s name. She replied confidently. Two more hearings followed, in Abhayapuri (Bongaigaon district) and Baghbar (Barpeta district). But while all the others in the 15-member-family are in the NRC, Khadija isn’t.

Having just returned from school, the Class 5 girl rattles off all she does there. “We go at 8.30 am, we pray, we sing the National Anthem, we study and we come back home,” she smiles.

“Khadija is very smart,” says her proud father, a daily wage labourer and father of two, including a six-year-old son. The 30-year-old suspects that though they have not told her, “from our behaviour, Khadija has guessed something is wrong”.

Now, as he talks about a hearing they attended last year, Khadija suddenly bursts into tears. “They won’t take you away, don’t cry,” he consoles her, putting her in his lap.

Khadija wipes her face with the hem of her red frock, and refuses to speak further.

In a town called Bijni in Chirang district, 55 km away, a 14-year-old is dealing with his and his 10-year-old brother’s exclusion from the NRC by keeping it a secret at school. “They might tease us, say something bad,” says the teenager. The other members of his Hindu family, including his married sister and parents, are in the list.

So far, the plan has worked. At school, they discuss books, cars, music, even the news, but rarely topics like the NRC. Once back, the teenager mostly stays in, painting.

When the list came out, the 14-year-old asked his father a number of questions — “Why is my name not in it? What happens now? What benefits come to those included?”, etc. His father, who works in a nursing home in Siliguri, tried to patiently answer. “I said he was ‘Indian’ by birth and nothing could happen to him,” says the 43-year-old.

While the CAA, which makes citizenship process easier for Hindus, could help his sons, the father admits that doesn’t make his wait less taxing. “How does the CAA work in a secular country like India?” he asks. “And moreover, for my sons, all this has no meaning. All they understand is that they are out of the list while everyone else they know is in.”

***

One of the important documents during the Assam NRC updation exercise was birth certificate, especially in the case of those under 18 who had not gone to school. According to the National Family Health Survey, while one in four children under age 5 in India (166 million) continue to not be registered at birth, Assam has seen an upsurge in numbers.

Still, in many cases, including Khadija’s, the document proved inadequate in proving a child’s lineage to his/her parents.

“In many cases, families submitted a ‘delayed’ certificate — not made within 90 days of birth. Many of these were rejected,” says Guwahati-based activist Abdul Kalam Azad.

For example, Ashrab, a Baksa district-based pharmacist. “When my son was born in 2006, we only picked up a receipt and not the birth certificate. In 2015, when the NRC started, we went to get it, but there was a huge crowd, almost like a stampede. We finally managed to get it in 2018. We submitted that, but still he is out,” says Ashrab.

His son, a Class 6 student who wants to become an engineer, realises this, often worrying too that he will be “taken away”.

Guwahati-based counselling psychologist Dr Sangeeta Goswami warns of the trauma facing children when it comes to the NRC. “It creates insecurity, of what is going to happen, of being separated from parents.” There should be adolescent health care centres at block and district levels manned by trained professionals to deal with such cases, she adds. “But that is not happening.”

Lawyer Aman Wadud says the NRC limbo has made matters worse. “The Home Ministry order states that no one — adult or child — will be sent to detention just because they have been excluded from the NRC… Unless the Court specifically says no child will be sent to the FT, it means nothing,” he argues.

Azad talks of the reverse too, of children being left on their own with parents in detention centres. “In one case, a girl in Class 10 had to give up studies to take care of her three younger siblings, who also ended up dropping out of school.”

Some take to begging or become daily workers at brick kilns to support themselves. “An entire generation has been destroyed,” says Azad.

“Before the NRC execution started, the state should have taken into consideration the children. Has it made special provisions for children going to an FT? Have they made child-friendly courts? Are the judges sensitised or trained in dealing with children?” asks Miguel Das Queah, a child rights activist based in Guwahati. “It is complete callousness on the part of the state. You go to hearings after hearings… you miss school.”

Dr Sunita Changkakoti, Chairperson of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, says they have not received any complaint with regard to children and the NRC so far. “If there are cases like this, and this comes to our notice, we will definitely take over and try to do something about it,” she says.

In Morigaon district’s Bhurbhanda village, Shoriful, 7, lost his mother a few months after the draft NRC list was published in July 2018. His father, a daily wager, insists his wife died because of “NRC tension”, after their son’s name did not figure in the draft. Shoriful has stopped attending school, and barely talks to anyone. “He was always a quiet child but now he has become paagal (mentally ill),” says the father, as he urges Shoriful, who is clinging to him, to tell his name.

Last year, he took Shoriful to a doctor in Morigaon, he adds. The doctor said the seven-year-old would become “alright” once he grows up.

***

“Isn’t Bangladesh a country like ours? With people like ours?” asks Faruna of Goroimari village in the district. The daughter of a farmer, the 15-year-old wants to become a teacher when she grows up. A few months ago, when her name was dropped from the final NRC, a neighbour told her, “You are a Bangaldeshi, they will take you away to Kokrajhar Jail.”

For three days straight, Faruna says she wept, refusing to eat or talk. Several months later, attending an NRC awareness drive at the Nagabhanda gaon panchayat, the burqa-clad Faruna is reflective. Accompanying her is her 12-year-old brother, who has made it to the NRC. Their father, a daily wager, who would come with her earlier, is now working in Arunachal Pradesh.

Faruna talks about her Class 10 exams in April 2019, where she got a first division, and how she would have performed much better but for the NRC stress.

“My family told me, ‘Dua kora, ahi jabo (Have faith, your name will come in the list)’. But yet, it didn’t… We gave such bhaal certificates (good documents). So how can my name not be there?” she says, tearing up.

Her brother, who barely understands the NRC more than that “if you are on the list, it is good”, tries to console her. “Don’t worry, ahi jaabo (It will come),” says the 12-year-old.

An elderly neighbour, sitting besides them, has better luck with her. “Don’t worry, even mine did not come,” he smiles. “We can go to Bangladesh together.”

Faruna laughs, despite herself.

(The last names have been dropped to protect identity)

Find Me On a Hill in Imphal

This article won the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award 2020, and was originally published in The Indian Express in August 2020. 

On a full-moon night, atop a hill in Manipur, Yumnam Rajeshwor Singh reads the names of the dead. They may have been gone from this earth for 76 years, but time is relative for Rajeshwor, a man with a plan — and dozens of maps.

“We are on this ridge,” he says, tracing a finger along a route on an A-4 size copy of a map from 1944. “And there — there were the Japanese bunkers! From where they fired.” He points a little further away, in the direction we had trekked from — carrying everything from pressure cookers to metal detectors, tents and canned fish — earlier that morning.

Of the 10 who had embarked on this journey, only nine made it, after one took ill en-route. The nondescript hill, about 15 km from Imphal, isn’t for the faint-hearted. It was after all, one of the many battlefields of the Siege of Imphal, where the Allied and the Axis powers fought between March and July, 1944, in some of the fiercest battles of World War II.

Rajeshwor gets back to reading his list of the dead soldiers — aided by the flashlights of three phones — before he stops at one. “Private Tod D,” he says, “This is the guy we are looking for.”

***

In early March, when Rajeshwor drives me to the hill to look for the remains of David Tod, a British soldier who had died in the war, the skies are blue and the days are glorious. The newspapers have some news about the virus from China entering India but few in Manipur think of it as a threat to them. If China is far away, Delhi and Mumbai are probably even farther. Rajeshwor, who works in a telecommunications company in Imphal, has his itinerary chalked out. “I will be on my tour from March 28 — UK, France, Belgium,” says 43-year-old.

For months, I have been persuading Rajeshwor to let me join his World War II excavation expeditions — where he and his friends travel the hilly Manipuri countryside, unearthing relics and remains, stories and memories from the twin World War II Battles of Imphal (Manipur) and Kohima (Nagaland). Initially, he tells me that these are “secret” things that happen in the “complete absence of media.” But earlier this year, when I send him my customary monthly WhatsApp message asking him if he has changed his mind, he finally relents, but with a caveat: “Please don’t mention the exact location in your news.”

He did not need to worry — with my despicable sense of direction coupled with the wilderness of the hills, I have no idea where we are. “People talk about things they see and read in books, but neither of these battles have been included in school curricula,” says Rajeshwor, at the wheel of his “rickety but reliable” Chevrolet UVA, which takes us to the base of the hill we are meant to climb.

Ten minutes into the climb, I understand why Rajeshwor had told me: “I hope you are healthy.” The hill is far from kind: my running shoes are not equipped for the terrain, and I slip, stumble, fall, and on certain portions, comically crawl up the hill. To think of men vying for each others’ blood, with guns and bayonets in hand, seems a ridiculous idea. But I am less amused when I see the 72-year-old member of the group, trotting up the hill, way ahead of me, with the support of one thin stick.

Rajeshwor hangs back to tell me his story. Like many others, he grew up in ignorance about the WWII battlegrounds. More than seven decades ago, this hill was one of the many sites in Imphal that the Japanese and the British skirmished in — the Japanese lost more than 30,000 men in a defeat so decisive that it ended their imperial pursuits in Asia. But it was only in 2013, when a vote by the National Army Museum of Britain termed them “Britain’s Greatest Battle” that the Battles of Imphal and Kohima entered public consciousness.

Till then, the battles were buried in the hills of the Northeast, unknown, save for some literature by military experts, war veterans and historians. In 2005, Rajeshwor chanced upon one such book: The Forgotten Army’s Box of Lions: The True Story of the Defence and Evacuation of the Largest Supply Depot on the Imphal Plain (2001) by Christopher D Johnson. “It was set in Manipur and focused on the battle of Kanglatongbi, I was surprised that I knew nothing about it. Growing up, we only knew what our grandparents told us…that there was a war…the Japan laan (war),” recalls Rajeshwor.

Over the years, he struck up an unlikely pen friendship with Johnson, whose father fought in the war. “Christopher started sending me books, war diaries — material I would devour late into the night,” he says. Soon, with Johnson’s cross-continental guidance and encouragement, Rajeshwor graduated from books to battlefields. “They were all around me . . . all these years, I had no idea,” he says.

In time, many friends joined in. Before they knew it, weekends or holidays became sojourns into history. “We would go from battlefield to battlefield, spades and shovels in hand. Even years later, there were things to find: helmets, shrapnel, cartridges, personal artefacts such as buckles and combs and even bones,” he says. In 2013, Rajeshwor and his friend, Arambam ‘Bobby’ Singh, founded the Second World War Imphal Campaign Foundation to formalise their weekend expeditions in digging up a forgotten battle. Since 2017, the Japan Association for Recovery and Repatriation of War Casualties has been collaborating with the foundation on missions to recover the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the war. “But I am not allowed to talk about that,” says Rajeshwor.

What he can talk about are the personal requests he gets. Through Johnson, Rajeshwor was introduced to descendants of a number of war veterans seeking information about the last days of their family members. “It started with someone wanting me to lay a wreath at their grandfather’s grave in the Imphal Cemetery,” says Rajeshwor.

Over the years, the requests became more elaborate: someone from the UK enquiring about the location of a tank blast their grandfather died in (“Could you please find that spot and lay a wreath there?”); another 78-year-old from the UK whose dying wish was to locate his father’s remains in Imphal. “I have done all that — climbed a hill, laid a wreath, put a poppy cross,” says Rajeshwor. When last June, Sharon Gibson, a 40-year-old nurse, reached out to him from Edinburgh, with a request to “find” her long-dead great-grandfather, with only a name (David Tod) and a photograph (black-and-white and faded), he told her: “No problem. This is a big thing for you, but a small thing for us. We will do it.”

***

When we reach the top, Rajeshwor and his team get to work at once — the metal detectors and shovels are out, tents are being pitched, wood is being collected to cook lunch, and “toilets” are being “constructed” — unperturbed by the fact that it is raining, a bitter cold wind sweeping away the glorious summer day we left behind at the base of the hill. The British codenamed it the Pimple (because it resembled one), and Rajeshwor and his friends refer to it by the same name.

It is a terrain he has studied for a year — first, through documents he sourced from the British Library, then through a drone he flew over it and by trekking to the spot last November. “We followed the exact route mentioned in the British war diary of the time. It maintained the events of the episode — who shot whom, the direction of the attack, etc,” says Rajeshwor. According to records, 16 Allied soldiers had fallen at the Pimple. “According to protocol, they were buried with crosses. But when the Imperial War Graves Commission unit came two years later to collect the remains, the area was an overgrown jungle and the markers were gone,” says Rajeshwor. “Of the 16 bodies, only 12 were recovered, and four were left behind.”

One of them was of Tod, Gibson’s great-grandfather. The family believed that he was “lost in the jungles of Burma (now Myanmar)”, since these battles fell under the British’s “Burma Campaign”. “That the battlefields transcended the boundaries of Burma is something they have come to understand now,” says Joseph Longjam, a Directorate of Information and Public Relation employee in Imphal, who works with Rajeshwor.

“We were really expecting a jungle in Burma and not a hill in Imphal,” says Gibson later, over an email. Last year, she dreamt of a man, who she thinks was her great-grandfather, telling her: “Find me in Burma.” Gibson got herself on a Facebook group, comprising families of war veterans, scholars and historians. Her queries led her not to Burma, but to a man in Imphal. That month, Rajeshwor pored over war diaries, got in touch with researchers in the UK and managed to track down Tod’s regiment, and, finally, the location where he died, by painstakingly superimposing map references of the time to Google Earth to pinpoint the rough location of 25 yards. Finally, in November last year, they did their first trek.

“We just started digging anyway in the location we identified. Suddenly, we found the personal effects of soldiers in a pit. For us, it was a eureka moment because it meant that the four remaining bodies were around that area,” he says. At Gibson’s request, Rajeshwor had lugged up a memorial plaque and a remembrance poppy cross. In a small ceremony, the team laid the plaque at the spot where they believed Tod was killed, and livestreamed it to her in Edinburgh. “It was a very emotional sight. I was afraid to even blink in case I missed any of it,” she recalls. “Rajeshwor dusted off the layers of time and brought a little-known part of history to light. It is amazing what he has done for me, a stranger from across the globe.”

***

Even before his first climb, Rajeshwor was certain about one thing: he wasn’t here to make money off dead people. The excavation expeditions involve trekking up various hills (the Pimple is one of the more accessible ones), arranging for food, shelter and equipment for digging — but they are funded entirely by the members.

“While Sharon did insist on paying for the memorial plaque, I did not charge her for anything else. I do not want to earn a single penny off this,” says Rajeshwor, after a long day of digging. At night, a small bonfire has been lit, a few glasses of rum are had before a dinner of pork, rice and boiled vegetables.

“For me personally, I do not care much about historical dates,” says Longjam, the DIPR employee, “But if what we do makes people visit Imphal, it means a lot.”

In recent years, Manipur has seen the beginnings of “war tourism” — initiatives to map the war through battlefield tourism tours, perhaps the first of its kind in the country. “WWII battlefields in Europe are mapped to the T; the Indian part of the war and the sites of fighting around Manipur and Nagaland have always been hazy,” says researcher and author Hemant Singh Katoch, on the phone from Yangon. In 2013, he founded and conceptualised the “Battle of Imphal” tours, the first in the state. In the three years he spent in Imphal, Katoch led many tourists — often families of war veterans — on these tours. “It is a way to connect to their family’s past. In some cases, it is not a grandfather or granduncle, but the father who has fought the war.”

For example, Johnson has spent decades unravelling his father George Johnson’s role in the war. He tracked down families of those who served with his father in Imphal. In time, he found out that George had to kill one of his wounded orderlies, Howard, in the war. “It was a case of mercy killing — my grandfather never spoke about it, but carried with him years after the war,” says David Westgate, Johnson’s nephew, over a video call Rajeshwor sets up for me that night from the hill.

In 2017, Johnson managed to track down Howard’s family, and in April last year, during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Imphal, his great granddaughter, Ellie, flew down to Imphal. “We were there too, and with Rajeshwor’s help we had a small funeral ceremony, bugles and all, where her grandfather died,” recalls Westgate. “I don’t mind admitting it but I started crying. I walked up to her and apologised. She told me, there was no need to say sorry. ‘Your grandfather did what he had to do.’”

***

“Searching for a person’s remains is like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack,” says Rajeshwor, leaning on his spade. The next morning, the hill is abuzz with the beep-beep of metal detectors, and the scraping of shovels. Around Rajeshwor, are Longjam, and Ratan, both longtime members of the group. “All these years, we have not recorded our work but I am thinking of making a video repository on YouTube and naming the channel ‘Battlefield Diggers’,” says Rajeshwor.

“We have never felt the need to,” says Longjam, “Our satisfaction comes from connecting people to their forefathers. Some families just want to know where their fathers or grandfathers went, what kind of places they stayed at, what they did. For them, this is a part of the world they know very little about.”

Last October, the team chanced upon a mass burial site, the recovered remains of which they have handed over to the Japanese. “But personal bone collection missions, like that of Sharon’s great-grandfather, can take years too,”says Rajeshwor.

At the end of the dig, they have shrapnel, a few buckles, a comb, parts of a bullet, tail fins of mortar shells, but no bones. Before the team starts their descent down the Pimple that afternoon — unaware that a pandemic will keep subsequent ones on hold for some time —Rajeshwor calls up Gibson, and informs her that the excavation was unsuccessful. “That’s okay,” she says, “At least, we now know where great-grandfather Tod is. He is no longer lost.”

Four Kuki women recount brutal assaults they survived

This article recounts testimonies of sexual assault survivors of the 2023 civil war in Manipur. It was originally published on Scroll.in in July 2023. 
[*Trigger Warning — contains graphic descriptions*]
The video showing Kuki women being paraded naked by a mob has brought national attention to the sexual violence that has taken place during Manipur’s ongoing civil war. Days before the video emerged, Scroll had travelled to Manipur to interview Kuki women who faced extreme violence at the hands of the mobs.
We spoke to four women, including one whose ordeal, captured on video, finally forced the prime minister to end his silence on Manipur. All of the women recounted that the men who assaulted them said they were taking revenge for violence against their community. Strikingly, in two cases, the survivors said Meitei women were part of the mob, egging the men on.

Survivor: 19-year-old
Currently at: Relief camp, Kangpokpi district
Date of incident: May 15, Imphal

When a 19-year-old Kuki resident of Imphal’s New Checkon colony stepped out on the evening of May 15 to withdraw money from an ATM, she said she could have “never imagined” what lay ahead. In the hours that followed, she said she was abducted by a gang of men, dragged into a car, brutally assaulted in three different locations across Imphal, before she escaped by a miraculous stroke of luck.

In a relief camp in Kangpokpi district, exactly two months after the incident, she said she can barely “sleep at night”. “Sometimes I wake up crying…I remember what they did to me, I keep thinking of it,” she said, her voice low.

In a classroom of a training institute, now converted into a relief camp for displaced Kukis, the survivor narrated the incident to Scroll for over an hour.

After clashes broke out between Meitei and Kuki communities on May 3, the 19-year-old’s parents and siblings, along with many others, fled the mobs in Imphal on May 4. The 19-year-old, however, could not accompany them.

When the violence had broken out, she was with a friend: a Kuki, too, who was married to a Muslim.

“Since it was so tense, I could not join my family and took refuge in the Pangal neighbourhood,” she said. The Meitei Pangals, residents of the Imphal Valley who follow Islam, are not involved in the conflict in Manipur, and hence, relatively shielded from violence from both sides.

For days, the 19-year-old hid in the Muslim household, careful not to step out or be seen.

When the first round of violence abated about 10 days later, things were still tense in Imphal. Her parents – then at a relief camp in Kangpokpi district – told her it was better she left Imphal. Some money was wired to her account, and the plan was for a Muslim driver to drop her to Kangpokpi.

On May 15, around 4 pm, the 19-year-old, along with the friend in whose home she had taken shelter, stepped out to withdraw money for the journey. Before they could even get to an ATM, two cars – a white Bolero and a purple Swift – appeared on the road. A few men got out, asking the two girls to produce their Aadhaar cards.

When they said they did not have it on them, the men began assaulting them – first, her friend, and then the 19-year-old. The men accused the friend of sheltering the Kuki girl, before they left her by the side of the road.

They proceeded to drag the 19-year-old into the white Bolero, she said. Inside, they beat her up, ignoring her protests, and drove her to Wangkhei Ayangpali, a Meitei locality.

There, her captors rounded up men and women from the neighbourhood. By the side of the road, the survivor said, it was the women who “first started beating me up”. “They were dressed in their traditional phanek… some old, some young,” she said, about the group of women assaulters.

As sticks and bare hands beat her up, she recalled seeing a pair of scissors in the mix. “Someone pulled my hair… with the scissors, they tried to chop my hair too,” she said.

All the while, the survivor pleaded with her assaulters in Meitei: “I told them: ‘Why are you beating me? Why are you slapping a girl like this? Am I not your sister?’”

But the mob was out of control. The survivor alleged that the women handed her over to the men, asking them to “kill her”. “The men asked me how I dared to still be here [in Imphal],” she said. “I told them that I was doing my best to leave, and to please let me go.” One of them then said to her: “Your tribal boys have killed us Meiteis and so we will not save you.”

Some men, the survivor recollected, started making calls to whom she believes were the members of the Arambai Tenggol, a radical Meitei group that has been accused of leading several attacks against the Kukis since the ethnic clashes broke out on May 3. “We have captured one tribal,” the men said on the phone.

Sometime later, another car, a Bolero, arrived, its occupants a group of men in black T-shirts, and armed with guns. The survivor was dragged inside the vehicle and taken to another location, which she recognised as Langol Hills, a range in the northern part of the Imphal Valley.

There, she was blindfolded, her hands tied. “I kept crying throughout… they threatened to shoot me if I did not quieten down,” she said. The mob again decided to move her to another location – this time further away from Imphal, to Bishnupur district. “They felt if they did it in Imphal, the police may catch them,” she said.

By that time, night had fallen. The survivor said she was taken to a hill. “They told me that if I wanted to live, I would have to do ‘as they said’,” she said, adding that they used “very bad words”, and told her they wanted to rape her. “They told me: ‘If you let us do it, we will save you.’ I told them I am not that kind of girl.”

When she resisted, they tried to “pull her shirt” and “grab her.” All the while, she said she could hear the men load their rifles, feel the weapons prodding her. At some point, she passed out, she later confided in a woman taking care of her in the relief camp.

She next remembers wanting to relieve herself. It was almost dawn by then. “When I asked them for permission, they laughed and said that if my wish was to urinate before I died, they would let me,” she said.

They untied her hands, and turned around, warning her not to go “too far away”.

The survivor pulled off her blindfold, walking a short distance away. “When I saw that their backs were towards me, I somehow…I don’t know how…managed to roll off the hill,” she said.

At the base of the hill, on the main road, an autorickshaw – belonging to a Muslim man – was passing by. The driver saw her, stopped his auto, and helped her into the vehicle. “I was in no condition to even stand,” she said.

By then, she said, the men could see her escaping and they ran down the hill shooting. “The auto managed to speed away,” she said.

She was first taken to a police station, where officers asked her to wait for the officer in-charge. But feeling uncomfortable since all the men in the police station were Meitei, she decided to leave with the auto driver, who dropped her to New Checkon, where some members of the Kuki community who were still in Imphal managed to receive her.

For the next two days, she took refuge in the home of a former Kuki legislator from the Bharatiya Janata Party, TT Haokip, a fact confirmed by his wife, Mary Haokip.

Worrying for her life, the 19-year-old said she did not go to a hospital, instead choosing to be treated with first aid at the Haokips’ house. She remembers her ears were bleeding, her eyes bloodshot, her body covered in bruises, her face swollen. “I could not even chew or swallow food,” she said.

Mary Haokip, now in Churachandpur, said she “fed and nursed” the girl. “I have no words to describe the condition,” said Haokip. “She could not even walk up the stairs, she could not eat for two days. We were wondering how to send her to her parents, then finally we managed to arrange it.”

On May 20, the survivor was able to make it to the relief camp in Kangpokpi district, where her family had taken shelter.

She was then taken to a hospital in Kangpokpi district, which referred her to another hospital in the neighbouring state of Nagaland, after preliminary medical care.

A report signed by the medical officer of the Naga Hospital Authority, Kohima, dated May 24, which Scroll independently verified, describes her diagnosis as “alleged case of assault and rape”. Under the case summary, it reads: “Assault and rape on 15/05/23 during the Manipur tribal clash.”

Two months later, the survivor said she still remembers the faces of her assaulters. The family considered filing a police complaint, but then got scared and decided against it. She said she was not sure if the complaint was ultimately filed.

Scroll visited two police stations, Kangpokpi and Sapormeina, but no record of this case was found.

The survivor said she has lost touch with all her Meitei friends. “Some of them found my mother’s number and even asked to talk to me but I cannot bring myself to take their calls – I simply can’t forget what they [Meiteis] did to me – I cannot ever go back home to Imphal,” she said.

These days, her mother tells her to be strong. “She tells me that she has heard that there are other girls who suffered similar experiences. I should be strong for them,” she said.

A day after Scroll published this account, the young woman submitted a police complaint, alleging rape. A first information report has been filed.

Survivors: 19-year-old and 20-year-old
Currently in: Churachandpur district with their families
Date of incident: May 4, a nursing institute in Imphal

On the afternoon of May 4, panic spread among the residents of a girls’ hostel of a nursing institute in Imphal’s Porompat, when a mob started clanging the gates of their hostel.

As the students watched from the windows, the mob – comprising both men and women – managed to enter.

Two Kuki women – one, a first-year student aged 19 and the other, a second year-student aged 20 –were caught by the mob, thrashed and “left to die” by the side of the road outside their hostel, till a police car picked them up and took them to a hospital.

Both have filed separate police complaints: the 19-year-old in Uttam Nagar police station in Delhi, and the 20-year-old in Churachandpur police station in Manipur. The latter has been registered as an FIR under charges of attempt to murder and outraging the modesty of a woman, among others – and forwarded to Porompat police station in Imphal. Uttam Nagar police station officials said they had forwarded the complaint to the office of the director-general of police, Manipur, on May 30. But the Porampat police station in Imphal said they had not received the complaint.

“Some radical mobs belonging to the Meitei community armed with sophisticated weapons…chanting anti-tribal slogans…barged into my hostel room and dragged me onto the road,” the 20-year-old wrote in her complaint, adding: “I was harassed, abused, tortured and beaten.”

The 19-year-old wrote that the mob accused her of being an “illegal immigrant from another country” and started beating her “brutally”. “They left me to die on the street,” she wrote in her complaint.

More than two months later, in their homes in Churachandpur, the women are still trying to come to terms with the assault. The two meet sometimes, but they never talk about the incident.

Scroll met them in their homes, where they, separately, recounted the incident in detail.

According to the 20-year-old, the mobs arrived a little after 4 pm – a fact confirmed to Scroll by a member of the hostel staff, a Meitei woman who lives in Imphal.

Two women, who were part of the mob, entered the hostel demanding identification cards of all students.

The hostel had a mix of women from the Meitei, Naga and Kuki communities. “There were eight Kukis – six of them had managed to hide in one part of the hostel, but my senior and I were not able to,” said the 19-year-old.

The 20-year-old said she tried telling the woman checking identity cards that she was Naga, to which the woman responded: “That’s okay – we are looking only for Kuki girls.”

However, when they were forced to reveal their identity cards, the mob realised that both were Kuki.

The 19-year-old said that a senior member of the institute’s staff, a Meitei woman, tried to reason with the mob, but to no avail.

The mob downstairs was getting even more agitated and shouting for the two women to be brought down. “What are you still doing there? Bring them out, bring them out,” the mob shouted, the 19-year-old recalled. Following which, the two were forced down outside the hostel onto the main road.

Downstairs, the two girls were trashed side-by-side. The senior member of the institute’s staff witnessed this in a state of helplessness, the 19-year-old recalled.

“I really tried to plead with the mob – but I just could not help them. I was so helpless,” the senior member of the institute’s staff told Scroll.

The 19-year-old remembers crying helplessly, as the mob kicked and punched her. Both the survivors said that the women themselves did not beat them, but incited the mob: “Why are you still keeping them alive? Rape them, cut their bodies into pieces and burn them alive,” a woman allegedly shouted.

“They beat me so much with their bare hands that I fell to the ground. They were beating my senior by my side. I don’t know what exactly happened to her but I was aware that she was being beaten badly,” the 19-year-old said.

The 20-year-old was punched “so hard” that three of her front teeth fell out. At her home in Churachandpur, touching her dental implants with the tip of a finger, she said her injuries are somewhat better. But her lips are still visibly swollen, even two months later.

“I still remember the face of the woman who shouted ‘Rape them, cut their bodies into pieces and burn them alive’,” she said. The 19-year-old said that it was especially “painful” to hear women utter such words. “‘I’m sure she [the woman who said those words] also has a daughter,” she said.

The two women were then asked by the mob to walk a little distance away. “By that time, there was blood flowing down, from my shirt to my chappals,” said the 19-year-old.

According to her, the mob was armed with stones, knives and even guns. “As we were walking, one guy pointed his gun at us. But another man told him that it was not the right time, and he put it down,” she said.

Then, the two were beaten again – and both fell unconscious thereafter. The next time they woke up they were in a hospital. Later, the 19-year-old was flown to Delhi and admitted to the intensive care unit of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences’s trauma centre. The 20-year-old was evacuated to an army hospital in Imphal, and later the district hospital in Churachandpur. The 19-year-old came back to her home in Churachandpur at the end of May. “I am better, but for days, I felt dizzy and nauseous,” she said.

Scroll spoke to a Meitei member of the hostel staff, who confirmed the incident. “These girls were not just students, they were like my children. I feel so bad that I could not do anything to save them,” she said.

Survivors: 44-year-old and 21-year-old
Currently at: A relief camp in Churachandpur district, and in Tengnoupal district, respectively.
Date of incident: May 4, near B Phainom in Kangpokpi district

When they heard that the Meitei mobs were “burning homes” in a nearby village on May 4, the residents of B Phainom began to pack their bags. Among them was a 44-year-old woman, the wife of the village chief. While most families had left, she and her neighbours were slightly delayed.

But they managed to escape. In the nick of time, both families hid in a forested path just a short distance from their home. As they hid, they could hear the rioters beat the gong of their village church. From a distance, they saw their homes being burnt. “But there was enough foliage to conceal us,” said the woman.

However, the mobs discovered them: their group split into two, and before her eyes, her neighbours, a 56-year-old man and his 19-year-old son, were lynched. The mob then turned their attention to their daughter, 21, and the woman herself. They were subsequently paraded naked by the mob, and groped – the graphic visuals of which have gone viral on the internet.

The 21-year-old got married soon after the incident, and now lives in Tengnoupal. The older woman, now a resident of a crowded relief camp in Churachandpur, narrated her story to Scroll on a July evening.

After being discovered, the men began to assault them, even as some [Meitei] men expressed their discomfort with hitting the women. “They were the nicer ones… some actually said, ‘Let’s not hit the women.’ But most in the mob did not care – they punched us, pulled our hair and beat us up badly,” she said.

In the vicinity, she said, there was a police vehicle. While three of them (she, the 21-year-old girl and her 19-year-old brother) got into it, the father was pulled away and lynched.

“We did not see how exactly they did it but we knew they had killed him,” she said, adding that they asked the policeman to start the vehicle to help them escape.

“In the beginning, the policeman did not move the vehicle,” she said. But just as he started the engine, the mob gathered around them. The three of them were pulled out and separated: the young boy was dragged away to the area in the paddy field where his father was killed. At a distance, she saw him being hit with a big stick, and he collapsed – on the body of his dead father.

In the meanwhile, the mob surrounded the two women, ordering them to strip. “When we resisted, they punched us and forcefully tried to pull off our clothes,” she said. The men warned the women: “If you don’t take off your clothes, we will kill you”.

The woman said she had no choice but to take off every item of clothing only in order to “protect herself”.

All the while, the men allegedly slapped and punched her. She could sense her neighbour in the vicinity, but she did not know what exactly was happening to her.

The woman was then dragged to a paddy field near the road, as the mob accompanied her. There, she was asked to lie down. “Three men surrounded me… two on the side, one right in front of me. One of them told the other, ‘Let’s rape her’, but ultimately they did not,” she said. “But they did grab my breasts – twice,” she said.

The woman recalled her assaulters telling her that “Kukis had raped Meitei women in Churachandpur, that they had killed a Meitei child” and that they were taking “revenge”.

The men subsequently left her in the field, and soon after another group of Meitei men came and gave her their clothes.

She headed to the spot near the police vehicle, when she was waylaid by another mob, who made her strip again. Later, she said, another group of men came, some of those who had expressed discomfort about attacking women, and gave her her clothes back.

Her neighbour – the 21-year-old – appeared by her side again. Both of them collected their clothes, and escaped to a village nearby.

She said she did not file a complaint herself.

But a relative did. Based on the complaint, the police said a zero FIR was registered in the Saikul police station of Kangpokpi district on May 18. The first information report mentions her age as 42. It also says that the 21-year-old woman was “brutally gang-raped in broad daylight”. A third woman, who was with the two women, was also forced to strip. An official at the Saikul police station said charges of rape and murder, among others, have been pressed against “unknown miscreants” numbering “800-1,000”.

More than two months after the incident, the 44-year-old said she did what they told her to only to keep herself alive. “I am anyway a married woman…I was helpless in front of a mob,” she said in a quiet voice.

Close to the relief camp, living with her relatives, the mother of the 21-year-old is beside herself with grief. She tried to narrate the incident, as told to her by the daughter, but broke down.

After the incident, her daughter’s boyfriend offered to marry her, she said. “She is now with him in another district… she is away from all this,” she said.

As for the 44-year-old wife of the village chief, she said it was important to recount her ordeal in front of the media, even if she was exhausted.

“Everyone should know what happened to us,” the 44-year-old said, adding: “But despite what happened, I want to say all Meiteis are not bad…There were actually some men who tried to help me.”

The Girl Who Chases Time

This article won the PoleStar Foundation's Excellence in Journalism Award 2019, and was originally published in The Indian Express in July 2018.
For most of her life, Hima Das has faced life’s challenges by running. She has run in rage and joy, after brawls and victories, and as if her life depended on it. The story of a young athlete from a village in Assam who won’t stop, not till she has outrun the clock.

Hima Das never cries. But last week she did. Twice. The first time, silently, and in public, while millions watched her standing on the winner’s deck in Tampere, Finland, as the notes of the Indian national anthem played in the background. The second time, she bawled. This was the morning after her record-making victory, in the privacy of her hostel room.

The night before Hima had slept fitfully. When she woke up and checked her phone, she had gone viral. In this emotionally charged moment, the otherwise hardboiled Hima, picked up the phone and dialled Assam. On the other end was her coach, a nonplussed Nipon Das, who had never seen or heard her like this. “What’s wrong, are you okay?” he asked, as she sobbed uncontrollably.

A few days later, Hima gave an exclusive primetime interview to Prag News, a popular local Assamese news channel, from Finland. When asked about this rare spectacle of emotion, she giggled, embarrassedly and said, “Automatic ahi gol (The tears were spontaneous)”.

Actions like crying and emotions like fear and sadness aren’t typically Hima Das things. Though throwing your arms open before a camera and shouting “Mon jai”, is. Speaking a language you barely know without caring that you don’t, is. Taking to task boys who annoy you, or anyone else for that matter, is. And, of course, running like your life depends on it, is.

“I don’t think I even understand the full meaning of athletics. Sometimes I feel I don’t know even know how to run,” says Hima, earphones strung around her neck, fiddling with the drawstring of her hooded grey T-shirt. It’s early July and we are sitting on the stands of Guwahati’s Sarusajai Stadium, the athletic tracks on which a little over a year ago Hima had landed for her first training camp, straight from the pothaars (fields) of her village Kandhulimari in Dhing.

How does she do it then? Hima shrugs, points upwards, and says, “It’s just ‘god gift’.” Ten days after the interview, Hima clocks 51.46 seconds at the womens’ 400 m final at the IAAF World Under 20 Championship 2018, in Tampere, creating history as the first Indian woman to win a gold on track at a global event — not even two years since she started professional training.

***

In its history, Dhing has been in the national news on two occasions. In March, in one of its remoter villages, a 11-year-old minor girl was raped and set on fire. The next month, Dhing hit headlines again, this time in sporting circuits. The girl who had trained in its lush green rice fields had made it to the 400m womens’ finals of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Australia’s Gold Coast. She came sixth, after clocking her personal best of 51.32 seconds on an international track. The Dhing Express — as Hima soon came to be called by her swelling fan club in Assam — had arrived.

“I didn’t feel bad,” says Hima, “In fact, I danced a lot right after the CWG got over. My coach had told me to ‘go enjoy’. So I did ‘full enjoy’.” In a clipping from that evening, Hima can be seen dancing with abandon outside the stadium, oblivious to the cameras that panned in on her.

Back at her village in Kandhulimari, about 200 people had gathered in the porch of her house to see her run. A projector and a screen had been set up. A traditional Assamese band with dhul and pepa had been called. Minutes before the race, the power went off and Kandhulimari plunged into darkness. “But we had arranged for a generator, and, ultimately, we did get to see her run,” says Hima’s sister, 15-year-old Rinti. Last week, when Hima won the gold in Finland, the power played spoilsport again, and the family missed watching their Hima accept her medal.

But this is the reality of small-town Assam — an accepted fate where electricity doesn’t return for hours on end, where floods are regular, and phone networks not. The day after she won her first international gold, as media, relatives and friends milled around her house, Hima called her cousin, Joy Das, several times to speak to the family, but every time the network would drop. “There is something up with the connectivity today,” Joy says, standing at the edge of the paddy field where Hima’s father works everyday, waving around his phone, trying to catch the best angle for network. It doesn’t work.

In the small group of people that plays a role in keeping Hima connected to Assam as she travels around the world, Joy is the messenger who sets up a video call between her and her parents every other day. Hima’s father Ranjit, a farmer, who was a fast runner himself, doesn’t own a phone with those features. Jonali, her mother, doesn’t own a phone at all.

***

Hima grew up in a joint family of 17. Among her siblings and cousins, she was the one who stood out, the one who did things differently. When she was 15, she gathered the local village women and disrupted an illicit bootlegging business by one of her neighbours. The next day, the young man involved stood in front of Hima’s house and started shouting, “No one can stop me from selling alcohol”. Hima promptly went, picked him up and gave him a few solid swipes. The boy’s family lodged an FIR against Hima’s father, who, till very recently, would appear in court for this case.

Then again, she spent most of her early teen years pestering Joy to let her play football with the guys. “Even if I wasn’t a part of the game, I’d wait behind the goal. When the ball would come near me, I’d give it one solid kick and run off before they could see me,” says Hima.

Another time, when a local girls’ football tournament was underway at Dhing, she went to her father. “Get me to play,” she had begged him. “Yet at other times, when she was much younger, she would tell me how she would one day fly on an airplane, and maybe even visit a foreign land,” says Ranjit, “But I would tell her. For those things, Hima, you need to study well, you need to play well.”

Hima took her father’s words to heart. Later, as she raced around tracks across the world, she would discuss her timings and techniques with him. And her father would wonder to himself, how his daughter’s dreams had suddenly become a reality. Her mother, who says she didn’t understand the sport for very long, would worry about Hima’s safety and well-being. “When she first wanted to move to Guwahati, I did not want her to go,” she says. For Jonali Das, who rarely ever moves out of her tiny village in Dhing, Guwahati is a big city, rife with gondogul (trouble).

“But I would tell Ma that she shouldn’t worry, that very few things scare me,” says Hima, “And that I could always run off, even if they did.”

Because, running, for Hima, is second nature. She ran, in a fit of rage, when in Class III, a Tata Sumo — filled with village kids — was “too full” to accommodate her on a ride to school. She ran again, this time from her mother, when she reached home the same day, hair tousled and knees bruised from the fall that had resulted from her Sumo chase. And she continued running with steadfast determination — in tracks across Assam, in coaching camps in Patiala and Sonepat, and even in the rare races where she performed so poorly that she “wanted to give up midway”.

***

It’s perhaps because of the Assam’s politically sensitive history, its long fight to maintain its indigenous identity, it’s desire to be noticed by the mainland, that catapults its celebrities, be it sportsmen, actors or musicians, to legend-like status. The last big athlete Assam produced was Bhogeswar Baruah, who won a gold medal in the 800-m running event of the 1966 Asian Games. National attention to this part of the country is rare, and when a Bhupen Hazarika, a Zubeen Garg or a Hima Das emerges, Assam celebrates with fanatic obsession.

Hima’s last visit to Kandhulimari, in the first week of July, lasted less than 24 hours. About 2,000 people had gathered to see her. “Everyone wanted to meet her but she gave us time,” says Pinak Jyoti Bora, one of her closest friends. Bora met Hima a couple years ago when she was appointed the game secretary by the All Assam Student Union’s Dhing chapter. It was then that she also met Palash, Bhaskar, Bidanta, Rezaul, Jitu and Nayan. Soon, the eight of them became fast friends, who in their ripped jeans and shades, would play carrom, ride around their bikes, and basically “do mojja” (have fun). “But what really brought us together was Zubeen da. We are true Zubeen premis,” says Bhaskar. In Assam — urban or rural — the music of the outspoken, and often controversial, singer Zubeen Garg binds the populace in unprecedented ways. “Hima even led a bike rally for Zubeen da’s movie, Mission China,” adds Bhaskar.

In 2017, Hima went to meet Garg in Guwahati as part of a fan club visit. “She came to me as a fan, left as friend,” says Garg, “I realised that she was a khatra bostu(dangerous thing) the day I met her.” Garg, who sees himself in Hima, often gives her advice about life. Just last week, when Garg expressed in public “how Hima should eat beef for strength”, it stirred up a controversy in Assam. “You think she will conquer the world on chicken soup?” Garg says, “For sport, you need to leave your jaati, dharma and bhagwan.” Right before she boarded her flight to Finland, Hima met up with Garg in Delhi. The selfie they took went viral in Assam afterwards.

Even when abroad, far from the paddy fields of Dhing, thoughts of home keep Hima centred. Minutes after her victory in Finland, as the Tricolour is handed to her, so is the traditional Assamese gamusa. A panting Hima tells a reporter, pointing at the scarf around her neck, “This is my state’s tradition.” Her now-famous catchphrase, “Mon jai”, which in Assamese, means “I feel like”, is Hima’s way of acknowledging her roots. “There is something nice about saying an Assamese phrase outside,” says Hima, adding, “Even back when I played football in Assam, too, I would throw open my arms and maaro a mon jai after every goal.”

Today, “mon jai” is a hashtag she generously uses in all her social media posts, but if you delve deeper, it is so much more. It’s the name of her favourite song by her favourite Zubeen da, it’s her unfailing determination in her weakest moments, it’s her fearlessness and confidence, but, more importantly, it’s her way of describing anything she holds dear — a pet rabbit, a picture of her parents, or the Whatsapp group with her gang of seven.

“We talk every day on the Mon Jai group about sport, music, food, but we also talk about important things. I know they have my back,” says Hima. Before she enters the Asian Games in Jakarta next month, her friends, too, are planning to streak their hair blonde Hima Das style. “She keeps asking us if we have done it,” says Bora. A few weeks ago Bhaskar gave it a test run. “But the colour turned out all wrong! Then I had to put Super Vasmol 33 Kesh Kala (a colouring agent) on it to get my original colour back,” he says. That incident made Hima laugh herself silly.

Talking like boys, acting like boys, hanging out with boys — did tongues ever wag in the conservative village of Kandhulimari as Hima grew up? “Let’s not get into that,” sighs Hima, “Let’s just say, my mind is different. My attitude is different. And no one understands me the way my friends do.”

***

On her last visit to Assam, Hima was felicitated by the state’s Governor in Guwahati’s Raj Bhavan. In this closed-door by-invitation-only private ceremony, Hima sat next to the Governor. And as the men and women from various ministries of the government discussed her diet, her passion, style, and her in-born talent, Hima remained unusually quiet.

Or so you would think. Across the table, Hima was in the middle of a roaring non-verbal conversation of her own. She would wink surreptitiously and show the thumbs up sign, when she thought no one was watching. These signs were directed at the two men who were sitting diagonally across her: her coaches Nipon Das and Nabajit Malakar.

Later, she admits, “It’s like the three of us have the same heart. Like, I can tell you right now what’s going in their heads.” Das and Malakar spotted Hima during a trial camp in Guwahati in January 2017. “I didn’t even know her name, but I knew her as the girl who would keep calling me about hostel accommodation for new entrants to the camp,” recalls Das, “I ended up saving her number as ‘Trial Camp’ and whenever ‘Trial Camp’ flashed on my phone, I knew it was that girl calling about accommodation.”

But, slowly, Das couldn’t help notice that there was something different about Hima. “It was the way she did her exercises, the way she ran — that energy was something else,” says Das. The next month Hima competed in her first national competition, Khelo India in Gujarat. “She won the bronze medal in 100 m and clocked in a timing of 12.42 seconds,” says Malakar, “We asked her to come train with us in Guwahati.”

“I told them ‘moi ready Sir’ and I packed my bags and moved to a one-roomed rented accommodation in Guwahati,” says Hima. Those were the tough days: money was a problem, spikes were a problem, the leaky roof of her tiny room was a problem. “When I came to Guwahati, I knew nothing. I didn’t know how to wash clothes or cook, I was never into household chores. I hated all that. But I loved running,” she says.

And that made the difference. “She was supremely dedicated. No matter what she went through the night before, she would be at the tracks every morning, on time,” says Malakar. Over the past year, Das and Malakar have become Hima’s strongest support system, they are the people she texts every single day, whichever part of the world she is in.

***

During her first few games across the national sporting circuit, Hima became famous as the girl from Assam. She would wear her shades, her patchy jeans, tie her hanky around her knee — “and walk around bindaas, completely ‘yo’ type,” says Malakar, who continues to tease Hima about that. After her first trip abroad to Bangkok, where she had gone to compete in the second Asian Youth Athletics Championships, the streak of blonde in her hair became more pronounced. “We asked her — ‘What on earth have you done to your hair?’,” says Malakar. To which, Hima had said, “Sir, just you wait, this will become a trend one day.”

Her relationship with her coaches has been the cornerstone of Hima’s discipline. Before heading into a race, Hima always gives them a rough estimate of how she will fare. “And rarely has she been off the mark,” says Das. In November 2017, when Hima got selected to train in the Senior India Camp in Patiala, Russian Olympic bronze medallist Olympian, Galina Bukharina, took over as Hima’s coach.“It’s true Hima still speaks to us every day about her sport , but we do not interfere with how Galina ma’am is guiding her,” says Das.

Hima is very close to her “Galina ma’am” too. They communicate in English, a language that does not come naturally to her, but that’s hardly a deterrent for someone like Hima. On the sidelines of athletic tracks, she interacts with reporters with disarming aplomb, her Assamese conversation is peppered with English words, and she listens to English songs even if she, by her own admission, “doesn’t understand all the lyrics.”

“Before a public appearance, she sometimes jokes to me ‘English mari diu niki?’ (Shall I wing it in English?),” says Malakar, who adds that Hima always mentions them both at every opportunity she gets. “She once told me, ‘If I am going to fly, I am not going to fly alone. I am going to make you fly with me.’”

***

On Thursday night as Hima created history in Finland, in his small home in Assam’s Morigaon district, a man name Md Shamsul Hoque shed tears of joy. “I had to keep replaying the video because I was weeping so much,” he says. In 2012, Hoque was a physical education teacher at the Navodaya Vidyalaya in Nagaon. In one of the inter-school camps, which included yoga programmes, PT sessions, “lozenge” races and dodgeball, Hoque noticed a girl who would reach before practice started, sometimes even when the gates were closed. “In the ten days that followed, the girl went on to win all the races we had organised,” says Hoque, who then called up the Nagaon Sports Association and informed them about Hima. “This girl can run. Invest in her,” he told the authorities.

It’s Hoque’s intervention that got Hima into athletics, who, till then, was playing football in local tournaments around Assam. After her first national medal, Hima came back to Nagaon, and went straight to Navodaya Vidyalaya, and strung it around Hoque’s neck.

Before her Finland game, too, Hima called up Hoque, as she does all her coaches, to seek his blessings. In the race that followed — the one that got the world to sit up and take notice — every one talks about Hima’s sudden burst in the last 100 m stretch where she shot ahead like a catapult. But this trend of judiciousness in the beginning followed by mad speed in the last stretch is fast becoming Hima’s style. “Even in the game before the Finland one, in Guwahati, it was in the last 60 metres that she caught up and passed her opponents,” says Das.

Time and again, Hima has insisted that what she cares about is timing, not medals, not laurels, not world rankings. “The only thing I fear is time. I am not running after gold medals, I am running after time. And once I get that, gold medals will run after me,” she says. Currently, Hima’s personal best on a domestic track for 400m is 51.13 seconds, which she clocked in Guwahati’s Sarusajai Stadium in June. A few days later when we meet in the same stadium, she admits “When I am on track, I am a different person.” Between the squatting on the starting block and the shot of the starting pistol, Hima hears nothing, sees nothing. “All I know is that I need to run,” she says. “The people around me could be Olympian gold medalists. But I don’t take tension. If I do, how will I run my race?”

Neither is she distracted by the 9,000 posters of her that dotted Guwahati on that visit. “My father once told me: ‘Don’t let fame get to your head. The day you do, it will be the end’,” she says, adding that the posters, instead of making her feel grand and self-important, makes her feel “nervous but motivated.”

At her aggressive best, and only to her closest friends, Hima is known to use an Assamese colloquialism “Phali dim” which loosely translates to “I will own it/I will conquer it”. She types it out on the Mon Jai Whatsapp group before she heads into a race, she whispers it into Malakar’s ear before she speaks at a public function, she says it to herself in her head before any reporter asks her for a byte in English. The magical bit about Hima Das is that right after she says it, she actually does it.

 

Prove Your Identity

This “prove your identity” is one sign on one barricade in Karimganj, on the Assam-Bangladesh border. In Assam, this is a demand being made everywhere as a bruising NRC exercise coincides with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, that has prised open a Barak Valley-Brahmaputra Valley split. So is being Assamese about language, religion, ethinicity, or citizenship?

The day after monsoon hit the Northeast, Nyuti Roy, her brother Gourango Das and mother Adarmani Das sit at their teashop in South Assam’s Borai Basti village. As Adarmani (85), suffering from a chronic nerve disorder, crawls on all fours to disappear indoors, Nyuti gathers a sheaf of documents in a folder.

“It was raining when we got the notice from the (Foreigners’) Tribunal too,” Nyuti recalls, “That’s why we missed the dates. Once, because we did not understand what they wanted. Twice, because we had no way to go. And thrice, because my father was in too much pain.” As a result, in April, Nyuti’s father, the 101-year-old Chandrahar Das, landed up in Silchar Central Jail, “a declared foreigner” by the Foreigners’ Tribunal, one of 100 in Assam under the Foreigners (Tribunal) Order, 1964, for not having valid documents.

On June 28, after spending three months in detention, the ailing Das finally made it home, with instructions to appear before the Tribunal next on July 4.

Nyuti fails to understand why this is happening to them. “My father came to India because of the killings in Bangladesh. He crossed over to Tripura sometime in the 1950s,” she says.

Das’s family falls under the ambit of the “persecuted Hindu Bengali minority” community from Bangladesh — whom the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced by the Modi government, is aiming to protect. The controversial Bill is an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, and proposes to grant citizenship rights to all “persecuted” religious minorities (barring Muslims) from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, the Bill comes at a time when the state’s same Bengali-speaking population (including Hindus, perceived as Bangladeshis and hence outsiders) is on tenterhooks over an ongoing process to put together a National Register of Citizens(NRC).

In a state cleaved along religious, linguistic lines, and bruised by the long-drawn NRC process, the citizenship Bill has drawn another line in sands bloodied by the region’s history. In Assam’s larger battle to retain its identity, it has now prised open the divide between its Bengali-majority Barak Valley and its Assamese-majority Brahmaputra Valley.

Das’s village of Borai Basti is about 30 km — but nearly 2 hours — from Silchar, the unofficial entry point into the Barak Valley from the Brahmaputra side. But it’s not the citizenship Bill that their family lawyer, Soumen Choudhury, is banking on. He hopes Das will benefit from “notifications” made to two other laws — Foreigners Act and Passport (Entry of India) Act.

Befuddled by all these legislations that apply to one 101-year-old, the Das family says they have never heard of the citizenship Bill, and are surprised that the final NRC list may come out soon. Nyuti says she doesn’t know what to tell her father. “He was tossed around from jail to hospital to jail, and asks what is happening. I do not have answers.”

About the NRC, she adds, “I didn’t know what it meant until my father was picked up. Now I know you become an Indian citizen if you are in the NRC.”

What does being an Indian citizen mean to Nyuti? “Maybe it means they will give us an Aadhaar card,” she says.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in July 2018. Full article here.

Brick and Mortal


People make a space, but a space — the lack or excess of it, the perception or the memory of it — makes people, too

The apartment was on the 22nd floor of a building that came with a carpeted foyer, an elevator with a liftman who saluted the puffy-haired ladies who rode them, and a furry resident Labrador named Mango. The building was neither on a dingy Shantaram-esque lane off Colaba Causeway, nor in the darker turns of Cuffe Parade. On this road, where the apartment stood tall, trees grew high into the sky above.

A forlorn monitor from the 1990s was placed near the cupboard. “No other PG in the city comes with a TV, madam,” Rajan, my broker, offered by way of explanation. The landlord, a bespectacled Parsi man with a headmasterly disposition, lived within the flat, too. The Wi-Fi, he warned, was strictly for email, “not movies and YouTube.”

It was one of those pre-monsoon dusks in Mumbai, when the only respite to the sapping humidity is a glimpse of the fiery orange sky above. Through the window, I could see the harbour, where boats bobbed up and down. Among the gothic gabled roofs, stood one majestic dome.

“I’ll take it.”

***

In the months that followed, my “home” became a conversation starter in a city I knew no one in. “I live in a room the size of a train compartment” or “My refrigerator is so small, I can buy only three tomatoes at a go.” But Mumbai is small, and buying groceries in limited quantities is actually a lesson in how not to waste.

I did my bit to make my house a home though — yellow bedspread, blue curtains, fairy lights and a softboard with photographs: everything that would make my British editor at the magazine I worked for grimace and say “design disaster!”

I worked for a publishing house where nothing in the world was as offensive as scruffiness. The magazine I wrote for published beautiful spreads of beautiful homes. By day, I would visit the houses of the rich, who thought they were famous. Holiday homes with infinity pools. Joint family homes with two pools — one to dip their feet in, one to swim in.

By night, I would struggle to write about them in a room smaller than the walk-in closet I had just visited. I knew nothing about design, but soon I learned how to play with words —light-filled, art-filled, cantilevered, slatted, louvred, and my favourite: “an oasis of calm in a sea of storm”. In interviews, when architects would use words like “mullions” and “chamfer”, I’d nod like I understood. When they would reference the unpronounceable names of other — usually French — architects, I’d nod even more fervently. “Yes, yes,” while carefully sliding my fingers over my notebook, to hide how I’d spell them. Pierre John Ray, did she say?

“I can’t do this,” I complained to my father over the phone one day, “I can’t relate to it.”

“What do you want to write about then?”

“People! Not doors, windows, tables and chairs!”

“People make a space, you know.”

***

“Buildings are not dead boxes,” I remembered reading BV Doshi famously say. I had been missing the forest for the trees. I slowly began to look for the maker, and not just the made, the lived rather than the living space.

Homes took different forms. I saw homes of different shapes (including one designed like a spaceship), spurred on by a range of emotions: kindness (the lady from Tokyo who built a home for her weavers in Uttarakhand), conviction (the London-return architect who made a house for his farmer parents in rural Maharashtra), acceptance (the circumspect parents who began living there), and love (the young mother who asked her architect to design a house large enough for her grandchildren’s children, too.)

During an interview, a Japanese architect told me of a bartender he had once met while backpacking across Japan. The man spent his life on a bunk bed: a laptop was fixed on the ceiling above, his utensils lay under, and his clothes occupied the foot of his bed. That evening at home after work, I looked around at my room. My cosmetics shared shelf-space with onions and potatoes. And, in a drawer, bottles of turmeric, salt and pepper were lined neatly beside my stationery. Under my bed was a tub of utensils. And the top of my fridge became a counter for books, bananas, keys and spare change.

Small spaces are uncomfortable — when you come home from a bad day at work, few sights are bleaker than onions and potatoes near a bottle of lotion. But small spaces are also good teachers. They instil in you a sense of order, and an understanding of what you really need. I did not need Marie Kondo to tell me that I needed to cut the clutter.

The stamp of approval that mattered came when my mother visited me in Mumbai. During the day, we visited dargahs and museums and argued whether Bandstand was better than Marine Drive; while, at night, my mother would lay a paati (an Assamese bamboo mat) in the space between the foot of my bed and cupboard. There was space for everything but a mess.

Over the months, my room had become a space I could call my own — where I ate, slept, read, wrote, laughed, cried and watched reruns of Friends on a monitor that was bought in 1995. My design sense had matured (my editor would be proud), and I flipped the college-kid fairy lights for a lampshade that cast a moody glow. On evenings, I would hear the Parsi landlord begin his daily karaoke session (it did not take long for his youthful exuberance to overtake his headmasterly pretensions), and I would look out of my window for my Mumbai moment: at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, its contemporary extension metres away, at the Yacht Club beyond, and the outline of the Gateway of India.

***

Two years later, I moved back to Assam with a job where I could finally write about real people. But here again, I find myself writing about homes, albeit of a different kind — homes that are quickly put together with bamboo and tarpaulin, homes that are destroyed as quickly by the wrath of a whimsical river, homes that have become tangible markers of identity in a land that is in the midst of a controversial citizen-counting exercise.

In the floods that ravaged Assam in July, I met a family who refused to be rescued. “Why should we leave our home?” they told me, as murky waters of an overflowing Brahmaputra swivelled around their bed. “The waters will recede tomorrow, but this will always be home.”

Back home, outside my window, the iconic architecture of a colonial Mumbai has been replaced by the rolling hills of Guwahati, where houses poke out of hill-tops, and birds chirp in unison with honking cars and chugging trains. A town raring to be a city, and stumbling along the way.

I am back in the room I spent my teenage years in, twice the size of my Mumbai flat. I open my cupboard and my clothes tumble out. My shoes are all over the place. Every flat surface is occupied.

“But you were so neat in Mumbai,” my mother often laments.

People make a space, but a space — the lack or excess of it, the perception or the memory of it — makes people, too.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in November 2019.

Come, Meet the Little Prince

If you were the youngest in a pack of cousins, summer holidays were the best of times and the worst of times. Till you discovered a library of old books.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince first came to me on the summer after I turned eight. We were, of course, at our grandparents’ sprawling home in Tezpur that July. What is it about summer and grandparents and sprawling homes? One must find out. The house my grandfather built was large. It had books whose owners they had long parted with. It had a chimney and a fireplace, by which potatoes were roasted, toes were warmed and one too many whiskies drunk on winter nights. It had a creaky old billiards table, old hunting guns and a staircase with a banister its younger inhabitants had slid down at least once in their lives. Over the years, it got larger. Rooms were added. Balconies were extended. Two people could be living in it, or 20 – you wouldn’t know the difference.

There we were that summer of 1998 -10 cousins, the best of friends, up to the worst of shenanigans. At eight, I was the youngest of the lot, and the rest of the pack – some angsty teenagers, some wise adults – were busy growing up. Being the youngest meant being loved, bullied, left out and included, all at the same time. In the Dickensian scheme of things, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

On more than one occasion, when I was deemed too young for the wolf-pack, I’d walk down the stairs with my father, blinking back tears, leaving the nine of them to do whatever kids growing up did. I would wonder, tossing and turning in bed for hours. What did they do? Were secrets the only thing passed around? Or were there cigarettes too? The god-fearing, morally correct eight-year-old in me certainly hoped not.

But the night was young, the doors were closed, and the rest of the rambling house was asleep. It was then that I found Exupéry. Or should I say Exupéry found me? I obsessed over the thin novel for weeks, examining each yellowing page with curious attention. Never quite grasping its intricate dimensions, but trying very hard to. Often, on yet another re-read, I’d trace my finger across a note written in a scrawling hand on the first page, not by Exupéry, not by my father who it belonged to, but by a friend who gifted it to him back in 1969, when he was a young student in America, then in the throes of a hippie counterculture. I tried to decipher the note for weeks, and years later, too. Much cajoling would never make my father speak – he has this frustrating habit of underplaying anything which could be remotely exciting.

On a later read, I realised The Little Prince was really not meant for a child. Re-reading it as an adult told me a different story altogether. But Exupéry’s fine-lined drawings (of the elephant inside the boa which was obviously not just an old hat) reassured an eight-year-old that being grown up – what I wanted most right then – was stupid.

A couple of summers later, a prince of another kind dominated my dreams. I read my first Harry Potter book when I was 10: mild interest turned into a serious love into a fanatic obsession. When I was 16, I knew this was no ordinary love, and it had to be immortalised. And for reasons best known to my 16-year-old self, I chose my shoulder to do so. Today, the first question strangers ask me, pointing at a blue bolt of lighting and a scatter of scars on my left shoulder, is: “So, what does your tattoo signify?” I usually laugh and look away. But there’s a lot left unsaid – a four poster bed to lie down in when you had a pathetic day at school, a few pints of warm butterbeer when you’re nursing your first heartbreak, and an urge to conquer a noseless Dark Lord, when you feel the world needed more good than evil. Today, I wear my tattoo like a badge of honour – it’s discoloured, faded and old but so are the best books in the world. Yet, we still display them high up on our bookshelves, with old airline boarding passes pressed as bookmarks between the pages. A book has two stories to tell – its own and yours.

Books read are like lives lived, lives you care not to remember now. It’s been eight years since I moved away from home. And on every visit, I examine my floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, and phases of my life come rushing back to me. The embarrassing teen romance book phase when I was 13. I devoured all the Princess Diaries and Babysitter’s Clubs, scratching out names of the protagonists’ love interests with mine. During that time, my Secret Sevens and Famous Fives were stowed away – in any case, I never was a fan of their perfect picnic wicker baskets, overflowing larders, and patterned eiderdowns. But then Princess Mia (Mignonette Grimaldi Thermopolis) Renaldo’s rants weren’t much progress, were they? I snapped out of giddy romances soon enough, when I realised chick-lits are best watched, not read.

It was then that I moved on to Indian fiction. These were closer home, literally and metaphorically. Names like Gyan and Sai replaced George and Susan. The rains didn’t mean carrying a patterned umbrella, putting on your mackintosh and hopping over puddles in your moccasins. The rains meant floods – a loss of a school day for me, a loss of a home for someone else. I had to read The God of Small Things twice to understand that it ended in incest, and The Namesake told me that maybe, just maybe, moving to America isn’t as wondrous as it seems to be.

I read sparingly these days. Earlier it was a book a week, today it’s a book in six. And many times, it’s a book I’ve read before. Revisiting a book is like revisiting an older self: an independent 20-year-old living alone meeting a shy 10-year-old staying at home. You meet your old allies, characters who kept you company on rainy days and summer holidays. Comrades-in-arms, who had great life lessons to offer. On days I feel extremely spunky, I go to the seven-year-old Scout Finch at her rebellious best when she asks so boldly to “Pass the damn ham, please?” Yet on others, I leaf through the book Salman Rushdie wrote for his young son – a glossy illustrated hardback edition of Haroun and the Sea of Stories takes me back to yet another summer at my grandparents in Tezpur. This time around, I was older, cooler and included. And, oh yes, many cigarettes were passed around.

Last month, I read a column where the author insisted that the only reason we were reading fewer (books) was because we were reading more (internet). I disagree – what I am reading online are a bunch of clickbait headlines. What I read earlier were stories, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories which I associated with certain events in my life. I remember Rohinton Mistry giving me a raging fever. Gerald Durrell and his quirky family, so much like mine, made me laugh myself silly. And Donna Tartt saw me through a very long illness.

The last book I read was Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom. And even a month later, the book still revisits me in waves. Set in Bombay, Pinto’s book is a deeply touching narrative about his manic-depressive mother. In one line, the author casually mentions the sea, wondering why people love to sit by it. “What is it about the sea? Is it because it’s there?”

I am going to Bombay very soon. And I am waiting to sit on Marine Drive and watch the sea – its waves threatening to soak me. Just like Pinto’s book had. And just because it’s there.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in June 2016.

How a small network of people brings the outside world into Mizo TV sets

In the homogenous world of Mizo television, everyone from Prerna in Ekta Kapoor’s Kasautii Zindagii Kay to Elsa in Disney’s Frozen speaks fluent Mizo. But behind this vernacular crossover is a network of people: translators, dubbing artistes and editors. This is how they do it

In 2003, when Sente was a schoolgirl in Aizawl, her gang of friends would eagerly await the latest edition of Lengzem, a popular Mizo monthly magazine. The 60-paged publication had a mix of features and fiction but the girls would straight skip to “the only section that mattered” — it was the Mizo script of a full episode of Ekta Kapoor’s hit TV series Kasautii Zindagii Kay, back then a rage in Mizoram. “We would read aloud and take turns to deliver the dialogue. It was all everyone would talk about back then,” says Sente, now a 25-year-old mother of three.

Years later — in any conversation about the dubbed shows that thrive on Mizo TV — it is still what everyone talks about. In Kasautii lies the genesis of the dubbed television industry of Mizoram. 

What started as a trial for one show is now a small-scale industry. Over the last decade, Korean, Thai, English, Hindi, Turkish and Japanese movies and TV shows (all translated) dominate television viewership in Mizoram — apart from news, reality TV shows (the most popular being Mizo Idol and Youth Icon, fashioned onAmerican Idol) and of course, sports (football premiere league, basketball league etc).

“For the longest time, Mizos would watch Bangladeshi TV channels. There was absolutely no Mizo content. Only during Christmas — in the late 80s — some Mizos in Delhi would sing carols, and that would be aired on Doordarshan,” say Lalsawmliana Pachuau. 

In 1993, Pachuau started LPS — Mizoram’s first cable TV network, with 11 channels (which aired music, sports, news and movies). “We started by airing local Mizo content: news, gospel songs and the like. I wanted to do something for the people of Mizoram,” he says.

 

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in December 2019. Full article here.

Meet Birubala Rabha, the septuagenarian crusader against witch-hunting in Assam

The 72-year-old, ostracised and branded a witch, devoted her life, and, through her organisation Mission Birubala, has been behind the state’s law to check the practice

Sometime in 2010, Birubala Rabha thought she was going to die. Afloat the Brahmaputra, with a film crew who was interviewing her, the wooden boat suddenly capsized, throwing overboard the camera, a crew member and Rabha, 61 at the time. Gasping for breath, she somehow managed to swim to safety. “The water was very deep and I told myself, ‘Okay, today is the day I am going to die’,” Rabha chuckles at the memory more than a decade later. “But then again, I have never been afraid of death. And that is probably why I managed to live,” she adds.

It is this fortitude that has guided Rabha, Assam’s plucky crusader against witch-hunting, through a remarkable life. A life that was honoured with one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri, last week. “I think this one is more special than the others,” Rabha says, at her home in Goalpara district, lined with mementos of different shapes and sizes. “I’m getting double the phone calls I usually do. But I am telling them, awards are well and good, but the point is for humans to help other humans, for us to be brave and unafraid.”

Just like Rabha has been through her 72 years of life. She wasn’t afraid when she travelled to a village in Meghalaya, in the dead of night, responding to a call of a woman accused of being a “daini” or witch by her neighbours, she wasn’t afraid when a mob surrounded her with daos (a flat-blade sword) and sticks, threatening to beat her up at the entrance of the village, and she wasn’t afraid when in 2000, in a public village meeting held to decide the fate of five women who were branded witches near Lakhipur in Assam, she stood up before hundreds and boldly announced: “There are no witches, witchcraft does not exist.”

The very next day, hundreds of villagers surrounded her house, to compel Rabha to sign a disclaimer that she was wrong to say what she did, and that, in fact, dainis do exist. But Rabha remained resolute, refusing to sign the document, and thus began a life devoted to fighting the malaise of witch-hunting in the state. “After that incident, they ostracised me and branded me a witch too, but instead, I used the time to work towards eradicating the practice,” she says. Since Rabha was already an active member of her village’s local Mahila Samiti (women’s self-help group) fighting social evils like alcoholism and domestic violence, her new avatar as a voice against witch-hunting came to her all too naturally.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in January 2021. Full article here.