Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

Manipur is a beautiful land, sadly drenched in blood. I was there during my winter vacation in 2005-06. My father’s battalion was posted in Chandel, a district known for active combat between the army and the insurgents.

This was my second visit to the state and I was thoroughly enjoying my vacation at Larong, a beautiful hill village on the Indo-Myanmar border. From the forested slopes on our side, you could see the immense stretch of the beautiful Kabaw Valley in Myanmar.

The villagers were simple and friendly and the landscape a photographer’s delight. Had it not been for the insurgency, it would have easily competed with the likes of Ooty, Shimla and Mussoorie. The heavy militarisation had reduced democracy to a hollow word for the locals.

On my way back to Shillong, I met Major XY, an army doctor, in Chandel. We had to share a tent until the next convoy to Dimapur was ready, which would be three days later.

Maj XY was a jolly person, albeit given to boasting. After we exchanged pleasantries, he suddenly flashed me a card. “See this. I will soon be awarded the governor’s gold medal for my last military operation, which resulted in the surrender of a handful of militants… that too with guns,” he said.

I did congratulate him out of courtesy but was also slightly taken aback. This was not the kind of behaviour I expected from an officer.

Next day, in the officers’ mess, I met ‘A’, Colonel SK’s son, over breakfast. Maj XY inadvertently became the topic of our discussion. ‘A’ informed me of the many military operations that Maj XY had recently undertaken and the “good name” he had brought to the unit. This was unusual because Maj XY was a medical officer and medical officers don’t usually participate in military operations!

Time passed and the incident soon faded from my mind. By summer, my father’s battalion was transferred to Naginimora in Nagaland and I was back with him for my vacations.

Over the days, I noticed that the unit hadn’t changed much and most of the officers I knew were still there. But Maj XY was missing. I assumed that he was on leave. So I asked dad when he was likely to be back since we had played some great badminton matches in Chandel and I was looking for company. His answer left me dumbstruck.

“Maj XY is likely to face a court martial. A court of inquiry has been initiated against him for forcing innocent villagers to take up arms and then act as insurgents willing to surrender during his military operations,” he said.

I was out of words and emotions to respond to this shocking news. Apparently, Maj XY, who was regarded as the hero of the battalion, had promised the villagers a hefty amount and jobs. When he did not honour his words after receiving the medal, the villagers reported the matter to the higher officials and approached the court. It was not yet clear from where he managed to get the weapons and there was speculation that he had contacts among the insurgents.

Growing up with a defence background and having studied in a military school, it was difficult for me to come to terms with this. Until then, I had been shown a brighter picture of the uniform and my young and innocent mind had accepted it without even the whisper of a question. But now, I was seeing the hidden, darker side. Maj XY was not only a disgrace for the battalion, but for the entire force.

Of course, I do understand that people like Maj XY are in a minuscule minority in the force, but after this episode, whenever I boasted of my defence background, I did so with circumspection.