“Manipur?” asked the army officer, “You mean M-A-N-I-P-U-R, sir?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Are you feeling okay, sir?”
Before he retired, Colonel Christopher Rego asked to be posted to the Northeastern state of Manipur, much to the bafflement of the officer who was signing the order. To be deputed to Manipur was one thing, but to especially ask…
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Rego, however, was determined. And in early 2012, the Bengaluru native began the final stint of his life as an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers in Manipur — for long a hotbed for insurgencies and separatist movements.
For Rego, the Northeast was not alien territory: he was earlier posted in Mizoram, which he describes as “a beautiful experience”. “However, the disconnect to India was apparent, so I would travel the length and breadth of Mizoram with my wife, mingling with locals, eating their food, learning their customs,” recalls Rego.
In Manipur, he had the same plans — to immerse himself in the troubled state’s culture. That was until one day, on duty in a remote village, he came across a group of children. “They were doing everything by themselves — cooking, eating, cleaning up,” says Rego. Later he learned that because of a lack of schools in villages located in hilly areas, parents would send their children to live near the schools by themselves, often in huts of other villagers. “The kids, as young as four, were given a small place and they would take care of themselves. It was sad…yet heartwarming.”
Rego’s trips to these areas, many times in plainclothes, helped him gain trust among villagers in a state where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is in effect and the Indian Army is perceived with suspicion.
“And then just out of the blue, in a village called Ijerong, a local approached me and asked if I could help build a hostel for these kids there,” says Rego.
In 2014, they had a building in place, a collaboration between Rego and the villagers, with some help from the Indian Army.
This was the first of many Rego and a network of people would go on to build in the remotest, most strife-torn parts of Manipur, under the aegis of what is called the “Sunbird Trust”. Here, children from near and afar, from clashing tribes and disparate economic backgrounds, would gather together in a safe space to attend school — a privilege not many had.
Aptly, they were called “friendship” hostels.
Today, Rego’s Sunbird Trust (which aims to promote “peace through education”) has seven hostels, five schools and sponsors close to 3,000 children not only in Manipur but also in Nagaland and Assam. “I retired in 2016 — and took over as the CEO of Sunbird Trust,” says Rego. Later, he was awarded the international Ashoka Fellowship from South Asia, and over the next three years, his organisation has grown and branched out to villages, where lives have changed forever.
Kasahung, a 52-year-old farmer from Pungmon village near Ijerong, says for the longest time there was only one government school in the area that catered to ten villages. “Growing up, most of us dropped out, the school was in a really bad condition,” he says.
Today, all his four children live at the Sunbird Trust’s Friendship hostel in Ijerong and study at the Paangkriang Friendship School, which was built shortly after. “My eldest son Kenny is now in Bangalore…I never even imagined he would be able to study even in Imphal, the state capital. And now look where he is,” says Kasahung.
For years, Manipur has been marked by conflict — at one level, there are armed separatist movements that wish to break away from the Indian union; as a result, the region has been under the surveillance of the Indian Armed forces for years. The state is also marked by ethnic conflicts where different tribes are often involved in violent clashes over the political future of Manipur.
“In these schools, different tribes study together. I am not saying it solves the issue, but it’s a start,” says Kasahung.
The Paangkriang school, says Rego, belongs to local community members and is being developed in collaboration with the Sunbird Trust. “We had only planned to build hostels, but when we saw that the school building was dilapidated, we decided to help,” says Rego. The school has classes from nursery to standard X.
With the success in Paangkriang, word spread around that there was an Army colonel who was building schools in Manipur. “People started reaching out to me. From high up in the hills, in a place called Kadi in the Tamelong district, came a message. They wanted a school ‘like the one in Ijerong’.”
In his time in Manipur, Rego realised that years of conflict, even though it has marginally improved, left a lasting impact on young boys and girls. “It is a hotpotch of aspirations, ethnicities, identities, so they keep boiling all the time. Employment opportunities are limited — and many end up joining the militancy,” he says.
When he was back in Mizoram, he had funded a young boy’s education. “That boy — a son of a vegetable seller — later ended up in America. My wife and I thought it was futile to keep our money in the bank when we had the power to transform others’ lives,” says Rego. Soon, through Rego’s network of friends and acquaintances, more people chipped in. “Now we are sponsoring about 3,000 young men and women from five states,” he says.
One of them is Shomrorphi, a 22-year-old, who is doing a Masters in Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Chennai. In 2006, Shomrorphi’s village — located next to separatist camp — was under clampdown during a skirmish between the Army and the militants. “I remember as kids, we were alone at home, and it was really scary. For three months, life came to a standstill. We didn’t attend school, we didn’t even know what was happening,” she says, “Things have improved since then but such incidents tend to have a lasting impact. Many kids go through the same thing and some, much worse than I did.”
In 2008, Rego, who was in Manipur, happened to be visiting their village in Ukhrul district. “He was not in uniform — and my mother began speaking to him. He learned about me and well, one thing led to another and here I am in Chennai,” she says.
Rego’s next “friendship” hostel is in the Chakma belt of Mizoram — and by 2025, the aim is to build 50 such buildings across the Northeast. Except that Rego feels that he has not just built buildings. He has built trust.
Feature Image courtesy Geet Tryambake / Sunbird Trust