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Achungmei Kamei - a woman of courage

Achungmei Kamei comes from Tamenglong district of Manipur.

Of all the Indian states reeling under terrorism and violence today, Manipur perhaps has the most curious case. For, this is the state with the most complex ethnic geography. The majority of the population is of the Meitei ethnic group who follow Hindu religion. But there are also several tribes living in the 5 hill districts with each calling one of these districts their ‘homeland’. There is a Meitei insurgent outfit, calling for a sovereign Manipur today, while the tribes are fighting, albeit separately, for an independent state of their own.

Achungmei belongs to Rongmei – a Naga tribal community. Most of the Naga tribes – there are 14 of them – live in the neighbouring state of Nagaland. For decades, a Naga separatist group called National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) has been fighting a bloody war of independence from India. The NSCN has a vision of their ‘independent’ home which they call ‘Greater Nagaland’. ‘Greater Nagaland’, demands NSCN, should have entire Nagaland, as well as Naga-dominated areas in neighbouring state of Manipur. As expected, this demand which would lead to breaking of Manipur has put the Nagas at loggerheads with the Meiteis.

The fight reached new height this year when Thuingaleng Muivah -an NSCN leader -was denied entry into Manipur by the local leader.

Now, for reasons only they can explain, most Naga rebels believe that the best way to punish someone is by starving him to death. So, since the denial of entry to the rebel leader, pro-Naga groups imposed several total economic blockades on highways carrying supplies to Manipur – a landlocked state highly dependent on other states for survival. One of these blockade lasted an unbelievable 69 days.

As expected, the blockade resulted into food stores running out of supply, schools and colleges closing and power cuts that lasted for over a month. There was no cooking gas and public transport went off road as fuel became scarce.

Achungmei and her family was one of the people affected by the economic crisis. But even while she tried hard to overcome the hardship, she found herself a new social status: Enemy.

The political clash between Naga and Meiteis resulted in Nagas living in Manipur being viewed as a troublemaker who is trying to steal the land that belongs to Meiteis.

The sudden change is puzzling.

Says Achungmmei, “I don’t know how to react. As a Naga, I support the Naga people’s right to self rule. But I don’t know if NSCN is fighting for me or not. What I know is that every time NSCN talks about Greater Nagaland, Meiteis of Manipur react violently. And we, the Nagas living in the state are immediately seen as enemies.

The trouble doesn’t end here.

Labeling the entire tribe as conspirators against the state has resulted in the entire district being at the bottom of the government’s priority list. Development in Tamenglong is always an afterthought and vanishing of forest and land raise little concern in the official circuit.

‘The mad fight between the rebels has been devastating for common people like us. Real issues are not talked about. For example, Manipur government is building a mega dam here which is going to displace millions. Children are kidnapped and forced to join rebel outfits. Women like me are the worst sufferers – we have no money, no jobs and now, since there is so much violence everywhere, we spend most of the time fearing attacks.” says Achungmei, anger and frustration welling in her voice.

That she is not exaggerating became clear when I try to find data on displacement of tribals in Tamenglong due to mega dam project. There is no mention of a single Rongmei though Achungmei has a list of nearly 5 thousand homeless people.

Not one to sit and watch haplessly, Achungmei decided to speak out. On May 3rd this year – the Press Freedom day – she joined IndiaUnheard India’s first ever Community-based News Service, as a Community Correspondents. Since then, she has been reporting on issues such as education, livelihood and water. It’s not easy. Constant power cuts, blockades and curfews mean she can’t shoot more than one video a month. When her videos are published, Meiteis, outraged by her honest depiction, call her ‘Whore’. She also risks being shot by Meitei insurgents.

But Achungmei isn’t the one to stop so easily.

But, are her stories really “Unheard”?

Her answer is straight. “Yes, they are. As a community, we are either identified as conspirators, or partisans. And this is how the world has perceived us. The truth is, we are a normal group of people with normal needs. We need food, land, electricity, education. We need our land, our forest. And these are our everyday stories that have never been told. I am here to tell them.”

The world is listening to you, Achungmei!

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