07 / 2011
This is a story about an innovative initiative that aims to protect the environment while building a more peaceful way of life in a community severely affected by violence. The story centers on the Manipur Cycle Club, a group of enthusiastic activists who – as a response to the armed conflict in their region – decided to create a new space where respect, tolerance and harmony with nature could be promoted. The group behind the initiative believes that, through cycling, they can promote values that stimulate the construction of a democratic society.
The story takes place in the city of Imphal, the crowded valley capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, which borders Bangladesh and Myanmar. Most Manipuris have strongly resisted the attempts to incorporate the region into the Indian nation-state, a process that has been going on since colonial times. But despite the many tensions and the continuing violence in the state, the amazing cultural diversity of Imphal has survived. The city is marked by the strong cultural influence of a number of Asian peoples and nations that have interacted with the Manipuris over the last few centuries. The valley features an intricate network of rivers and paths, which connect it to the hills. The valley tribes (predominantly Meiteis) and the hill tribes (Naga and Kuki-Chin) have developed a flourishing economy of interdependence where goods and resources are exchanged.
Strong historical and linguistic evidence suggests that migratory waves from China heavily influenced the cultural and ethnic composition of the local population; the tribes currently populating Manipur belong to the same Sino-Tibetan language family (1). Despite this shared heritage, divisive ethno-nationalist discourses evolved during the twentieth century, creating intense rivalries between the tribes. This happened in part as a reaction to British and (after Independence) Indian attempts to assimilate Manipur into the larger Indian state, which led tribal groups to emphasize their separate ethnic status. The rise of ethnic consciousness was also hastened by the British obsession with race and classification, which facilitated its divide-and-conquer strategies. Independent India maintained this emphasis on classification, with the 1950 constitution listing the country’s Scheduled Tribes (indigenous people like those in Manipur). Such lists arguably singled out people that did not belong to so-called civilized communities, reducing them to inferiors and allocating them separate areas under the special control of the government (2). This external demarcation according to ethnicity and territory contributed to the confrontation between the tribes and, ultimately, the proliferation of guerrilla groups fighting for the recognition of their local communities. The external imposition of classifications and the increasing social fragmentation – initially caused by various forms of colonialism, now exacerbated by guerilla fighting – have created a society that is in desperate need of democratization through the recuperation of human and civil rights and genuine self-determination.
In this context of social discontent, several insurgent groups are currently operating in Manipur. The groups use guerilla tactics to attack the Assam and Manipur Rifles Battalions, who are part of the paramilitary forces supposedly maintaining order in this “rebellious” region. The civil population is constantly harassed by the armed forces, who act with impunity due to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 (AFSPA). This draconian law allows for curfews, arbitrary detentions, interrogations, and restrictions on free movement and use of public space (3). As noted in a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch, Manipur has one of the highest rates of human rights violations in India. In this context of authoritarianism and military masculinization, women of Manipur have repeatedly been subject to abuse and violence by soldiers. In 2004, soldiers of the Assam Rifles raped, tortured and murdered a 32-year-old Manipuri woman named Manorama Devi. In response, a group of Manipuri women protested naked in front of the barracks of the Assam Rifles Battalion, causing a national scandal by denouncing the violence committed by the Indian army.
The Origins of the Cycle Club
In June 2011, I traveled to Imphal to meet the members of Manipur Cycle Club (MCC) and to participate in some of their activities. I had to go through fewer bureaucratic hurdles than during my last trip in August 2010. Then, I not only had to apply for an entry permit two months in advance, but I was also interviewed by policemen in Imphal. Such restrictions are based on an Indian version of the British colonial “Line Regulation of 1874,” which was applied to Northeast India and prohibited access to non-regulated areas for all ‘outsiders.’ This time I did not have to apply for an entry permit and was not interviewed at the airport; still, it was necessary to report my presence to the local police authorities and to indicate exactly where I was going to be. I also received frequent phone calls from the state government’s Department of Intelligence.
In order to recover civil rights and public space, and as a response to the lack of social, environmental, and infrastructural policies, locals in Imphal have promoted several strategic initiatives. One of the most interesting is the MCC, which reminds Manipuris of their rights as citizens and the responsibility of the state in implementing adequate policies. The idea of cycling for life has the potential to generate new social movements and create the conditions for a respectful dialogue between the local government and the Manipuri population.
The Meitei tribe is the largest tribal group in Imphal, and most of the members of MCC are Meiteis, but there are also many members from other tribes. The members see a project that is creating new spaces of collective action and interaction and that promotes activities that are very different from the ones led by human rights activist. Spaces are being created in which the participants are also made aware of issues such as the dangers of global warming and the importance of public transportation and urban organization. This may be precisely what Manipur needs: new input to rethink a society that for the last 60 years has been a victim of war and military occupation. Especially for the younger generations it is essential to find alternative ways to interact with others in the community and to find creative ways to address their daily problems. MCC is presenting fresh new ideas that inspire many young Manipuris who had never before shown any interest in joining social movements or protecting the environment. MCC’s use of web-based social networks, such as Facebook, to promote activities of the club has been very important to reduce fear and encourage youth to work together.
The initiative, while new, is tied to older struggles for human rights and to social movements protesting against “developmental” projects and dams in Manipur. The founders of MCC have been committed to the protection of natural resources and the self-determination of indigenous groups. After more than nine years of active work on indigenous issues (4), these leaders found that it was necessary to organize activities through which people in urban areas could be made aware of the dangers of contamination. Most of all, they wanted to promote alternatives to the urban chaos of downtown Imphal, which is drowning in a constant traffic jam.
Bicycles and Imphal
According to the Indian Census of 2001, approximately 80% of the total population of Manipur is living in Imphal, a city that covers no more than 10% of the land in the entire state. This high population density, combined with an increasing number of motorized vehicles and an acute lack of social and environmental policies, has made many inhabitants realize that there is an urgent need for sustainable and alternative solutions and initiatives. For instance, there could be separate bike lanes on the main roads and green zones where access of vehicles is restricted.
MCC started to operate as an active organization in January 2011. In April 2011, the Club held an important workshop attended by many central figures from Manipur’s social movements. The workshop participants decided on an action plan, as well as objectives and governing principles for the Club. Efforts were made to ensure that these were consistent with the overall goal of promoting sustainable development and respect for indigenous peoples. Among the many activities that MCC have organized in its short life are recruitment campaigns, meetings with other civil society organizations, interviews with local media, and public activities that have been coordinated via the Club’s Facebook account, which already has more than 360 members. One important activity the club has organized is a major bicycling event in Imphal called Critical Mass. This is named after similar events in the United States and Europe in which cyclists take over the main streets of different cities in order to create awareness in the community about the importance of using bicycles in congested cities. Recently the Club organized a bingo game as a fundraising event. More than 300 people attended, a great success keeping in mind that Imphal is occupied by the army and there are many restrictions on public meetings. Local authorities, academics, filmmakers and community personalities enthusiastically supported the fundraising and awareness activity.
One of the major challenges of promoting cycling in Manipur is simply that it is expensive to buy a bicycle. As Imphal has high rates of poverty and social asymmetries, the Club has been promoting joint saving in order to buy good bikes. Other activities mentioned in the action plan include: supporting entrepreneurship in the cycle business; promoting bicycle manufacturing and fabrication through national and international collaborations; establishing cycle cooperatives and networks of showrooms; and creating repair and maintenance centres where unemployed youths can find work. The Club further aims to organize environment awareness campaigns for sustainable development and to initiate lobbying and advocacy activities for environment-friendly public transport policies. The club would like to see government incentives for people to use bikes in their daily commute, as well as government subsidies for the purchase of bikes. The Club also wants to contribute to the monitoring and documentation of environment pollution in the city in collaboration with state agencies and scientific institutions.
Club members believe that through cycling and the other activities of the club, a new manner of perceiving time and space is promoted, along with a lifestyle that is conducive to sustainable development. According to the material produced by MCC, cycling reduces the carbon footprint, as well as noise, air and visual pollution, traffic jams, congestion and accidents. Cycling is also therapeutic for the mind and healthy for the body. Secondary effects of cycling include reduced deforestation and consumption of fossil fuels.
It is clear that Manipur Cycle Club is first and foremost dealing with the local problems of Manipur, but it also wishes to deal with global environmental problems by connecting local and global action. The members of the club see themselves as agents of social change and as participants of a democratic grassroots movement that stimulates public debate and dialogue on peace and developmental issues.
However, promoting bicycling in Imphal is challenging not least because of the lack of infrastructure and the vehicular chaos. These are problems that should be discussed with local authorities, who can help develop plans, projects and budgets. This may not be easy in a place that seems infested with corruption (5). But the main challenge that the club faces is a deeply-rooted consumerism. The urban society in Imphal is infatuated by a social imaginary in which driving a car represents wealth and social mobility whereas cycling represents poverty and backwardness. People are constantly reminded that in the ‘First World’ countries people have many cars, electronic devices and other consumer goods, and it becomes a goal in itself to become owners of such goods and items. Today all this stuff invades the shops in downtown Imphal, and thousands of modern cars are every day trying to pass through the pre-modern roads of the city. In this situation, people do what they can to move around, in a city which is itself a picture of an incomplete modernity and therefore also a democracy to build.
This article is availaible in French: L’Association cycliste du Manipur : une course pour la vie dans le nord-est de l’Inde
Salem Irene, “Manipur: Land, People, Demography and Historiography” in Understanding North East India, Cultural Diversities, Insurgency and Identities, edited by Madhu Rajpur, Manak publications: New Delhi, 2011
Archana Upadhyav, “Terrorism in the North East linkages and implications”, in Economic and Political Weekly, 2 December 2006, pp. 4993-4999
Centre for Development and Peace Studies, “Overview: Insurgency and Peace Efforts in Manipur.”, January 2011
Human Rights Watch, “India: End Manipur Killings.”, July 2009
Anju Rawat, “Manipur in search of a new dawn” in Understanding North East India, Cultural Diversities, Insurgency and Identities, edited by Madu Rajput, India, 2011.