From pandemic to violence: How Manipur lost a generation
Manipur crisis (file photo).

On March 15, 2020, I flew back to Hyderabad from Imphal. I was a senior research student then, and determined not to visit home until I submitted my doctoral thesis. Before I made the journey, there was a false alarm regarding a COVID-19 case at the University of Hyderabad where I was pursuing my research. A week later, India was put under a lockdown. We were denied access to the university and its libraries.

When the unlocking began, only a select few students from the sciences, who required access to laboratories to carry out their research were allowed to access the university. The students of humanities and social sciences felt they were a generation who had lost a year, and the losses ranged from lack of mentorship to educational and social spaces that the university provided.

 In February 2021, students from humanities and social sciences were allowed to return with a requisition letter from the supervisors, after which they had to isolate themselves for two weeks. But before I could apply, I developed some symptoms of Covid. After testing negative, I decided to go home and recuperate.

A week after I had reached home in April, India was under siege from the second wave of COVID-19. Parts of India turned into burning infernos. It was around this time that I started teaching four school kids whom I shall refer to as a lost generation. I stopped calling myself a part of the generation that suffered losses because I had long come of age and I was equipped with all the tools to cope with whatever life had thrown at me. I consider them lost because they were young and had not come of age, and they were clueless and could not grasp the full extent of the losses they were suffering.

The four kids were in seventh grade in the second wave of the pandemic. They were in sixth grade when the first wave happened in 2020. Stuck at home, they joked that they had slept through the sixth grade. Although they just had to eat, sleep and repeat, it was tiring given the long lockdown. They were happy to be in the village because they had escaped the severe lockdown placed in the valley areas of Manipur.

Joel, Kanono, Dumdum and Tete were the boys. Joel was the funny fat kid who refused to consider that he was fat. Kanono was a typical dunce. Dumdum was a silent killer. And Tete was the smart cunning wolf among the pack. But they were all Belieber, and the song Peaches by Justin Bieber was trending in April 2021. It was in one of the English grammar lessons that this song was invoked in the most ridiculous and funny manner. We were working on antonyms one morning. When asked the antonym of lady, Joel confidently smiled and said, “badass bitch.”

I was blown away and broke into a fit of laughter looking at this amusing creature. He had picked it from the song Peaches that he knew by heart. Joel was not entirely wrong, and Justin Bieber was not a bad influence too. The issue was how the pandemic made cell phones accessible to children without proper supervision. Online classes barely lasted for a couple of hours, but they had access to smartphones and the internet, and they were certainly not getting smarter.

Soon it dawned on me that the kids had lost basic literary and numerical skills. In reading lessons, Kanono would go mute on words he could not comprehend or read out. In dictation, Dumdum would rather take a peek into Tete’s notebook than listen to me dictate and then write.

I realised these kids had not been to school for over a year due to full or partial school closure, and it was necessary to rebuild their learning skills. In the next four months, we worked on rebuilding their reading and writing skills to enable them to read and understand simple texts.

The exercise was fruitful and the kids made progress. But what helped their mental and physical health was the physical space in which we lived. The nearest town to my village was ten kilometres away, and on days when the kitchen garden could not provide vegetables, we went to the forest foraging for edible wild vegetables and fish in the streams. It was bliss to scout with those kids and the exercise kept them in good mental and physical health. It was in one of those foraging trips, that we came across a slash-and-burn vegetable farmland.

The farm was fenced but we saw a cow do a high jump to enter the farm. I shouted, “There, there. We have seen Evolution. That is an example of evolution- the survival of the fittest. Organisms that adjust to their environment are the most successful in surviving.” The kids replied saying “thutt” and “thaiss” in disapproval saying this was common. But I bullied them into accepting that it was an example of evolution. Perhaps we were not the first to see animals jump into a garden, but we hoped at least that we were the first to take that as an example of the survival instinct that defines evolution. If not, we at least did theory and practice most practically.

I left my village in the last week of August. I dropped Joel and Kanono off at their houses in Imphal. A week later in September, I flew to Hyderabad to complete my research. It took me a week to settle down in my research and during this transition, I wrote a news article on the impact of lockdown on Manipur women. The transition was smooth and I was back in research mode. Indeed, I had the tools, if not all, to face all the challenges that life threw at me. The same could not be said for the kids I left behind. The state government lacked the administrative and infrastructure depth to reopen schools for all the students. Only school seniors from classes 9–12 were recalled for regular classes. The kids were left with no choice but to return to online classes that were less tolerable than radio. If life was hard for them, this part must have made it harder to sit through noises.

 The year drew to an end and the kids were promoted to class 8. By then a common joke among the people was that not even the god above could fail a lazy kid. In the last two years, the kids lost two-thirds of the academic year. Such a promotion was hollow.

The effect of the pandemic manifested when the school reopened regularly in March 2023 albeit with partial lockdown. The impact of the lockdown manifested in many forms when children returned to school after losing two years of formal learning. Indiscipline and restlessness in classes were minor issues. Should one consider that an 8th-grade student could not do simple multiplication and division? The closure of the school and the shift to online learning has not only been less productive but it has pushed the children behind by a few years.

The kids I had taught had issues coping with the curriculum and syllabus. Dumdum could not solve basic mathematical problems. Joel showed signs of an education gap and the issue of comprehending the texts. He once said, “I cannot read anymore. It does not go into my head.” These are some of the losses they have inherited from the pandemic lockdown and they have come to realise it as the onset of coming of age dawned.

When the lockdown started they were eleven and when they finished a year of school after the lockdown, they were thirteen and promoted to 9th grade. The only consolation was that they had not lost a year, but it came with a loss of proper knowledge that could empower them in the future.

After a year of progress, Manipur burst into a carnage on 3rd May. This ethnic mayhem destroyed dreams and homes, and it wounded and killed. It made people poor and threatened the very survival of the state. The lost generation was affected again.

The carnage exposed the narrow-mindedness of the small Manipur state and the lost generation can no longer believe in abstract ideals like non-violence, tolerance, brotherhood, and multiethnic society. How can they concede to such ideals when the centre has forgotten the home for the world, when the regional state praises the centre despite apparent impassiveness, and the uncivil forces keep disrupting normal life?

This human environment is indifferent to their human condition: their thoughts, emotions, and desires. On the contrary, they are stoked on ethnic lines and are unbecoming of students.

With school and the internet shut down again, they became a generation that was lost in apathy and lethargy. Signs of withdrawal from school life have become apparent.

Dumdum, a student of mine during the pandemic, has decided to leave school as he is unable to connect with the school curriculum after a series of disruptions of normal life in the last four years. He represents the lost generation that perhaps will be struggling with employment and possibly be left out in the ice age of unemployment.

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A proper statistic would reveal the magnitude of the losses of the lost generation, I am glad I don’t have one. This is not to pass on the buck to others, the loss of one itself has an immense degree of pain in this poor heart. He represents the lost generation that does not have the skills and resources to cope with whatever life throws at them.

Should one think that my classification of the lost generation is too narrow, one may include students who have graduated but are inadequately or superficially educated. They are all of a kind that can be categorised as half-read, with no derogation intended.

What the pandemic and the recent ethnic violence have taught us is that Manipur is fragile like an egg. It could break even if you held it in your hand just like the state machinery broke down while in the hands of a majority party. What remains to be seen is will this lost generation shake this off and create for themselves a brave new world.

(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)

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