The Rhizomes of Manipur:
How Marginal Resistance Turns Difference into Affirmation

Andrew Robinson
Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice, Nottingham

[1] This paper will examine the June-December 2004 popular uprising in Manipur, through the lens of reports in the Manipuri, Indian and global media, with a view to showing how the characteristics of an affinity-network arise in a marginal setting. It will show that social relations based on the affinity-network form provide an alternative to statist and hierarchical imaginaries which create antagonistic, fixed identities, turning difference into a positive force of empowerment instead of a matter of incompatible claims. It will also seek to understand how, in contrast to other local political forces, the mobilisation was able to turn difference into a source of strength.

[2] This article draws on earlier work (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2010) outlining the distinction between affinity-networks, reactive networks and various kinds of hierarchies, based on the distinction between active and reactive desire. In Deleuzian theory, active (or 'schizoid') desire, which is primary in processes of becoming, is counterposed to reactive (or 'paranoiac') desire, which is a later emergence and which underpins states and other alienating and repressive assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 214-17; 1987: 277; Deleuze, 2006: 45, 61; 1994: 50-4). Whereas reactive desire seeks to repress or encode difference, active desire makes difference a source of affirmation (Deleuze, 2006: 55-6). The possibility of social transformation depends on the viability of social forms based on active desire as alternatives to reactive and arborescent assemblages. I have elsewhere argued (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2010: 127-33) that this potential is shown by the affinity-network form, based in Day's (2005) terms on affinity rather than hegemony. Affinity-networks offer a potential global alternative to capitalism and the state, a new 'organising logic' pitted against the world-system (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2010: 142; Grubacic, 2004). This echoes with Agamben's view that the coming struggle is between state and non-state, with the latter based on non-representational forms of being irreducible to any state (1993: 85-6). The effect of affinity-network success is the construction of a smooth space or 'absolute deterritorialisation'.

[3] The affinity-network form seems to re-emerge automatically whenever excluded or marginal groups confront the overarching power of the dominant system. It exists in a tense relation with reactive desire, which often finds its way inside otherwise affinity-based movements, creating a continnum between the two types of network. It is the affinity-network, however, which expresses the emancipatory logic of the excluded (Robinson, 2010). For Deleuze and Guattari, the fixities of the molar subject are secondary effects of the reactive reinscription of primary flows which are active and affirmative. The 'minorities' constructed by flows of becoming do not constitute viable states, 'because the State-form is not appropriate to them' (1987: 472). There are problems because reactive power holds considerable force, given the artificial mass-production of scarcity in the current world. As a result, societies oscillate dramatically between the active and reactive poles (1983: 277). It is this oscillation which will be explored below.

[4] Networked forms of politics (both active and reactive) seem to emerge most frequently at sites where hierarchical statist and capitalist inscriptions are weakest. Such regions are typically sites of contestation. They are subject to repressive processes of territorialization whereby they are mapped into state imaginaries and practices of control (Vandergeest and Peluso, 1995). This is often expressed in discourses of development which treat non-capitalist forms of life as inferior, discourses which are today under attack by social movements (Escobar, 1992: 23, 29). In contrast, counter-power emerges in local, partial existential territories which deterritorialise overarching apparatuses (Janz, 2001). There are degrees of marginality, and the most interesting rhizomatic potentialities often emerge at the most marginal sites. Aguirre Beltran (1979) argues that peripheries can be divided along a continuum of different types, from dependent peripheries vital to world-systemic production, through marginally integrated sites, to 'regions of refuge' where the economic form is not that of the dominant system. These sites tend to undergo enforced stagnation as states try to prevent them from influencing the wider economy. Hall (1989: 164) argues that regions of refuge are not fully incorporated in the world-system and become sites for non-capitalist alternatives. Since resistance arises from the standpoint of the excluded (Robinson, 2010), and tends to recompose at the most peripheral points (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 277), it often finds its most complete expressons in regions of refuge such as Chiapas, West Papua and the Andean region.

[5] Manipur is an archetypal region of refuge. It is part of a region historically constructed as non-state space (Baruah, 2005: 8). The economy is based on subsistence and petty commodity production, with over half the population involved in agriculture and many of the remainder in handicrafts. There is no large-scale industry and smaller-scale industry is mostly state-run. Manipur is largely self-sufficient in rice, and the most common occupations are agriculture and weaving (Zehol, 1998: 28). Indigenous economies based on semi-nomadic cultivation have been disrupted somewhat by the rise of nation-states, and Manipur is no exception (Kumara, 2004). The economy has been in decline since the merger with India, with militarisation blamed for food shortages (Parratt, 2005: 147). This repeats the standard pattern for regions of refuge to be forced into stagnation by the state system. As a result of this process, Manipur has suffered periodic subsistence crises since the 1930s (Parratt, 2005: 77), and 40% of the population are officially unemployed (2005: 214). There is also an underground economy fuelled by unemployment and exclusion, including for instance a cross-regional drug traffic and an economy of extortion by armed groups (Upadhyay, 2004). Despite its apparent poverty, Manipur performs well on some human development indicators such as literacy and women's economic participation. The latter can be attributed to women's political activism, and also to their unusual centrality in Manipur's economic life, which dates back to pre-colonial times and includes the assignation of trading and food distribution as female roles (Barua and Devi, 2004; Arambam Parratt and Parratt, 2001: 906). It is thus closely connected to the primacy of subsistence and petty commodity economics in Manipur. Despite its historical origins, this position has had to be defended through movement activism (Barua and Devi, 2004: 130-1). From a developmental standpoint, the question nevertheless appears to be one of lack. In the Indian development literature, Manipur is viewed mainly as a reservoir of unexploited resources and skilled labour (e.g. Thomas et al., 2002). What from a developmentalist perspective appears as lack can also be theorised as the existence of alternative possibilities.

The context of social movements in Manipur: striation and reactive forces

[6] In the context of attempts to contain autonomy, Manipur is undergoing something akin to a continued colonial occupation. India seeks to incorporate marginal groups through a system of multi-tiered citizenship similar to colonial indirect rule (Baruam, 2005). Residents of Manipur complain of racist treatment by Indian elites and occupying troops (Sagar, 2004; Reuters, Aug 11 2004). Similarly, Sagar argues that the peoples of the Northeast are 'invisible' in Indian discourse, with the region's resources but not its people portrayed as belonging (Sagar, 2004). Such experiences of exclusion have led to colonial analogies, with for instance, Manipuris referring to India as the 'mainland' (Sharma, 2004), while banners saying 'Down with Colonial Rule' appearerd on protests (Sangai Express, Aug 19). This occurs in a context where, until recently, minorities in India were subject to attempted assimilation (Parratt, 2005: 1). A number of accounts suggest that people from Manipur are marked as racial others within India (Khaling 2008, Sagar 2004). The context also includes a militarisation of society, in which '[h]istorical sites, ritual places, playgrounds, grazing areas, and even schools are converted into army barracks' and in which villages are periodically occupied (Ningthouja 2005). Further, like many marginal regions, Manipur has fallen foul of India's development agencies, with massive hydroelectric schemes proving an economic and ecological disaster (Parratt, 2005: 203). 

[7] India is condemned by advocates for Manipur as a colonial state mimicking European nationalist features (Sagar, 2004). The situation instantiates a broader problem with imported images of the nation-state in India. Created through denials and silencings, the Indian nation has been haunted by "fragments" which create infrapolitical potentialities irreducible to state power (Chatterjee, 1993). As a result, as Nandy (2002: 59-60) argues, there is a need to look beyond the nation-state in seeking future political formations. The focus of this paper is not, however, on the peculiarities of Indian politics. Though highly local, the Manipur protests resonate with global issues around the effects of the 'war on terror' (Sagar, 2004). Their significance is not simply at the margins of Indian nationhood, but in the confrontation between statism and networked forms of social life expressed through protest and resistance.

[8] Without capabilities for in-depth subsumption, the Indian state resorts to military methods of control to maintain a minimum degree of striation. The regime under which Manipur is ruled contains strong colonial elements inherited from the British regime, including the hated Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) which was the target of the 2004 protests, and the main occupying force, the Assam Rifles. AFSPA is a typical 'state of exception' law paralleling those of the global 'war on terror', allowing unconstrained state violence under the pretext of emergency (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 39). It covers most of northeast India and allows soldiers impunity to shoot on sight and arrest without warrants, and it is instrumental in the pervasiveness of human rights violations in the region. Under its cover, the military and police target scapegoats and bystanders, retrospectively justifying abuse by labelling victims as 'suspected insurgents'. This has led to a documented history of extrajudicial executions, rapes, beatings, torture, arbitrary arrests and other mistreatment (SAHRDC, 2000). Such abuses create 'an overwhelming sense of unease and fearfulness', disrupting social life (Parratt, 2005: 148). According to Indian human rights activist, Lachit Bordoloi, '[i]f some one really wants to prevent the excessive human rights abuses by the security personnel in the region, he or she must raise voice against the AFSPA' (Thakuria 2004). A statement by a literary organisation involved in the agitation against the Act states that 'the Act has become ruthless weapon for the security personnel to perpetrate torture of innocent civilians, rape and other forms of rights violation' (Sangai Express, 5th August), and other reports suggest that in Manipur, the army is the primary branch of the state, with 'every captain or lieutenant act[ing] as if he owns the road' (The Hindu, Aug 15). Contrary to claims that it curbs insurgency, the imposition of AFSPA led to a 50% increase in insurgent attacks (Parratt, 2005: 151). In Manipur, it is viewed as evidence of neo-colonial and racist attitudes (Parratt, 2005: 166; Laisom, 2006). 

[9] Politics in Manipur can be analysed as an interplay of active flows of becoming arising from experiences of minoritarian standpoints and from the situation of a region of refuge, and reactive forms of composition associated with the rigid or 'paranoiac' mapping of these diversities onto fixed categories of nationality and ethnicity. Manipur oscillates constantly between the two poles, with ethnicity as a central signifying schema. Manipur's ethnic groups are divided between 'non-tribal' and 'tribal' categories, and within these, among Meitei, Bishnupriya and Pangal Muslim ethnicities and between Naga, Kuki-Chin-Mizo and 'intermediate' tribal groups, each comprising a range of sub-group identities at clan or village level (Zehol, 1998: 2-3). The sharpest antagonisms occur between 'tribal' (especially Naga) and 'non-tribal' (especially Meitei) groups, associated with the hills and the valley respectively (Zehol, 1998: 27). Ethnic identities have undergone constant changes over time, and the hill-valley distinction is of recent origin (Zehol, 1998: 113, Parratt, 2005: 5-6). The current debate in Manipur focused on the territorial integrity of Manipur versus Naga claims to autonomy (Rungsung 2007). Primarily, this conflict is expressed as a conflict among different armed opposition groups and allied social movements. Local electoral politics also exists, but is characterised by power-hunger and an extractive approach by politicians (Parratt, 2005: 128, 195). Corruption is so pervasive that it absorbs 75% of development funds (Parratt, 2005: 200), and the Meitei are accused of dominating government appointments (Shimrah 2006). It has further been argued that the absorption of social movement energies in peacebuilding and in preventing rights violations have absorbed energies which could otherwise have gone into 'warding off servitude and building an egalitarian lifestyle', as they did in pre-colonial Manipur (Thangjam, n.d.).

[10] One result of reactive imaginaries is that local politics are strongly ethnicised, divided among identity-groups. In extreme cases, different armed groups have been involved in clashes or have ethnically cleansed rival civilians from disputed areas (Upadhyay, 2004). The relationship of armed groups with the people they claim to represent is variant and sometimes conflictual, though their agendas express wider aspirations and frustrations. Their formal agendas are couched in terms of state-formation, seeking either an independent Manipur or separate homelands for other minorities. Armed insurgent groups have existed for some time, and came about due to Indian repression of protests and local disillusionment with the political elite. The turn to armed opposition is sometimes explained as resulting from the hardening effects of Indian prevarication on autonomy (Parratt, 2005: 129-30). Armed groups recruit mainly among unemployed youths (Kumara, 2004). In particular, their constituency is among educated young men (and a few women) unable to find a place in Manipur's economy or state (Parratt, 2005: 138). Recruits turn to insurgent groups looking for a purpose in life (Parratt, 2005: 214), suggesting that their function, in common with other small-world networks, is driven by active energies contained within a reactive frame (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2010: 204). The origins of the dozens of insurgent groups are often unclear, with some having definite ideologies, others connected to the Indian intelligence apparatus and still others run mainly for extortion (Fernandes 2004). Where a definite discourse appears, it seems to focus on a revival of purity against perceived corruption. A discourse of revivalism is often connected to a rejection of corrupt politics, valorising traditional institutions against the 'money power' deemed to have corroded them (Shimray, 2006). The resulting discourse has Maoist overtones, combining modernist tropes of development and progress with ideas of autarky, subsistence and local autonomy.

[11] In the field of reactive identity-formation, the Meitei, Naga and Kuki groups are constructed as antagonists with mutually exclusive claims. In fact the ethnic composition of Manipur is even more complex than this three-way struggle suggests, with smaller groups such as the Hmar, Paite, Koms, Lamkang, Tangkhul and Maring existing on a continuum between the search for distinct ethnic identities and fusion into larger categories such as Naga and Kuki. The inclusion of groups such as the Maring and Paite in Naga ethnicity, for instance, is a recent effect of the political activities of Naga armed groups (Oinam, 2003: 2033). Each of the micro-nationalisms reconstructs the core-periphery model with itself cast in the role of core or trunk. Each thus comes to conceive the other micro-nationalities as barriers, as unwanted minorities against its own imagined majority. This creates dangers; as Appadurai argues, 'all majoritarianisms have in them the seeds of genocide' (2006: 57). The Meitei make up 60% of the population of Manipur, are the unmarked Manipuris, but occupy only around 10% of Manipur's land (Zehol, 1998: 27, 40; Parratt, 2005: 4). They are in the midst of a long process of revivalism (Zehol, 1998: 9). Revivalism has been fuelled by alleged Indian preference for other groups and resentment at being associated with India by other insurgents (Zehol, 1998: 81). While Manipuri identity dates back to pre-colonial times, its current instantiation, including anti-Hindu overtones, is of recent vintage. Meitei-based opposition groups claim that the hills and valley are inseparable and deny that groups such as the Naga are distinct peoples, blaming division on colonialism (Parratt, 2005: 35, Ningthoujam 2006). They use narratives of primordial unity, pre-colonial history and bioregionalism to advocate a unified Manipur (Guite, 2007; Arambam, 2008; Kangleicha Meitei, 2009). In line with their unmarked status, they typically claim to speak for all Manipuris, not just Meitei, while in practice pursuing a Meitei-focused agenda (Parratt, 2005: 138, 141-2).

[12] Naga identity is also a recent construct, with substantial diversity among Naga groups integrated through political 'unity in diversity' (Parratt, 2005: 6, Zehol, 1998: 98-9). Naga opposition groups are mainly irredentist, seeking the union of Naga parts of Manipur into a Greater Nagaland or Nagalim (Parratt, 2005: 138, Upadhyay 2005). They reject the spatial imaginary of Meitei groups while recognising Meitei claims to the valley (Arambam 2008). Naga armed groups often engage in internecine feuding which follows the lines of clan divisions (Verghese 1997: 101). This intergroup division also affects Kuki groups, with different groups objecting to others being taken as representative of the Kuki (Zehol, 1998: 7-8). There are at least fourteen Kuki armed groups which fight each other as well as the state, and four Hmar groups seeking independence from the Kuki (Parratt, 2005: 138, 167). The Kuki have a diverse web of levels and types of identity which seem to ward off concentrations of representational power. Kuki groups tend to put their clan identity ahead of their Kuki identity (Parratt, 2005: 179). Kuki nationalists articulate claims for self-government based on egalitarian traditional structures and present marginalisation (Haokip, 2007). The Naga and Kuki groups have a long history of intercommunal raiding (Parratt, 2005: 14), and more recently, Naga groups have been accused of ethnic cleansing, with nearly a thousand deaths in the 1990s (Parratt, 2005: 178). They have also been accused of seeking to 'Nagaise' certain local groups (Thadou, n.d.; Parratt, 6). It is difficult to reconcile the claims of various movements because of the interpenetration of groups. In practice few local areas are ethnically homogeneous (Parratt, 2005: 176; Tangkhul 2009), though individual villages are usually monoethnic (Zehol, 1998: 68). While 'tribal' groups dominate the hills, Naga and Kuki villages are spread throughout mixed territories without clear boundaries (Arambam 2008, Upadhyay 2005).

[13] It is crucial to note that reactive formations do not emerge from intergroup difference as such, but rather, from its reconstruction in relation to a framework of scarcity and external representation. The underlying origins of insurgency are often economic, with hostilities emerging from land encroachment or external economic control (Fernandez, 2004). Zehol argues that ethnic identity-formation in Manipur is often connected to competition for resources, or attempts to take advantage of group-based benefits (Zehol, 1998: 120). Land and job shortages impel groups to harden identities to ground exclusive claims to resources (Fernandes, 2004). The link between ethnicity and entitlement is partly an effect of subsistence economics, since the 'symbiotic' relationship between groups and land leads to the cultural conceptualisation of land shortages and conflicts as attacks on their identity (Acharya, 1990: 71-95). It is not, however, an automatic effect of such subsistence approaches, but rather, arises from their antagonistic relationship to representational mechanisms connecting them to capitalism and the state. As Upadhyay argues, the 'politicisation of socio-cultural demands of the three major ethnic communities followed by individualised interests of their leaders and higher level of corruption in government agencies responsible for economic developments gradually made the problem more and more complex' (Upadhyay, 2005). Similarly, Arambam (2008) argues that 'exogenous relationships' to patron-client networks and predatory forms of capitalism, not to mention Indian militarisation, have politicised ethnic relations. It is revealing that, during the 2004 protests, the army sought to foment ethnic divisions by forcing Naga to march with pro-army banners (Banerjee, 2008: 212).

[14] The reactive character of insurgent groups, in spite of their channelling of active energies, is clear from their own state-like striating practices. Armed groups sometimes seek to impose 'moral codes' around forms of dress, education and political adherence, through 'rough justice' against deviants, such as kneecappings. Armed groups regularly target drugs, alcohol, foreign movies and forms of dress in an attempt 'to project themselves as protectors of the State's culture and moral values' (Routray 2005). Naga insurgents have created parallel state institutions in parts of northern Manipur, including the extraction of taxes and tolls at gunpoint (Parratt, 2005: 135). While such state-like enforcement practices show a clear distinction between the statist aspirations of these movements and the more open-ended politics of social movements, there are points where the imposition of an alternative arborescent order shades both into resistance to state forces, and into reactive attachments among the wider population. There is some evidence that insurgent enforcement practices are popular, and a majority would probably support insurgents at least conditionally, though this is hard to establish given the existence of intimidation (Routray 2005; Parratt, 2005: 143, 167). Overall, while militantly opposing the status quo, the agenda of armed groups tends to be strongly identitarian and reactive.

[15] It might be assumed that the intergroup rivalries underpinning armed conflict form a barrier to the emergence of affinity-network politics, but there are limits to how far this is the case. In practice, categories are looser than they appear. Intergroup rivalries can be a force for ethnic cleansing, but they can also provide means to ward off the emergence of centralised power and guarantee the autonomy of all groups (Clastres, 1994). The difficulty is not so much the distinction of groups as the overdetermination of such distinctions by arborescent narratives which interfere with processes of becoming, instead fixing identities as matters of being. It has been argued that hardened ethnic identities are an effect rather than a cause of militarised 'hard politics' (Pieterse, 1998). In Manipur, this process of political 'hardening' has involved the emergence of territorialising boundary-practices very distinct from the non-bounded geographies of precolonial Manipur (Arambam, 2008). The division is carried out through a 'spatial dichotomisation of the imaginative geographies between the hills and plains in terms of ethnicity and ethnicisation of social relations and networks' (Arambam, 2008). Pre-colonial tribal identities were 'loosely knit' (Zehol, 1998: 118), and borders were porous, with frequent raiding and invasions. Only recently have borders been hardened through practices of striation.

[16] There is a recurring divide between armed groups and popular (or "civil society") groups, and this can be inferred as broadly following the reactive-active divide, though the equivalence of the two sets of categories is by no means perfect. While men have dominated ethnic nationalist movements, women have taken the lead through time in popular protest movements (Parratt, 2005: 75). Popular groups also tend to be more oriented to peace than insurgent groups. Women activists from their meira peibis (see below) and other groups have been involved in attempts to reduce ethnic conflict, for instance between the Naga and Kuki, and in protests for peace. In particular, the Moyon Sanuw Ruwrkheh, from the Naga-aligned Moyon ethnic group, have been instrumental in peacebuilding between Naga and Kuki through dialogue with Kuki women, and in dialogue between Naga armed factions (Banerjee, 2008: 213). Thus, 'civil society elements... have been keeping inter ethnic group peace networks alive during the last several decades of conflicts' (Fernandez, 2004). Such groups have a strong role in curbing the excesses of armed groups. For instance, women's groups had a central role in stopping ethnic cleansing in the 1990s (Fernandez 2004; c.f. Parratt, 2005: 175). This said, the two groups exist in a continuum. The violence of armed groups does not simply express reactive attachments, but is a response, through deviance amplification, to the repressive context created by Indian military occupation. Far from reducing violence, AFSPA has led to an 'enormous increase in the number of underground outfits' (Fernandez, 2004). It would seem that reactive, identity-based insurgency is the form taken by discontent when it comes up against blockages, whereas affinity-networked activity arises when blockages seem capable of being dissolved.

[17] The meira peibis are part of a broader tradition of largely active, but sometimes also identitarian, women's activism among the Meitei. The meira peibis, who carried out the symbolic action which galvanised further protests, are a community-oriented women's group which has taken on a role of watchdog of human rights abuses. Sources disagree on the group's origins, with one arguing that they were initially a response to alcohol-related violence which spread later to issues of political violence (Goswami et al., 2000: 16), and others suggesting that they emerged in response to particularly vicious abuse by Indian soldiers (Arambam Parratt and Parratt, 2001: 918-19; Devi, 1998: 80). They are a community-oriented group which offers psychological support services as well as raising a voice against abuses such as deaths in custody, 'encounter killings' and sexual violence (Goswami et al., 2000: 110). In particular, they seek to protect men and youths who are viewed as targets of military abuse (Devi, 1998: 77, 80). Organisationally, they are closely knit at a local level but do loosely integrate at other levels (Devi, 1998: 79). Leadership is similarly loose, tending to fall to the most vocal, outspoken or charismatic women rather than to particular social groups (1998: 80). They are particularly known for patrolling streets at night with torches, seeking to protect victims of state abuse. Arambam Parratt and Parratt term them a 'grass-roots vigilante women's movement organized in each locality, which has had some success in protecting citizens' basic rights' (2001: 919). Their particular method of torchlit processions have become a common feature of protest in Manipur, including the 2004 protest wave. They have been characterised as a 'slow but continuous movement' which operates intermittently and persistently, but with gaps of days and months in its activity (Devi, 1998: 78). The group has remained active in protests against AFSPA long after the broader movement has declined.

[18] The meira paibis are part of a broader pattern of women-led peacebuilding in the Northeast which also occurs in neighbouring areas such as Nagaland (Manchanda, 2001a, 2001b). Women tend to be marginalised in electoral politics and armed opposition in the Northeast due to militarised conceptions of citizenship, and as a result, are drawn to social movement activism, as well as social services such as drug clinics and HIV testing (Banerjee, 2002: 6-8). They also draw on a specifically meitei tradition of women's courts (Goswami et al., 2000: 16) and a history of women's involvement in protest, to which they explicitly refer (Thangjam, n.d.). The nupilan or women's wars/movements, mass campaigns of protest and sabotage directed against economic exploitation, provide a historical precursor for women's activism (Barua and Devi, 2004: 130; Arambam Parratt and Parratt, 2001: 918-19), and grew from women's position in market trading (Arambam Parratt and Parratt, 2001: 907). The second nupilan of 1939 had been directed at defending subsistence economics from grain exports, while the first had been directed at conscription for forced labour (Devi, 1998: 76-7). There is thus a thread connecting the meira peibis to subsistence, which partly accounts for their predominantly active/affinal structure. While principally active, they also seem to have an orientation to enforcing dominant norms in areas such as drug and alcohol use and family quarrelling. It has even been argued that they are not a transformative movement at all, but rather, seek to maintain the 'status quo' by 'purging the anti-social elements' (Devi, 1998: 78-9) and seek to conscript all locals as participants (1998: 80), though the latter allegation is contested (Thangjam, n.d.). While a problematic resonance with social conservatism limits the extent to which the group can be viewed as entirely active/affinal, its actions against state forces and its localised, non-hierarchical structure suggest that it is located towards the active end of the active-reactive continuum.

[19] Hence, active and reactive forces coexist in Manipur in an unstable balance of forces. In 'normal' periods, reactive forces predominate. In moments of popular rebellion, active forces reach a level of intensity sufficient to overwhelm reactive forces and become the pervasive logic of the social process. Furthermore, active forces point beyond the statist imaginary which carries reactive forces into social movements. As in many regions, the ethnicisation of Manipur is an effect of the mapping of inappropriate statist and nationalist narratives onto complex local realities. It would seem that a peaceful situation would require the overcoming or at least abating of statist imaginaries which render the demands of different groups mutually exclusive. As Arambam argues, peacebuilding rests on a restoration of everyday conviviality and non-territorial imaginaries (Arambam, 2008). There also seems to be more hope for non-conflictual autonomy at local levels than nationwide, suggesting that decentring or diffusion of power is necessary.

The protest wave of 2004

[20] In the protest wave of 2004, active forces clearly predominated over reactive forces, despite the structure of Manipur remaining the same as before. How did this come about? The thesis of this article is that such an affirmative mobilisation of difference became possible because the protest mobilisation approximated to an affinity-network model. The structure of the movement was basically rhizomatic, drawing on networked forms of (counter-)power at the edge of chaos (Chesters and Welsh, 2006). Its affinity logic is demonstrated in its organisational structure, symbolism, modalities of protest and antagonism with the state. Although concentrated in the mainly Meitei valley areas, the protests also involved 'tribal' (Naga and Kuki) groups within these areas (Prabhakara, 2004), showing resonances across ethnic divisions.

[21] The affinity basis of the protest wave is clear from its organisational structure – or perhaps, lack of it. The wave was not organised by a single party or group, and if it had been, would doubtless have fallen foul of intergroup divisions. Rather, various protests were organised at different localities by civil-society groups with a popular base among various distinct constituencies such as women and students. The mobilisation had an 'apex body' which provided a modicum of centralisation, the Apunba Lub, but this body was a coalition of civil-society groups with limited authority (Yahoo News, 6 Sept; One World South Asia, 19 July; Times of India, 10 Aug; Prabhakara, 2004). This group was the focal point of negotiations with the government, but its effective power seemed limited to the ability to call and cancel nationwide mobilisations in its own name. The simplicity of the demands of the protests militated against the possibility of the cooptation of Apunba Lub since there was little the movement could concede (Prabhakara, 2004).

[22] What is more, this group had limited power over local agents of protest. The protest wave seems to have spread through the whole network of social movements, from student groups to government workers. Media coverage gives an impression of protests springing up everywhere, uncontrollably (Reuters, 6 August). Local protests and actions in response to such calls were organised by local groups or federations of such groups (Imphal Free Press, Sept 5). In Naga minority areas, autonomous mobilisations in response to callouts were organised by Naga-specific groups (The Hindu, Aug 11). Often, local callouts would have numerous sponsors rather than a single body (Sangai Express, Aug 7). Groups such as students, market traders and workers often had specific modalities and sites of protest, and there are many examples of mobilisations by smaller groups such as truckers, writers and sportspeople. One protest was even organised by the United Kennel Club of Manipur, complete with companion dogs (Sangai Express, Aug 11). While political parties became involved in the mobilisation, they were also unable to dominate it, given its diffuse structure. Rather, the movement tended to be hostile to parties, with an election boycott called (Sangai Express, Sept 19). This relatively decentred structure provides a sense of how active forces can be mobilised in a context of inter-group rivalries; the avoidance of strong centralisation and of the formation of a single representative organisation enables a movement to be inclusive of diversity, turning difference into a strength. Fragmentation did not preclude effectiveness, either in the numbers attending protests – for instance, the 20,000 gathered from eleven villages (Sangai Express, 10 Aug) – or in their disruptive capability. Rather, different approaches were rendered complementary by their networked structure. Echoes can also be found of the 'diversity of tactics' approach, with roadblocks and clashes sometimes occurring a few streets from a tolerated rally (Sangai Express, 8 Aug). The protests were widespread, and not a day passed between July and September without some kind of protest (Prabhakara, 2004). 

[23] As in other cases of affinity-network activism such as squat defence and anti-repression protests, autonomous action is often constructed so as to ward off or impose costs on repression, carving out zones of autonomy (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2010: 273). Such tendencies to respond to abuses can be seen in Manipur through time. It has become a local tradition for women to hold protest gatherings in response to incidents of disappearance, rape, torture and murder by state forces (Sharma, 2000). This recurring pattern is motivated partly by a fear that, if unchecked by counter-power, atrocities could escalate and become routine (Thakuria, 2004). During the 2004 mobilisation, women were again at the forefront of the protests, as was reported by a number of sources (NDTV, 20 August; New Kerala, 17 July; OneWorld, 19 July). The protest wave emerged from a particular incident of state abuse, the rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama by Assam Rifles soldiers. With official explanations contradicted by eyewitnesses and other evidence, the incident triggered immediate protests, most notably a naked protest at the Assam Rifles headquarters, which expanded into a general mobilisation against AFSPA. The case of Manorama was iconic, but was seen as the tip of an iceberg of abuse (Reuters, 11 Aug). The wave can thus be seen as expanding outwards from a spectacular instance of recurring practices of autonomy-defence. The protest wave had two periods of maximum intensity, the first from 10 July to 21 August, and the second through September. The protests seem to have reduced in intensity when the local or central government took a conciliatory stance. They also seem to have radicalised over time in terms of their demands, with demands for the trial of individual soldiers expanded into calls for the withdrawal of AFSPA. During the protest wave, civil rights activist Pardesi Lamabm claimed, "[w]e want the Act to be removed immediately, otherwise Manipur will remain in turmoil" (Reuters 4 Aug 2004). 

[24] While the protest wave did not have an integrating structure, it did have an iconic moment which functioned as a symbolic Event, triggering the proliferation of local protests: the naked protest at Kangla Palace. The symbolism of the initial act which began the protest wave is crucial to the significance of the wave, suggesting identification with the standpoint of the excluded. The protest wave was initiated by a small but high-profile naked protest by women's activists (Sagar, 2004) from the Meira Peibis group. The small group of women stripped naked outside the army headquarters at Kangla Palace (which is also an occupied Meitei cultural site), and held a banner with the slogan "Indian Army Rape Us". Nava Thakuria (2004) analyses this protest as having a special significance in targeting the rape and degradation of women's bodies by state forces. The protest leader explained the action in terms of showing them women as mothers, making them look 'with their own eyes' at the significance of the view of women underpinning their use of sexual violence as a weapon. It aimed to show how state violence strips the Northeast of human dignity (cited Thakuria, 2004). Symbolically, the protest can be viewed as putting on display the dirty secret of the regime, or as reclaiming an abjected status by converting it from passive victimhood into agency. It is variously depicted as sacrificing modesty for justice, as displacing the shame of nakedness onto the soldiers (Imphal Free Press, July 16) and as a 'novel way of shaming the authorities', the local state and local society (Banerjee, 2008: 212). The act has strong overtones of identification with the symptom (Robinson, 2010). The gesture is reported to have been so powerful as to have confused and rendered awestruck the soldiers who witnessed it (New Kerala, July 17; Imphal Free Press, July 16). It also caught the attention of the Indian media, and is credited by one newspaper with bridging the gap between the mainland and the Northeast more than 40 years of counterinsurgency and integration projects (The Hindu, Aug 15). There were also incidents involving self-immolation which also had a symbolic impact (Sangai Express, 16 Aug), though they did not seem to repeat the resonance of the earlier action. Analysts view the Meira Paibis as initiating the movement which later became a wider protest, 'initiating a movement against which the state had hardly any arsenal', and even providing 'leadership' to the movement (Banerjee, 2008: 212). They did not, however, have a formal leadership role, influencing other forces mainly through symbolic resonance and charisma.

[25] In contrast to reactive politics, focused on clear dividing-lines, affinity-networks operate in continuity with everyday resistance. Resistance occurs all the time, both as part of and in spite of the reactive construction of micro-nationalisms. Rather than marking a qualitative difference from everyday forms of resistance and rebellion, the insurrectional moment in Manipur marked a becoming-intense, an increased speed and frequency of such actions to the point where dominant power-relations are thrown into question and their habituated operation is disrupted. It is symbolised by one participant as something which 'was coming', which came from a 'pent-up anger' erupting like a volcano (Telegraph India, July 15). There is thus a continuity between the moments of upheaval and the "before" and "after" in which active rebellion is less pronounced. Indeed, protesters themselves used a language of intensity, threatening at key junctures to 'increase the pitch' (Hindustan Times, Aug 11). Protest waves produce qualitative effects, but are in continuity with social forces operating below the surface in 'normal' circumstances.

[26] The modalities or methods of protest activity were also indicative of a basis in autonomous affinity-network forms, relying on approaches which make the most of the power of networks and of the weak. Many mobilisations in 2004 took the form of the bandh. The bandh or shutdown strike is one of the most common modalities of protest across India, and usually involves attempts to bring a geographical area to a standstill through a mixture of marches, road blockades and strikes. Being geographically focused, it is different from the workers' strike or hartal, and more accessible to excluded groups and those in non-capitalist economies. The bandh call allows for outwardly resonating calls for action to be taken up by diverse groups. Some of the protests were called as general shutdowns by Apunba Lub. For instance, the 5th September mobilisation called in response to failed discussions with the Indian government, which succeeded in winning the release of a jailed protest figurehead, took the form of a 'complete shutdown' solidly observed in much of the country, complete with roadblocks by women's groups (Kerala News, 5 Sept). Many, however, were called as 'localised' bandhs, in which local shutdowns would be organised by groups in each location. In this way, minorities in particular areas were drawn into the protests without falling under the hegemony of potential rivals (Sangai Express, 3 Sept). Even the national shutdowns were actualised by supportive local networks and organisations which expressed the diversity of Manipur, with local groups responding to calls by the Apunba Lub (Sangai Express, Sept 18; Aug 11).

[27] Roadblocking has emerged as a central tactic of autonomous movements across the globe, owing to the vulnerability of just-in-time systemic processes connected through efficient (rather than resilient) networks of hubs and routes (Karatzogianni and Robinson, 2010: 156-7). Road blockades were a crucial part of the Manipur mobilisation. Manipur's road network is rudimentary and centralised, making it an ideal target for disruption, particularly given its hilly and inaccessible terrain (Daily Times, 24 Sept). Reports suggest blockades were often successful because of numbers and mobility. For instance, one report in an Imphal newspaper states that '[t]he entire stretch of the road, from Karong to Hiyangthang was dotted with such barricades, and attempts by the police to clear the road were frustrated due to the sheer number of agitators' (Imphal Free Press, 14 Aug). In another incident, all roads out of Imphal were blocked with trees, burning tyres and groups of mainly women protesters (Reuters, 11 Aug).One of the effects of road blockades was to make it difficult for activity covered by a bandh to go ahead, for instance keeping government employees away from offices. Blocking roads also slowed the movement of state forces, who had to methodically clear blockades all the way along a proposed route to make progress. This is a matter of deterritorialising space necessary for systemic functioning, thus exerting autonomous power and paralysing systemic insertions.

[28] The protest wave also involved small-scale actions similar to those used by direct-action affinity groups elsewhere, such as when eight youth activists blockaded themselves into an airport ticket office (Sangai Express, 5 Aug), when a small group stormed and damaged a government office (Sify, 9 Aug) and when five students evaded tight controls to shout slogans at an iconic site (Sangai Express, 10 Aug). There were also a wide variety of sectoral responses from particular groups, connecting the protest wave to group-specific issues and adapting it to local sites in which these groups had special advantages. School students for instance burnt or handed in Indian-language textbooks and held prolonged student strikes (Reuters, 3 Sept). The overall mobilisation provided an enabling context for such autonomous actions because of the absence of constraining structures. There were also diffuse symbolic methods of protest, such as the use of black masks, gags and flags to symbolise oppression. The Meira Peibis, one of the most active women's groups, used a longstanding tactic of torchlit processions.

[29] The effectiveness of the protest wave in paralysing 'normal' (formal-sector) life arose from the horizontal replication of protests across social and geographical sites to the point where their effect became unmanageable. In one incident, 'almost all government offices wore a deserted look as the employees except the level of drawing and disbursing officers or above went on leave' (Webindia123, 5 Aug). The local state in effect stopped functioning as workers failed to show up, either striking or being unable to reach their places of work. In effect, the withdrawal of local energies from the apparatus of capture stripped the latter of its power, an actualisation of the concept of exodus, similar to Hardt and Negri's idea of a biopolitical strike which shuts down capitalist life while defending spaces of autonomy (Multitude, 347). Crucially, the local subsistence economy was largely able to continue functioning, though the prevalence of road blockades creates certain problems. Attempts were made to alleviate such problems by allowing essential items through the roadblocks (123Bharath, 10 Aug; Hindustan Times, 10 Aug; Telegraph India, 9 Aug). This contrasts with other cases in which subsistence has been negatively affected by bandhs, provoking counter-protests by women (Thangjam, n.d.). Hence, there is a sense of rival assemblages at work here: the disruption of one assemblage is simultaneously the assertion of another, the defence of autonomous space.

[30] The relationship between states and affinity-networks is necessarily antagonistic, and this was clear in the persistent interplay between protest tactics and state repression. The resilience of protests defeated the Indian state response of curfews. There were a number of ways this was done, including the 'court arrest' or 'jail fill' protest method which used deliberate defiance to make prohibitions unenforceable (Sanghai Express, Aug 1), and escalations in the militancy of protests in response to repression (Indolink, July 18). Such tactics doubtless contributed to the abandonment of curfews a few weeks into the protest wave, at a time when there was no apparent letup in protests (The Hindu, Aug 10). Another aspect of the state response was the attempt to induce 'fear psychosis' through wanton attacks and arrests (123Bharath, 21 Aug; Sangai Express, 20 Aug). Two types of responses can be seen to such approaches – to simply gather once more and continue (Sanghai Express, 11 Aug), or to attempt to defend protests using force (e.g. Sangai Express, 7 Aug). In the former case, protests are continued through persistence. During one blockade, ' the protestors and the security personnel played a kind of hide and seek game the whole day with the former resuming their road blockade every time after they were dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets' (Sangai Express, 8 Aug). In the latter case, protesters used 'weapons of the weak' to undermine state technological advantages, for instance by lining roads with debris to prevent the advance of military vehicles (Sangai Express, 19 Aug). Stones, catapults and fire all appear frequently in accounts (e.g. Sangai Express, 20 Aug). In both cases, the ability of protesters to resist repression is a function of mobility in difficult local terrain and the ability to flow around and across striated boundaries to outmanoeuvre less mobile state forces. The ability of state forces to 'secure' a particular physical point through technological violence ceases to be decisive if no particular point is crucial, with resistance reappearing at other points.


[31] The uprising of 2004 ultimately declined in intensity to the level of 'normality', and conflict has resumed in largely reactive forms. This does not, however, undermine the theoretical significance of the mobilisation. What is most impressive is the way the protest wave was able to resonate across boundaries between groups which would be antagonistic in the context of reactive politics. The uprising was an instance of affinity-network agency. Overall, the modalities of protest are suggestive of the decomposition rather than seizing of centralised power, and operate through the 'smoothing' or deterritorialisation of the striated spaces of state power, rendering spaces 'ungovernable' by the dominant forces and imposing costs on would-be agents of control. There was thus a clash of contending forces, but not between two striated apparatuses or states; rather, the state existed in a situation of 'dual power' with a decentred, rhizomatic assemblage implicitly connected to more horizontal types of social relations and to spaces of autonomy. The implication is that this type of protest is not simply the invention of a particular type of anarchist or post-Marxist theory; rather, it is something to which protest activities tend, whenever resistance occurs in a context of difference and as resistance against subsumption in an arborescent assemblage. In the rhizomes of Manipur in 2004, as in movements across the world, it is possible to see the foreshadowings of another world.


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News reports

"Volcano of pent-up protest erupts", Telegraph India, July 15
"Protest a victory for Manipuri womenhood", Imphal Free Press, July 16
"Turmoil in Manipur with women's protest", New Kerala, July 17
"Angry Agitators Set 5 Govt. Offices Ablaze In Manipur", July 18
"Women Rage Against 'Rape' in Northeast India", One World South Asia, July 1
Kalpana Sharma, "Dramatic Protest", The Hindu, July 25
"Tear gas, rubber bullets rain at Lamlong", The Sanghai Express, August 1
"Thousands protest in India state against terror law", Reuters, August 4
"MAFYF activists picket airlines offices, many hurt", The Sanghai Express, August 5
"Manipur Government employees go on protest mass leave", WebIndia123, August 5
"India police open fire on protest against terror law", Reuters, August 6
"CCpur rises up in protest against twin-murder", The Sanghai Express, August 7
"Youth hit by bullet during protest, police SI hurt in retaliation", The Sanghai Express, August 7
"Intelligentsia join protest against AFSPA", The Sanghai Express, August 8
"Attendance thin in Manipur offices in response to bandh call", Hindustan Times, August 9
"Protesters go for Manipur govt jugular", Telegraph India, August 9
"Violent mob storm Manipur Bhavan in Kolkata", Sify, August 9
"Civil Disobedience Increases in Northeast India", OneWorld, August 10
"Life comes to standstill as Manipur stir intensifies", Times of India, August 10
"Student protestors shout slogans at Raj Bhavan gate", The Sanghai Express, August 10
"Manipur tense as protests, strike continue", 123Bharath, August 10
"Manipur tense as protests, strikes continue", Hindustan Times, August 10
"Curfew relaxed, situation still tense in Manipur", The Hindu, August 10
"Civil disobedience movement spreads far and wide", The Sanghai Express August 11
"Manipur tense as protests, strikes continue", Hindustan Times, August 11
"New protests today against AFSPA", Reuters, August 11
"Manipur Hill areas 12-hour bandh tomorrow", The Hindu, August 11
"Civil disobedience movement spreads far and wide", The Sanghai Express, August 11
"Shopkeepers stage dharna defying 144 Cr PC", The Sanghai Express, August 11
"Over 30 injured in fresh Manipur clashes", Reuters, August 11
"Pitch of protest heightens after partial lift", Imphal Free Press, August 14
"Manipur on the Boil", The Hindu, August 15
"Protest against AFSPA takes tragic turn, youth burns self to death",The Sanghai Expresss, August 16
"Agitators go on rampage along Tiddim line", The Sanghai Express, August 16
"Protest continues unabated", The Sanghai Express, August 19
"Manipur stir: Women in the forefront", NDTV, August 20
"Pitched battles with police continue unabated", The Sanghai Express, August 20
"Manipur strike called off, protests to continue",, August 21
"Indian children burn books in anti-terror law protest", Reuters, September 3
"'Localised' bandhs against AFSPA held all over", The Sanghai Express, September 3
"Talks between Patil and Manipur protest groups fail", Kerala News, September 5
"Manipur protest groups hold talks with Patil", September 6
"5000 protest at Khundrakpham", Imphal Free Press, September 5
"Students warn of intensifying agitation", The Sanghai Express, September 7
"AFSPA stir continues unabated", The Sanghai Express, September 18
"Lup's blockade call comes into force", The Sanghai Express, September 19
"Groups to blockade Manipur to protest AFSPA", Daily Times, September 24