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In the Quaint Leikai-Village of Kwatha

Introduction

Students of political science must be familiar with the terms like ‘Nation-State’ and ‘City-State’. Both of these organised political bodies are interchangeably called a country or simply a nation, though there are subtle differences as in the former is a term that we use every day for a political body defined by government, sovereignty, population, territory. This includes, for example, India, Burma and Bangladesh. On the other hand, a city-state is an independent State that consists of a city—and it can be within another country—and that has the common distinguishing features of a State. Examples include Singapore, Monaco and Vatican City.  

In a similarly different way, we have ‘village’ and ‘leikai-village’. The former is the usual term, which we use for a place smaller than a town and is typically associated with certain rustic elements. A leikai-village is also a similar rural place. But it is even smaller and could have been a ubiquitous leikai within a locality but nonetheless exists autonomously and hence the name, a leikai-village. Perhaps we can use a ‘hamlet’ except this term carries a sense of temporariness while a ‘leikai-village’ is inherently complete in itself for good.

Today, we have a leikai-village: Kwatha, which from hearsay has existed from the days of King Senbi Kiyamba (1467–1508). This piece is a recollection from a recent trip to the leikai-village, with its quaint characteristics that invite exploration as well as appreciation in the broader context of Manipur.


Moreh Way or the Highway

Kwatha is nestled in one corner of South-east Manipur, bordering Burma and located in the recently carved out district of Tengnoupal. If we are travelling from Imphal—which is a three-hour drive that stretches around 103 kilometres and Moreh that is 12 kilometres further away—we have to plunge left into a winding and descending dirt road just a couple of hundred metres before the Khudengthabi checkpoint manned by the Assam Rifles. The distance from the highway to the leikai-village is hardly seven kilometres but you’d doubt whether the surveyor was high while assessing the distance. It takes forever to reach there, thanks to the condition of the road that has as well been accentuating the isolation of Kwatha.     

Until we reach the entrance of the leikai-village, it is difficult to see any signs of civilisation if not for the few unimaginative tin signboards and culverts along the route. The first half of the route descends to an obscure woodland and then ascends to the mountainside Kwatha through the pitiable serpentine road. Further midway en route, there is a way that descends onto the right, and which opens onto Kundaung,  a township in Burma in the district of Tamu in Sagaing Region from where, as we found later, the villagers buy recharge cards for their mobile phones with literal Burmese connection. It is located within a walking distance. Meanwhile, the people of Kwatha speak a highly accented Meiteilon, which is stressed like those of Kakching people.

Soon, as we drive straight towards Kwatha, it will be an understatement to say that the place is wonderful. It has an appeal that completely obscures the first few bad impressions.

When we are around the leikai-village, all the discomfort of riding in over-aged SUVs that ply in the area and the fatigue of long journey are entirely concealed, just as the surreal clouds do over the region. No classy hill station elsewhere is a match for Kwatha’s unsophisticated charm. Add to this attraction, the feeling of nostalgia and unsurpassed natural beauty of Kabaw Valley, which spreads over the eastern panorama, and is up close flanked by Chin Hills on our left and a hillock on the right side that takes us down to Moreh and the result is out of the world.

For that matter, Kabaw Valley will always remain significant for us as long as Mahatma Gandhi is called the father of India. Sometimes history can be beautiful though all we had learnt in schools and colleges were merely about people like Shah Jahan and Mahatma Gandhi and places like Kanpur and Plassey that are not only impersonal and misrelated but also serve, for us, as a symbol of neo-colonialism.      

Well, back on the ground, in the most recent time the existence of this secluded leikai-village was brought to public’s attention last year with the holding of a successful socio-cultural and art festival. This was quite significant on many counts. Despite its popularity, for instance as a ‘soiboom stronghold’, people are wary about visiting Kwatha albeit it is no surprise seeing the condition of life in this part of the world, which in addition to its physical isolation is riddled with all sorts of back-breaking issues that are rife in remote corners of an armed conflict zone.

If we talk about wariness, the Meitei villagers of Kwatha are more affected as both artificial and natural dangers—out of inter-ethnic loathing, animosity between state and non-state actors, and an inhospitable terrain—lurk in their environments. Besides, again from hearsay, the Meiteis who have converted to Christianity are somehow ‘balanced’ in the ethnic equation, yet religion has been a matter that can make or break Kwatha. For the community, Imphal valley seemingly offers various privileges by virtue of being the majority however life is hard in a faraway and remote corner like Kwatha.

As far as the authority is concerned, it will be a blessing for the villagers if the latter has access to a paved road—for a starter. Without this basic infrastructure it is hard to believe that we are into 21st century, not only for Kwatha but also for the whole Manipur, which has been bogged down by its dismal transport and communication system.

N Biren Flags Off Bus Service; Problem on Some Routes

Imphal, 11 July 2017: Subsequent to a cabinet decision of the Government of Manipur that was taken on April 3, Chief Minister N Biren had flagged off the inter-district and city bus services on June 25, in a desperate attempt to revive the defunct Manipur State Road Transport Corporation. The government has also re-opened the office of the corporation at Moirangkhom. Around 2010–11, under the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, 84 cities across the country were selected as a beneficiary of a new transport scheme and as a part of the plan in Manipur, several buses—which costs Rs 29.15 lakh each—were sanctioned under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Out of the allotted 25 buses in the first phase, 14 were purchased in January 2011 in which New Delhi sponsored 90% of the total cost.

The initial low-floor bus service started on June 14, 2012 but it did not work for long and became non-operational before long. Amazing it may sound but the transport department have been utilising the 80-seat buses only during the annual state-funded Sangai Festival. Now, the N Biren government is confident of making a change and 15 buses are plying through three routes yet it remains to be seen whether the plan survives and thrives or the buses turn into unwanted showpieces yet again at the office premise of the corporation that was originally established in 1976. Meanwhile, most ironically, the bus service on a couple of inter-district routes (Imphal–Moreh and Imphal–Pherzawl) has stopped because of pathetic road conditions. On the other hand, there have been complaints that they are spending more than earning profits in the inter-city* bus service because of the lack of passengers.  [* PS: Imphal is a town, not a city.]

Signal from Burma 

We were in for some surprises when we reached Kwatha. All of those are worth remembering no matter how memory and reality are a totally different ball game.

A woman was standing by on the way as we passed through the unpaved orange-y road coloured by red soil that is commonly found in Manipur and beyond. She said how Imphal is just too far away and the medical facilities in Moreh or farther Kakching are literally inhospitable and she went to Tamu to deliver her baby. A primary health centre stands at the middle of this leikai-village but it is nothing more than a skeleton, existing merely for the namesake.

Just as the lack of a paved road, there are no newspapers in Kwatha. No newspapers! In this age of information, the joke goes on how we turn into Neanderthals when our Wi-Fi is down. See the memes all over the Internet. Yet you enter a whole new world where there is no basic means of mass media. But you might mistake the leikai-village to be some sort of a primitive society, which it is not. Many villagers, especially the youth, are armed with smartphones and familiar with Facebook but again they have to go to Kundaung for recharge. They call the area within the mobile-signal range as the zero mile.

Incidentally, once we drove closer to Kwatha, we started receiving SMSes about mobile roaming that we get usually while landing in or reaching a new city. Only this time, we were still in Manipur and getting the texts that welcome us to Burma!  


In a way, technology is a way of saying India’s writ does not run long and until recently, Sajik Tampak, which falls in the same district of Chandel that is now bifurcated into Tengnoupal, was considered as a de facto entity or a liberated zone. De facto implies Sajik Tampak was considered a separate region outside the so-called State—in real albeit without legal authority. The existence of such regions in neighbouring Burma is quite an open secret today, with the closest link to us being NSCN-K-dominated area in Upper Sagaing.  

Meanwhile, nobody knows the legality of using a mobile phone service from a neighbouring country but it comes with security concerns. In fact, mobile phones were introduced in Manipur comparatively late around the mid-2000s and one of the reasons for the delay, unsurprisingly, was the very security risk. A man from the leikai-village said nonchalantly that the army and paramilitary personnel are suspicious at times. When you have a phone with such a connection, you can easily sneak into Burma, you know, like after completing ‘a’ task. That’s the reason.

Upon asking, another man replied that radio is available but the signal is feeble. To bring life to a common time frame for all of us and as is done in some leikai around the Imphal valley, a Manipuri-custom community radio, which is played over a loudspeaker from a traditional radio, will be a good start in Kwatha. The folks should just hope that they get to listen to Taretmakhai Pao and other informative programmes on the Sangai and Kangla channels and do not end up tuning into pop music of the radio stars from Tamu. This ‘conflict of interest’ might be possible just like the mobile phone services.

Seeing the availability of only government-funded radio services in the state, the questions of incumbent government using public media, including the electronic media, or Doordarshan, in addition to the All India Radio as its mouthpiece, are bound to come up but that’s another issue. For now it is crucial that Kwatha has access to, at least, the mass media services that are paradoxically freely available.

 Map source: Talessman’s Atlas, World History Maps by Thomas Lessman. Check the complete world map on www.worldhistorymaps.info.

Path from the Past to the Present

For a leikai-village that has been in existence for six centuries, Kwatha’s internal dynamics will balance the good and the bad for its own welfare despite the prevailing dangers. From its physical location, it resembles a historical frontier or hill outpost at an extreme end. In the past, even when the boundary of the erstwhile kingdom of Manipur or Kangleipak was marked at the western bank of the River Ningthi (Chindwin), Kwatha was most likely a Meitei’s frontier settlement territory, which traversing the Chin Hills, descends to the Kabaw Valley*.

* Kabaw Valley means the ‘black’ or ‘death’ valley in Burmese.

In this regard, when the Treaty of Yandaboo was signed on 24 February 1826, the Ningthi was assumed as the boundary between Manipur and Ava (Burma), and by default Kabaw Valley was a part of the former kingdom, which had also then become a British protectorate. In direct contrast to this kind of simplified observation, the Agreement and the narratives of both the lands and the people in the ensuing decades and centuries are as complex as the Burmese language for us. 

Well, today, the history of this leikai-village has always been ignored while discussing the issues of Kabaw Valley, which in itself is fraught with contestation, emotion, historical dissonance and grievances. The matter is that, as in any discussion of the Kabaw Valley, any historical accounts related to Pemberton Line, the amended Pember-Johnstone-Maxwell Line, the Yandaboo Treaty and others must have a direct connection with the people of Kwatha. That’s a given. This is deduced from an observation that these people were not, by nature, Zomian, who had proceeded to master the ‘art of not being governed’.

The only problem is the absence of any reliable source to ascertain the facts. And this is a problem for the whole Manipur. Despite being a literate society with a well-established language system, the state suffers from an acute deficit of documentation and hence its narratives are fraught with lack of clarity. To add insult to the backache, the onslaught of Hinduism had played a fundamental role in completely de-establishing the Manipuri polity over and above sabotaging its tradition and culture. This was further aggravated with ploys like, amongst others, forced proselytisation, physical and cultural destruction of local deities, and setting books and documents on fire on a large scale that we now commemorate as the Puya Meithaba Numit. Religion is such a dick.

Closer to Kwatha, the lack of clarity exists is in its name too. Kwapaambi are grown sporadically, mostly by the sloppy mountainside than in the comparatively flatter area of the leikai-village, which in fact is most popular for its soiboom than anything else.

By the way, 2017 is going to be a bad year for Kwatha with the onset of bamboo blossom this season and it is going to cost the villagers dearly. In this leikai-village, soiboom provides a means of livelihood for many people, who survive on such little source of sustenance they can find from the vicinity. The second most important stuff of trade is charcoal. Both of these businesses are time consuming as well as highly disproportionate to the income they generate from trading but then that’s how life is in this world—unfair and unjust as the rich worry about diet schedule and the poor about hunger.

A majority of the people in Kwatha also live on shifting cultivation, which is another area that needs major intervention for the leikai-village to help come out of its cocoon. The people are aware about sustainable farming—in the same manner that they have talent but no exposure—yet they have little means to turn the ideas into initiatives. So, even if they need alternatives to this unproductive form of farming, they just choose the more accessible means or a lesser evil.
 
It might be common for people who practise shifting cultivation to do farming in steep regions, but a mountain that walls Kwatha on its north—and which could be of anywhere between 10 to 20 kilometres in length from a guesstimate—inclines at about, with exaggeration, 80 degrees. As obtrusive it is from one of the commons, the mountainside flaunts freshly maintained saplings. The fact that they are going to go harvest at such a location is daunting to say the least.

Conclusion

Many things that are possible in hilly areas are simply unimaginable for a valley dweller. If there is a term that could describe the shifting cultivation of Kwatha, then it should be ‘danger’ and it does not end there. Owing to its low sea level, the place is humid and notorious for tropical issues and pestilence though it is much better than Moreh, which that looks no different from those sweaty and sticky corners in Southeast Asian countries that we can see most stereotypically  in Hollywood movies.

Going for a trip now and then is good for us. It does not only break the monotony of everyday life but also offers you insight like nobody in Kwatha would care about if their home is categorised under a village or a leikai-village but they do about a good life. Besides, going for a trip to Kwatha is even better for all the good reasons and hopefully someday, this leikai-village will be able to tell the world, regardless of its present situation or physical location, what it is worth of.

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