Imphal: A Disturbed and Connected City in India

Hans Schenk

The publisher of Borderland City in New India promises a study of “contemporary urban life in a smaller city located in India’s Northeast borderland at a time of dramatic change” (back-cover). The author, Duncan McDuie-Ra also stresses the importance of studying “small, rapidly growing urban settlements” which are “vital sites for understanding development and change”, though “obscured by the focus on megacities” [25]. 

A book on Imphal, the middle-sized capital city of Manipur in the far Northeast of India, bordering Myanmar, as some counterpoise to the attention to India’s mega-cities, raises then expectations of a monograph on urban life in this city. However, Imphal can hardly be called just a smaller Indian urban settlement. McDuie-Ra finds a disturbed city, the stage of quite some warring ethnic communities, contesting the Indian Union, Hindi, Manipur State, Manipuris and non-Manipuris or thriving for independence or a new (autonomous) (tribal) state.

Imphal, a disturbed city

The author started his research, as he states, in a conventional ethnographic manner [29-30], orally engaging with changes in the daily lives of the citizens, during fieldwork between 2011 and 2014. In addition he gives considerable attention to “reading the urban landscape” [29]: observing natural and cultural urban artefacts such as billboards, buildings, memorials, places of worship, markets, forests, ponds, etc. He has, however, presented his research outcomes in the core of the book less conventionally. This core is divided into two parts. The first part refers to Imphal’s past position as a ‘borderland city’, in a remote, disturbed and neglected part of India, against now (in the second part) along the highway from India to Southeast Asia, near a semi-open border with Myanmar.

The first part: ‘Disturbed City, Sensitive Space’ and hence also the first part of the account of the daily lives of Imphal’s inhabitants, is approached along three themes in three respective chapters. ‘Belonging’ (Chapter 2) deals with neighbourhoods, often vital to create senses of being connected for new urbanites and others; as well as with alternative sites such as sports complexes, where belonging is expressed through a sought common identity. In Chapter 3 (‘Control’) the question who is in control over urban space stands central. McDuie-Ra distinguishes between a number of actors who seek to exercise this control: the armed forces who try to enact security; civilian governments through development projects; and non-state actors, such as underground groups, neighbourhood associations, who, challenging armed forces and civilian actors, claim various parts of the city. Chapter 4 (‘Exclusion’) is in a way the reverse of the chapter on belonging. It focuses on the periodic movements against outsiders – non-Manipuri – since the last century, and they are mixed with complex conflicts between the dominant Meitei and tribal communities (Naga, Kuki), both those within Manipur and in neighbouring states. These conflicts escalate occasionally; e.g., in 2010 and 2011 when strategic roads in the state were blocked for several weeks by Naga demanding a tribal state. They paralyzed Imphal.

In each of these three chapters elaborate examples vividly narrate the complex themes of belonging, control and exclusion. However, they read more like essays than accounts of fieldwork - very well written essays though. The distance to orally acquired information, the major sources of information in an ethnography, seems remote in these chapters, while the sources are often rather casually presented.

Health and education: Imphal under forces of the market

The second part of McDuie-Ra’s book is quite different. “The frontier is liberalising, or being liberalised. Indian capital is gaining a firm foothold” are introductory sentences to this part [120]. They refer to the penetration of the market economy into more corners of the Indian society and into the domestic market of Manipur and Imphal, following the bankruptcy of the planned economy in the 1990s. Imphal is hence no more an isolated place, fighting with itself, so to say, but “subject to greater connectivity across the nearby international border” and also “inwards deeper into the nation-state from which many of its residents have sought secession” [121]. In three chapters dimensions of becoming a connected gateway-city are discussed. In Chapter 5 (‘Gateway City’) an overview is given of the ‘Look East Policy’ of the Indian government, followed in 2014 by an ‘Act East Policy’ after India’s Prime Minister’s Modi’s visit to Myanmar. Cross-border flows emerge and McDuie-Ra discusses two exponents: the flourishing sale of second-hand clothes from all over the world (Korean are liked most by vendors), and an ASEAN-India car rally from Assam, passing Imphal to Myanmar, symbolizing the closer economic relations between India and Southeast Asia.

In Chapter 6 (‘Health City’) an amazing boom in high quality private health care is analyzed. Health in India’s new market oriented regime is “perceived as an opportunity to improve efficiency and delivery by proponents of liberalisation, and an example of both the weakening of the state and the capacity of the state to enable further expansion of the private sector” [147]. In Imphal public health care was as poorly functioning as elsewhere in India, and McDuie-Ra explains the outburst of private health facilities driven by health entrepreneurs primarily as a kind of accidental liberalisation, and a pragmatic response to the failure of the state health facilities. Private health is “Clean, modern and corruption-free” concludes the author, though vaguely adding: depending on “Partners and protection” [154]. He does not elaborate on this statement: “Unravelling these threads is difficult and dangerous, and perhaps beside the point” [161]. Moreover, human capital is abundant, as studying medicine was and is popular. The emerged concentration of health institutions has also profited from the opening up of the border: doctors, patients, blood samples and x-rays come from and/or go back to Myanmar following local agreements, circumventing India’s sovereign territorial control. In Chapter 9 (‘Education City’), McDuie-Ra discusses a similar outburst of private enterprise: private and expensive education, driven by the wish among parents for better education and access to better jobs elsewhere in India as - in this case - connectivity with the rest of the country is sought, not with Southeast Asia. But, while the public schools decay, McDuie-Ra observes the flipside of education run by market conditions in Imphal: household debts, qualified graduates without work, etc.

As said, the second part of the book is different from the first part. The issues at stake (border flows, health, education) seem more tangible than those in the first part (belonging, control, exclusion). The produced evidence is moreover more visibly present: interviews with second hand cloth sellers, doctors, teachers, etc.

Concluding remarks

Taking it all together, the book is impressive enough. First it shows how McDuie-Ra enjoyed being there as he mentions his strolls across the city and observing the landscape and events. However, the less acquainted reader with the city misses maps to get an idea of ‘what is where’. Sentences, such as: “The public meeting at Pishumtong took place across the Nambul River from Chinga Ching, a hilltop in Sinjamei locality”[184] would become more meaningful to many readers if all such names were somewhat localised. And secondly, the book certainly shows dimensions of living in Imphal, and probably important ones. However, it focuses on rather extreme dimensions. Though promised, it is not discussed what the citizens do in-between strikes, protest rallies and road blocks. How do they manage to cope with trivial matters such as their daily survival, their attempts to arrange shelter, and so forth?