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Pens Before Guns: Braving Threats, Manipur Man Guides 5K Youth Away from Militancy

Pens Before Guns: Braving Threats, Manipur Man Guides 5K Youth Away from Militancy

“I am lucky to be alive. Back in 2015, militants had come with guns to my house in the middle of the night to finish me off,” recalls Jamkhojang Misao.

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In the first week of January 2020, Jamkhojang Misao (a.k.a Hejang), a development worker and social activist from Manipur’s Kuki tribe, was invited by President Ram Nath Kovind to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. President Kovind even made a special reference to Misao’s work in his Republic Day speech.

During the meeting, they had discussed Misao’s flagship ‘Gun2Pen’ Programme, which has so far guided more than 5,000 youngsters from his state away from the throes of militancy with an emphasis on quality education, personality development and concrete career counselling.

As someone, who has witnessed militancy, inter-tribal violence and the armed forces in Manipur from close quarters, Misao acutely understands the horrific effects of conflict on generations of young people. He was barely 15, when the brutal ethnic conflict between the Kukis and Nagas erupted in the early 1990s. It would last for five years, resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives, destruction of hundreds of villages, and displacement of thousands.

“I was brought up in a state of conflict. When I was in Class 10, I received training in guerrilla warfare. The choice before me was clear—either fight on the frontlines or go back to my village and defend it. Since I missed my mother, I chose the latter and joined the village defence force. Thankfully I made that choice. Otherwise, I would have joined an insurgent group,” begins Misao, in an exclusive conversation with The Better India.

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Jamkhojang Misao

Growing up, Misao was a very bright child with a remarkable aptitude for academics—he passed his matriculation exams when others his age were in Class 8. Graduating from college with a degree in history, he taught at a private school for a while before getting into the social development sector.

From 2001-2009, he worked with several organisations to gain experience on the ground.

“I worked with a partner organisation of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) now called North Eastern Region Community Resource Management Project (NERCORMP). Following my stint there, I worked in a non-profit addressing issues of child care,” he says.

Consequently, he enrolled in the Bosco Institute in Assam for a Masters in Social Work (MSW) degree, but before he finished his course there he found a job with a renowned Austrian-based non-profit called DKA as their project coordinator for the entire Northeast region overseeing the work of 21 partner organisations.

For his work, Misao travelled to all the Northeastern states. He worked there until 2014, following which, he founded his non-profit organisation in Saikul, his home town in Kangpokpi district, called InSIDE North East.

“Instead of enjoying air conditioned offices and a good salary, I wanted to use my knowledge to help my people instead. Our vision is to make every child an asset for India. Through education, we can change their lives,” he says. Backed by their slogan ‘Changing Lives, Changing Destinies,’ InSIDE North East has taken up different projects.

Here are some of them.

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Opening book banks across remote corners of Manipur. (Image Courtesy InSIDE North East)

‘Gun2Pen’

This is InSIDE North East’s flagship project, and under it, the team sets up book banks in remote villages of Manipur, particularly in the surrounding areas of Saikul, to encourage young people to inculcate book reading habits, besides learning life skills through various games.

“We also conduct career counselling and guidance, and help young people explore better career prospects. Besides showing them success stories from their communities, during these career guidance workshops, we get them to take personality tests, IQ tests, etc. These are evaluated closely and used to guide them further,” informs Misao.

Youngsters at these sessions express their desire of becoming doctors, engineers, IAS officers, football players, etc. In response, InSIDE develops a roadmap for them on how they can achieve that dream. Once you give these children career dreams and aspirations, their desire to take up guns diminishes significantly.

“That’s one way of mainstreaming these children,” he says.

Misao and his team visit these villages and meet youngsters present at their book banks and school premises to conduct these activities. Irrespective of tribe and other markers of identity, their sessions are open to all who wish to join.

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Career counselling for young students.

Empowering young girls through football in Manipur

Inspired by a traditional Kuki institution called Shom-ins (which many other tribes share using different names), where elders in the community impart life skills to the younger generations like hunting, cultivation, courting a wife, running a village administration, amongst others, InSIDE North East started a football programme for young girls in Saikul.

“Since practices like hunting are no longer relevant, we instead teach young girls how to play football. This teaches them time management, discipline, hard work and team work. We have also started a football academy for them. Once a girl is empowered, the whole family is empowered. When you empower a boy, you only empower an individual,” argues Hisao.

Earlier this year, InSIDE-North East, alongside the Saikul Hill Town Youth Club and District Sports Association of Sadar Hills organised ‘Footgal’ the first ever girls’ football tournament in Saikul.

The tournament, which finished in the first week of February was a success with over 18 teams participating in it. From this successful football tournament, InSIDE North East selected 40 promising girls from different communities for their football academy, but so far only 20+ have turned up for training. Many of them are from different parts of the state.

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“Other districts have asked us to start similar projects as well, but there are concerns surrounding funding,” he says.

“Setting up book banks and Shom-ins (traditional life-skill building institutions of the Kuki community) in villages are the first steps InSIDE North East has taken to bring children on the path to excel in their passion and create a dignified and safe environment. InSIDE believes that ‘every child is a leader’, and has potential that needs to be developed through innovative methods,” says this Teach For India report published last year.

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One of the girls teams at the ‘Footgal’ tournament.

Empowering Mothers

The non-profit is also working with various mothers groups in Saikul, and through their ‘I Can Lead’ training programs, are teaching them to open and operate small businesses and enterprises.

“Child welfare and education in our tribes are more dependent on mothers than fathers. We give these mothers seed money to start their own business enterprises like becoming vegetable vendors and opening small roadside eateries, besides providing training for younger women as well in tailoring, handlooms, besides beauty and wellness,” he informs.

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Vocational training

During the training programme, mothers are taught how to run a business, make budgets with realistic calculations, financial literacy and develop a concept note of what they are trying to run. For example, if one of them wants to run a cafeteria, Misao’s team first asks them to study the market, find locations where many potential customers gather, whether they can make deliveries to offices and schools, and how to inculcate input costs, etc.

“Once we are sure about their business model, we support them with some small amounts of seed funding. For example, if their business proposal is for Rs 30,000, they have to contribute Rs 10,000. It’s not about us giving all the money. They must feel genuinely invested in their own ventures. Thus far, we have supported over 100 women set up their businesses in and around Saikul,” he informs.

Take the example of Hoineikim Lupheng, who runs a retail store in Saikul.

“When I first opened my retail store, I had initially used money borrowed from a local money lender at high interest. Most of the profits would go into repaying him. Thankfully, InSIDE Northeast intervened. The seed money I received from them has helped my business run well and repay my loans as well. Now, my store is running well and self-sustaining. Today, my daughter, husband and I are happy,” she says.

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New career opportunities for these mothers in Manipur.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit has also helped women come together and form entities like the Vegetable Vendors Group.

“With the money they first gave us, we were able to buy and sell vegetables in the market. Working together, we help each other in times of difficulties. People respect us at home and outside,” says Nancy, the secretary of the group.

The vision behind InSIDE Northeast is to spread all these initiatives across the entire region. But that will depend on robust and stable funding. However, their work for the time being is restricted to Saikul, the surrounding rural areas and a few other parts of Manipur.

COVID-19 Relief in Manipur

Following the lockdown announcement, InSIDE North East teamed up with ace footballer Seiminlen Doungel, who plays in the Indian Super League (ISL) as a striker for FC Goa, to distribute rations and relief material to families struggling to make ends meet. Earlier in May, after distributing dry ration to around 100 vulnerable families in Saikul, the non-profit distributed essentials to 20 families in the nearby Maphou Dam village reaching out to members of both Tangkhul Naga and Kuki communities.

Most recently, they delivered essentials to four orphanage homes in Kangpokpi District. Each home received 100 kg of rice, 30 kg of dal, one bag of potatoes, 25 kg of sugar, 10 packets of salt and hygienic items (soaps and sanitizers).

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Delivering COVID-19 relief material to remote villages in Manipur.

Steep Challenges & Death Threats

Running these initiatives, particularly ones like ‘Gun2Pen’, aren’t easy. In these remote corners and conflict-affected zones of Manipur, there are parallel governments run by militant groups running alongside the elected state government. According to Misao, ordinary folks there don’t really value institutions like the police.

“During one of our Samjhoto Express public outreach campaigns (an attempt at building friendship among young people from different tribes and communities) in collaboration with ComMutiny-the Youth Collective (CYC), a Delhi-based organization, our ‘jagriks’ or active citizens sought to find out from the Saikul police station about the number of cases pending. We found that for the past two years, there was not a single police case filed. But in the area, every now and then, there were multiple incidents of crime,” recalls Hisao.

Thriving book banks helping young children in a remote corner of Manipur.

These cases are not filed with the police but with parallel governments. Local residents are sandwiched between the military and militants, the elected government and militant government. Young people are attracted to militancy because in becoming one they believe they possess real power. That’s something Misao would like to discourage.

“My life has been threatened many times for my activism. I am lucky to be alive. In 2015, militants had come with guns to my house in the middle of the night to finish me off. I have to regularly visit the courts. Many cannot offend these organisations, but we cannot be silent spectators as well. A few months ago, my project leader was nearly killed. He was ordered to be shot over a misunderstanding. That’s the challenge of working in these conditions. It’s difficult to work out here,” argues Misao.

Meanwhile, Misao is also on the hunt for more funding for his organisation. Currently, their main source of funding is DKA/KFB Austria. They also receive financial support from non-profits like Caring Friends and National Foundation for India. But they are looking to expand their sources.

Career counselling for the future generation.

“I want to reach out to young people in the Northeast, and make them responsible, productive and invaluable assets to the nation through education and building life skills. I particularly want to reach out to young people living in conflict zones like Manipur and prevent them from taking up arms. See, taking up arms has been never a solution to any problem and I want to tell them that there is a better future waiting out there,” he concludes.

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: contact@thebetterindia.com, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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