In Manipur, football the only way out of the mess

Things can go south in Manipur if Indian football cannot capitalise on the inroads made in a state where violence and its memories used to bookend lives in past years.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: November 6, 2017 5:16 pm
fifa u17 world cup, indian football In conflict-ridden Manipur, it would be utterly silly to say that football is just a game.

Hype vs Reality Check Part 1: 13,47,143 Indians shattered the record for largest attendance at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. With India making its presence felt on Planet Football, it’s time to take stock and make a sobering assessment of where the game is headed. Wiser after their travels to the six World Cup venues – Guwahati, Goa, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi – The Indian Express reporters find out how older nurseries at traditional centres have gradually rung hollow. And, football in metros is all style – weekend at EPL sportsbars, FIFA on Playstation and ugly takedowns on Whatsapp – and little substance. 

On the day when 12 middle-aged imas, mothers, stood naked outside Imphal’s Kangla fort, used by Assam Rifles as its base, to protest the killing and possible rape of a young Thangjam Manorama, the region’s most famous woman footballer Oinam BemBem Devi, was in the city. It was July 2004, she was 24. “I was sad, shocked, and emotional. A young girl was tortured, and Meira Paibis (women torchbearers) protested.”

In the army’s eyes, the girl was an insurgent, which her family denied; the army denied the rape. The story of nude protests by Meira Paibis, and their fight against AFSPA, drew a largely uninterested nation’s attention to the decades-old Manipur problem. Meira Pabis’s history of resisting and questioning authorities, dates back to 1904, and along with the exclusively-women-run markets, presents an air of women’s empowerment in the region. But that’s too simple a conclusion to be drawn.

This isn’t a story about ethnic strife, insurgency or the army but about how sport flourishes in this violence-torn region. There is poverty across the country but in Manipur it’s situated in the context of historical strife. Over the last few weeks, the poverty of most of the eight Manipuri footballers in India’s U-17 team has been splashed all over in the media but the story isn’t just about impoverishment. This is a football story that has run parallel to the tale of violence in the region for a while now, though sport has pipped the conflict-narrative for now at least.

Now that’s the new theme. Success stories of Bhaichung Bhutia and Renedy Singh or Manipur winning the Santosh Trophy in 2003 had overshadowed depressing news in the past, but the tale of eight teenaged kids thwarting financial and societal crises to reach the Indian team caught the imagination of a nation like never before.

Sport doesn’t exist in a vacuum no matter how fervently some believe it does, or should. The relationship between sport and politics, commerce, gender, race, ethnicity is vital to understand both sport and society. In conflict-ridden Manipur, it would be utterly silly to say that it’s just a game. Nothing comes easy; from infrastructure to even the very act of dreaming about playing a sport for a living. Most kids leave their families and go to academies in Chandigarh or Kolkata for proper training.

Mother of the Indian midfielder Ninthoinganba Meitei would wish that her son didn’t come home in the summer holidays. “At the academy, he would get nutritious food. We can’t afford that here. He would exercise in a gym there. Here, nothing. And there is the cost of travel.” Similar stories run in other families – the young son, 8 to 10 years, is better off with strangers than at home. And when you throw in the fact how difficult it can get sometimes to reach home, even when there are no highway-blockades that used to be a constant feature of lives here, the mother’s hard choice makes all the more sense.

They said it would take four-and-a-half hours at the most, but it takes a further four to reach Imphal by road from Dimapur in Nagaland. The winger van heaved along the potholes on what has been reduced to a dirt track. Landslides and heavy rains had dissolved the roads into watery graves especially after the town of Mao. Narrow kuchcha roads would fork out through bushy areas to pathways to the cloud-collected hills.

Going back in time, the region was tagged on to India as a buffer zone in 1891 by the British, and reluctantly ceded to India in 1949. It’s riven by fractured by splinter political movements that pursue self-government and was economically stagnant for decades.

Imphal’s landscape is lush, the central valley baked into squares of green and yellow fields stretching out onto the mist-topped hills in the horizon. People cluster their homes around ponds that vary in size. Pradeep Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Press, too lives in a neighbourhood that has a phukri, a pond. “The one positive is that we as a state have hit rock bottom – with all these conflicts and problems. We can’t go any lower. Things will hopefully change soon. Football and sport, in general, can’t be couched as a religion or such nonsense,” Thanoujam says. “For many youngsters, it’s the only way out of the mess they see around them: Unemployment and poverty.”

And drugs. Manipur has the country’s highest number of HIV patients. Most of them are young. According to the Manipur State AIDS Control Society, Manipur, with barely 0.2 per cent of India’s population, contributes nearly 8 per cent of India’s total HIV positive cases. Parents see sport as a bridge out of poverty, drugs, and aimless drift that has sucked in many a kid in the region.

“Only the poor play football sir,” says Umakanta, the brother of Indian U-17 captain Amarjeet and a footballer as well. “It’s cheap, everyone in our neighbourhoods play, we see people like Renedy Singh and Gouramangi do well in life. We think this can be a good thing for us.”

It’s not easy being young in Manipur. Renedy Singh, former India player from Manipur and a coach now, puts it in perspective. “I was lucky that my family didn’t face such hardships but lives of many footballers are tough. There are so many ways kids can go astray here. Drugs, lack of education and money, no job prospects – it’s a struggle most days.” Sport is seen as the best get-out card from this mess.

In end September, in a tiny village with just 14 houses in Kholjang region, a kilometre away from the highway, Kuki Football Academy hosted the first-ever ‘Night Football tournament’. Eight floodlight poles with 400 watt bulbs, procured for 9000 rupees from Kolkata, lit up the arena. People from different communities sent their players to participate. The plan is ambitious. They want to take in 30 students up to third level, focus on football and try to provide food and lodging for free. They know the importance of football here.

It’s not all gloom though. If you fly in and out of Imphal for a weekend, you would wonder what’s the fuss about. It’s a pretty city, the landscape can be enchanting. You would also run into proud people who would tell you that it’s Manipuris who gave the world the game of Polo.

One evening, on September 26, a ‘Night Plaza’ opened up with food stalls lined up in the town’s centre on a stretch of a road next to the Kangla Palace, surrounded by a moat and remnants of an old wall that was built over centuries to protect from Chinese and Burmese invasions. Usually, the town sleeps by 9 pm, but the government came up with this idea last month to spruce up nightlife over the weekends. The inaugural day saw an overwhelming response as hundreds roamed about peacefully. On one side of the road, the army trucks lined up, the men in uniform watching the civilians relax.

People from all communities congregated, and one bumped into a group, asking for directions to a small food-shack that was reputed to have yummy fish – era thongba. The group not only yanked me into the dark lane behind one of the oldest polo grounds in the world, Mapal Kangjeibung. The locals believe the British discovered the game here and took it worldwide. They tried to get the restaurant to open up. The small-town warmth allowed for a chat to bubble up, and it steered to the ethnic clashes. “Here we all live in peace,” says one. Another smiles, “we try to, if the politicians and underground movements would allow us to”. There isn’t much arable land left in the hills, according to Pradip Phanjoubam, and many Nagas and Kukis come down to the valley to find work.

The story of Nagas isn’t just about their relationship with British colonialists but it also involves American missionaries. On a cold wintery day in February 6, 1821 in Massachusetts, Salem in America, 2,000 people waded through snow to America’s first ordination of missionaries. Six of them, it was decided, would spread the word of Christ in Asiatic fields. Soon, they boarded the ship Caravan, and after months would anchor at Kolkata. In the years to come, the numbers grew and some of them reached the Naga hills. It’s a fascinating story, as told by the Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner in his book: The great game of East: India, China, and the struggle for Asia’s most volatile frontier.

Even as the British colonialists found Nagas inscrutable, the missionaries made headway. “Thousands of Nagas had been converted and not only Bibles but also hymn books, dictionaries, grammars, and primers appeared in the tribal languages—and a national consciousness emerged as a result of this unique cultural and tribal awakening. With a different language and script, and a new awareness of their own identity, the gap between the people in the hills and on the plains also widened. This process was accelerated by the undeniable fact that long-standing frictions existed between the previously isolated tribals and the more sophisticated cultures on the plains,” Linter writes.

Things are slowly changing according to Phanjoubam, the editor of Imphal Press. The angst still surfaces, of course. In an auto ride, incidentally after meeting Bembem Devi, the conversation meanders to the Naga-Meitei divide, and how many people from the hills now live in the valley. “Udhar pahadon mein gaye toh tiger hain woh log, yahan billi (they are tigers in the hills, cats here)” the driver says with a laugh.

Mina, mother of Indian midfielder Ninthoinganba Meitei who featured in the U-17 World Cup, stands outside her thatched hut in Imphal. Flowers and basil water are sprinkled around the tulsi plant at the front – it’s a puja to the Sun God, her daughter Sana says. The phone buzzes, and it seems to kick in excited movement in the household. An odd-job has surfaced in the bazaar area, and Mina wants to rush there first before it’s given away to another person. She had woken up early, sold dried fish, had lunch, done puja, and spends the afternoon waiting for the phone to ring with some good news about any small jobs in the area. A framed picture of her husband, who died of cancer four months back, hangs in the thatched wall behind her. He was a cowherder. Everything now, it seems, rests on the footballer. One daughter is studying at a nursing college. Either sport or nursing is the main hope.

A week before the U-17 World Cup, Boris Thangjam’s father is dragged out by youth of Neroca football club, an old and reputed club of the region. Down the alley from his small brick house, outside the grocery shop he once used to run but not anymore, the members want him to be present when they put up the banner in support of all the 8 footballers who have made it to the Indian squad. ‘Pride of Manipur’ it reads. As the banner is tied to the wall, Boris’s father smiles. Years ago, curious to see why grown-up coaches waited at his house to cajole his son to play, he had gone to watch him play. Though there wasn’t a goal, nifty foot-play had convinced him that the son should be encouraged.

The stories are similar elsewhere. At goalkeeper Dhiraj’s house, his mother, who works in the municipality, was hopeful that her son would end up in the civil services. It was her mother who stealthily gifted a football boot to Dhiraj and kickstarted his journey. “If not for football, Dhiraj would have been a collector!” she chuckles. He is in the 12th standard, academically bright, and she believes if sport doesn’t offer the passport out of trouble, he should fall back on studies. It might not be so straightforward now. After a stellar World Cup, her son won hearts.

And thus, the story of hope spreads across the region — from mother of captain Amarjeet Singh, who gets up at 2 am every day, to go to the market to sell fish. To Abdul Manaf, the father of Mohammad Shahjahan, who was a tailor but had to shut shop after running out of workers, and depends on other sons who drive autos to bring some money. The father of Jeakson Thounaojam labours on others’ farms, and his mother, again the main breadwinner of the house, sells garments to make ends meet.

Romesh Bhattacharji, a former commissioner of customs in Assam, wrote in 2002: “You can smell fear, and feel the wariness. The Kukis and the Nagas are fighting each other. The Meiteis, the Nagas and the Kukis are all against authority … here yesterday’s headlines will be repeated tomorrow. They tell the same story. Ambush, massacre, abduction, extortion, raid and retaliatory raid, and rape. The most unthinkable is commonplace here. The list is endless.”

Those gory days of violence seem to be winding down, or so the hope floats in the people. Reports abound about the renewed talks between insurgent groups and the government. “There is nearly a 72% literacy rate here,” says Phanjoubam, the editor. “But while primary education is fine, the colleges are of very poor quality here. Where will the youth go? Not everyone can play football at higher level, after all.” The region waits for long-lasting peace, and increased employment opportunities. While the adults wait for life to be upgraded, the kids are kicking the ball around in the hills and in the gullies around ponds in the valley.

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