Manipur: The tussle and the compromise

By Thingnam Anjulika Samom

Mediapersons in Manipur are caught between the diktats and threats of around 40 underground groups and the authoritarian directives of the state government which recently proscribed publication of a great deal of content from or about "unlawful organisations". How does Manipur's media cope with these pressures and still try to uphold the freedom of the press?

There are two visuals that best describe Manipur to the outside world. One is the dancing Manipuri girls in their colourful costumes and gentle dance gestures. The other is a group of old women, hair flying, aged breasts flapping on their chests, and a banner with blood-red letters daring the army to come and rape them.

These images -- of the exotic and the revolutionary -- are often taken up selectively to paint a picture of Manipur. On the one hand, Manipur is an exotic, inaccessible land with a backward yet colourful culture. On the other, it's a society full of gun-toting masked men who "threaten" Indian "nationhood" and must be "curbed" with excessive force, if necessary.

Yet for the people of Manipur, these two images are not solitary events, unrelated to each other. They are two sides of the same coin -- a coin which is our collective identity but which few take the trouble to understand. A collective identity that comprises a history, a culture and a tradition so unique and so different from the so-called "Indian" history, culture and tradition.

Twin threads: Conflict and the media

Manipur, situated on the Indo-Myanmar border, is home to as many as 33 listed scheduled tribes and a number of unspecified tribes, apart from the Meities, Meitei Pangals (Muslims) and scheduled castes. The 33 listed scheduled tribes are, again, broadly divided into the Naga and Chin-Kuki-Mizo groups. Among the Nagas, the most prominent ones are Tangkhul, Mao, Poumai, Rongmei, Lamkang, Zeme, Maring, Anal, Maram, Thangal and Liangmei, while Thadou, Simte, Gangte, Vaiphei, Paite, Hmar, Khongsai, Sitlou, etc, constitute the important Kuki tribes.

Thus, multiple histories, multiple cultures and multiple identities are spread out and struggling for recognition within a small geographical territory of 22,327 sq km.

An unfortunate by-product of these inherent complexities and certain insensitive governmental policies is that, today, there are more than 40 proscribed outfits operating within the state. While the main objective of each group is to organise the people's support and wage an armed struggle against the Government of India under various causes and ideologies, mostly right to self-determination, the history of each of these movements is, again, different.

While the Meitei outfits recall the shame of an autonomous princely kingdom being forcibly annexed to the British Empire in 1891 and later, after India's independence, merged with the Indian sub-continent in a dubious agreement, the Nagas still suffer the memory of a proud community forcibly divided by new geopolitical boundaries imposed by a foreign hand. Outfits belonging to other ethnic communities like the Kuki, Hmar, Manipuri Muslims and Zomi too uphold the history and wellbeing of their communities as their primary interest.

This situation is further aggravated by the militaristic response of the Centre and state government. On the one hand there are groups of people, armed and trained in warfare, that are ideologically against India's nationhood. On the other, the government, stating that the armed insurgencies are a law-and-order problem, installs counter-insurgency forces in the state to help the state government function smoothly. Laws such as the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958 are enforced to help the security forces in their mission -- AFSPA has been in force in the hills since 1961 and in the valley (except for the Imphal municipality area) since 1980. Thus the conflict has been heightened instead of resolved.

Significantly, the first resistance movement in the state was a communist movement led by Hijam Irabat in the 1930s demanding, among other things, that the British quit Manipur, abolish the Manipur state durbar, and establish an elected government. (1) On August 14, 1947, the Naga people, through the Naga National Council (NNC), declared their independence from British rule, one day before India declared her independence. (2)

Interestingly, the first resistance movement of Hijam Irabat also gave birth to journalism in the state. The first recorded event in the history of the print media in Manipur is publication of the journal Meitei Chanu by Hijam Irabat in the mid-1920s. Hand-stencilled and cyclostyled by Irabat himself, the publication survived for only a few editions. During 1932-48, Hijam Irabat published pamphlets, journals and booklets with the main aim of spreading political philosophy to the masses.

During the 1930s and 1940s, a number of publications came out including Yakairol, Lalit Manjuri Patrika, Bheigyabati Patrika, Dainik Manipur, Manipur Matam, Manipur Paojel, Ngashi, Praja, Anouba Yug, and Meitei Leima, although most enjoyed only a short lifespan. These were followed, in the post-Independence era, by political papers like Prajatantra and Simanta Patrika.

Today, Manipur is considered a frontrunner among Indian states with regards to media presence. The eastern state boasts around 30 news dailies and journals, a large number of home cable networks such as Information Service Television (ISTV), Image Cable TV, Hornbill Cable Network, Laizan Cable Network and Tribal Cable Network, as well as numerous correspondents and stringers for various national and international news agencies, newspapers, magazines and electronic media houses. Most media houses in the state however are small private firms that function with a skeletal staff, on minimal wages.

Media and conflict: The tussle and the compromise

The low-intensity conflict in Manipur that's being simmering for almost 60 years has killed, widowed, displaced and orphaned thousands of its people. The impact of the conflict has not only been the killings, rapes and torture; from the young student who suffers a deep sense of fear and insecurity to the woman widowed by the gun, no one has been spared the effects of this long-standing conflict, including the media.

November 17 to December 2008 has been a significant fortnight in Manipuri history. On November 17, young Konsam Rishikanta, a junior sub-editor at the English language newspaper Imphal Free Press was blindfolded, gagged and shot dead by unknown gunmen. With his death, he became the sixth journalist to be killed in Manipur -- a paltry number if we go by the innumerable killings that have been going on in the state, but an appalling and significant number when we consider that even in full-fledged wars journalists enjoy a certain sanctity, freedom and impunity.

In Manipur -- home to around 40 underground groups and nearly 50,000 central security forces waging an armed war -- death by the gun is part of everyday lives.

The conflict makes headlines almost every day -- a killing, an arrest, a clarification. In fact, reporting on incidents related to militants and militancy in Manipur is becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous for journalists.

Conflict reporting is a precarious and delicate task that requires a sense of balance. To give due credit to the media in Manipur, notable attempts at balanced reporting are being made. But factors like limited resources, inhospitable terrain, lack of good communication facilities and, above all, shortage of staff, make verification of all conflict-related cases that come to the attention of the media a formidable task.

Most conflict reporting done by the media is that of conflict-related killings and arrests. There have also been reports on the impact of the ongoing conflict -- displacement, impact on women and children, condition of conflict widows, etc.

While reports of arrests come from police and army sources and handouts, news of killings are usually given either by people at the place where the person/s have been shot, the police, the army, or a hospital. Or by the underground group involved. Verification of news of arrests or claims made regarding the person's involvement with an underground group is often not done.

In the case of killings, however, there is always an attempt at independent investigation to verify the claims -- visiting the house of the deceased, talking to family members and locals. However, given that an average of two people are gunned down everyday in Manipur, verifying each case becomes a huge task, especially if the killing occurs in a remote area of the state.

Added to this is pressure, from State and non-State forces. For the media this means that its work of disseminating information and opinion is a tight-rope walk between the devil and the deep sea.

Ironically, it is the growth and changing awareness of the media as a powerful platform that is threatening the freedom and sanctity of the independent media in Manipur. Underground insurgent groups operating in the state, which used to rely on pamphlets and word-of-mouth as a major means of spreading their ideas and diktats, are now turning to the newspapers and news cable networks to carry their statements to a wider audience.

This strategy is also being used by the army and the government through press tours and events to highlight achievements such as the display of arms captured during operations, and press tours of areas "cleared of insurgents".

Caught in between are small teams of underpaid, overworked and semi-skilled professionals trying to work towards the ideal of being society's watchdog, frequently at their own peril.

From 1993 till date, as many as six journalists have been shot dead in Manipur. There have been attempts on the lives of others and cases of physical and mental harassment.

Let me run through some of these incidents (4):

These are just a few cases. Almost every day there are threats over the phone, etc, from the proscribed outfits in Manipur. In most cases, mediapersons respond with dharnas, suspension of publication, blank editorials, and demands to the government for a safe atmosphere to work in. Each time, the threat is withdrawn but working conditions for journalists remain the same as most outfits believe it is their moral right and duty to pressurise newspapers into carrying their press releases the way they want them carried.

To safeguard freedom of the press and to escape this form of pressure, the AMWJU resolved, in June 2005 (5), following threats to the Manipur Hill Journalists Union, that:

However, these rules do not seem to have worked very well as the militants have their own tactics by which to get their press releases published, keeping the press constitution and rules intact.

Media pressure and government response

The response of the state government in this regard has been disheartening. Instead of attempting to sanitise the atmosphere, they have instead tried to curb the freedom of the press from time to time in the name of stamping out insurgency.

During 1950-60, government actions like seizing papers, imposing fines, closure of the press, and imprisonment of editors were common when publications like Ngasi, Loumi, Bhagyapati Patrika, Eikhoigi Patrika, Mother Manipur, etc, criticised the functioning of the government in their papers. (6) Later, in 1970-80, when insurgent movements flourished in the state, seizure of press material and arrests of journalists were routine. One of the most significant cases was the arrest of Hueiyen Lanpao editor Salam Bharatbhusan and editor of Matam, Meinam Mithai, who were booked under the National Security Act (NSA) and imprisoned for around six months. (7)

In the recent past, in April 2000, N Biren Singh, presently a minister and formerly editor of Naharlogi Thoudang was arrested by the state police for publishing a speech by activist Th Iboyaima, on charges of it being "seditious" and "anti-national".

Imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958, in the state has also seriously impacted the media, with frequent harassment, physical abuse, obstruction of work, and arrests.

On August 2, 2007, while mediapersons were sitting in dharna protesting the "bomb gift" to The Sangai Express' editors, the state government passed the following order, which only served to further push the media in Manipur into a corner rather than help them. The order read:

When the media community protested and urged the withdrawal of the order, the state Cabinet met on August 10, 2007, and, instead of a withdrawal, amended the first point with a clause: "Publication of seditious, subversive literature affecting the integrity of the nation."

In the Rishikanta killing case too, the state government displayed an authoritarian attitude and complete disregard for the sanctity of the media. From the time Rishikanta's body was found in a secluded spot in Imphal, on November 17, 2008, the media aired its suspicions about the involvement of the state police in the killing and demanded a CBI probe. There was no response from the state government. On November 19, after discussions at a general body meeting, journalists struck work in protest. They sat in dharna for 13 days; there was an information blackout throughout the state. On November 26, they took out a huge rally in the capital. Hundreds of representatives from the NGO, CSO and CBO sectors participated in the silent rally to express their solidarity.

In the meantime, the Editor's Guild of India, headed by Rajdeep Sardesai, met the prime minister and, during the meeting, the prime minister apparently called up the Manipur chief minister and instructed him to initiate a CBI inquiry. Still, the evening before the rally, the state government continued to remain a silent spectator. A group of ministers (including the state IPR minister) was sent to negotiate with the rally organisers. Their terms: Stop the rally and we will initiate an inquiry.

Undeterred and uncompromising, the journalists went ahead with the rally which was shown live on the local cable TV network, ISTV. Participants converged at a public ground, but when the first speaker began to talk about the killing and the government's response the network was forced to cut the programme.

On December 1, a special investigative team formed by journalists tabled its report. That same day, and at almost the same time, the state Cabinet discussed the matter and conceded the journalists' demands.


The ongoing armed conflict, job insecurity and precarious working conditions in Manipur are some of the factors that impact directly on press freedom and the quality of journalism in the state. Journalists continue to be poorly paid despite talks of implementing the R K Manisana Wage Board, for the simple reason that many newspaper houses are not in a position to generate the type of revenue that would enable payments and perks as stipulated by the Wage Board.

Despite this, however, the media community has been united in its stand that the sanctity of the profession must not be compromised. It goes without saying that the very nature of the job, which requires them to report in the midst of conflict, exposes them to the risks of being hit from both sides.

In its fifth annual press freedom report for South Asia, The Fight Goes On: Press Freedom Crises in South Asia (2006-2007), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) identified five key needs to be addressed. First, journalists must be trained to monitor violations of press freedom and journalists' rights. Systems should be set up to communicate and highlight such violations through alerts. Journalists in conflict areas must be provided safety training and professional skills development. Finally, they should receive training in union/association-building to help them present a stronger, united front and assert their rights to report objectively, free from pressure and harassment.

The All-Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) might have its flaws, but it has put up a united front when faced with any threat to the community. As for training, nothing can be better than the lived experience. There cannot be a one-coat-fits-all policy for facing the pressures of working in a conflict situation, for the simple reason that the cause and nature of conflict in various parts of the state, nation and the world are so different.

Finally, the government should try and bring about an amicable settlement to the current insurgency problem in Manipur. This would help alleviate the situation in the state. Until then, the media will continue to be tested.


1 Life and Works of Jananeta Irabat Singh, L Damodar Singh, Ningshing Chephong, 1996

2 An introduction to the Indo-Naga political conflict and the ongoing peace process.

3 The Imphal Free Press referred to here is the newspaper owned by Sapam Nishikanta. Later on, the editor, Pradip Phanjaoubam, left the organisation and took the name with him, which he now uses for his own paper. Meanwhile, Sapam Nishikanta's paper briefly ran as the Manipur Free Press and was later christened The Sangai Express

4 The cases described here have been randomly picked. In actuality, there are many more cases of assault and pressure by both State and non-State forces on the media

5 6 'Struggle for Independence by the Manipur Journalist Society', Sanathong, October, 2001 7 Interview with Irengbam Arun, editor, Ireibak


'An introduction to the Indo-Naga political conflict and the ongoing peace process'.

Economic Survey Manipur, 2005-2006

International News Safety Institute, Geneva Declaration on Actions to Promote Safety and Security of Journalists and Media in Dangerous Situations.

Interview with Irengbam Arun, editor, Ireibak

Interview with veteran journalist K Madhumangol

L Damodar Singh, 1996. Life and Works of Jananeta Irabat Singh, Ningshing Chephong

Land use system in Manipur Hills, edited by N Lokendra Singh, Rajesh Publications, 2004, Manipur Journalists' Code of Conduct.

Reporters Without Borders, 'Declaration on the Safety of Journalists and Media Personnel in Situations Involving Armed Conflict'.

'Struggle for Independence by the Manipur Journalist Society', Sanathong, October, 2001

South Asia Terrorism Portal.

'The Fight Goes On: Press Freedom Crises In South Asia (2006-2007)', International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), UNESCO fifth annual press freedom report for South Asia, 2006-07.

The Imphal Free Press, 2006, editorial, February 13

The Imphal Free Press, 2007, 'Shackled Media', editorial, August 6

The Sangai Express, 2002. Interview with Adinho Phizo, president of the NNC by IANS journalist S Baruah, October 19

The Sangai Express, 2007, 'Gagging Media', Editorial, August 9

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Medellin Declaration for Securing the Safety of Journalists and Combating Impunity.,

(Thingnam Anjulika Samom is a freelance journalist and amateur filmmaker presently attached with the Hueiyan Lanpao group of publications in Imphal, Manipur.Her writings have been specially focused on conflict and gender.)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009