25 years since (L) PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to RIMS : A look back on a special day


Sanjoy Akoijam
The last year of the 20th century (1999) is a significant year in Manipur’s history. In February of that year, the State hosted the 30th National Games of India- a significant achievement considering the fact that a North Eastern State of the country was hosting the games for the first time. However, largely forgotten today is a visit by the country’s Prime Minister to the premier medical college and hospital of the State in May of the same year.
Two years back in 1997, Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) Imphal had completed 25 years of service to the people of Manipur and the North Eastern region of India as a whole. The institute had come a long way from its humble beginnings as Manipur Medical College in 1972. It was upgraded to Regional Medical College in 1973,  North East Regional Medical College in 1976 and finally to RIMS in 1995. The institute was functioning smoothly under the leadership of the then Director Prof (Dr) Ngairangbam Bijoy Singh, Medical Superintendent Prof (Dr) Ahanthem Dwijamani Singh and their dedicated team.
April 1999 saw a fresh bout of political instability in the country. The second AB Vajpayee Government at the Centre was brought down by a single vote in Parliament. But Shri Vajpayee’s Ministry continued to function till October of that year as a caretaker Government, as the Opposition could not come up with the numbers to form a Government, and the country also went through the Kargil War with Pakistan from May to July of that year. The month of May saw the beginning of the Kargil conflict and it was a difficult time for everyone. However, through the efforts of Mr Gopal Krishna Pillai (IAS), the then Joint Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, a visit by the Prime Minister to Imphal was finalised and scheduled for the 21st of May.
The main event in the Prime Minister’s short visit was to be at RIMS. He was to inaugurate the newly built auditorium of the institute (christened as Jubilee Hall to mark the institute’s Silver Jubilee) and also address the gathering there. The 1000 seater auditorium’s foundation stone was laid by (L) Shri Rishang Keishing, the then Chief Minister of Manipur on the 14th of September, 1995. Back in its day, the newly constructed auditorium was state-of-the-art, befitting an institute of RIMS’ calibre. Shri Vajpayee’s visit was going to be the first ‘formal’ visit by a Prime Minister of the country to the institute. Earlier, his predecessor (L) PM Inder Kumar Gujral had briefly stopped by the institute during a short visit to Manipur.
The sun rose on the morning of the 21st of May, and the day promised fine weather. Preparations had been hectic in the days leading up to the event-featuring last minute retouchings, a decorative makeover of the campus, rehearsals, security checks, etc. The Prime Minister and his retinue landed in Imphal in the morning and they were warmly received at Imphal Airport by high profile members of the State administration. The convoy then proceeded to the Raj Bhavan from the airport, where the PM and his retinue took some rest. They also completed some activities nearby. As was the norm in those days, shutdowns by revolutionary groups meant that the public stayed away from the roads during these high profile visits. But many people could be seen viewing the PM’s convoy from their terraces on houses and business establishments along the route.
The PM’s convoy arrived at RIMS in the afternoon. The Jubilee Hall and its surroundings were decked up for the occasion. Shri Vajpayee and the other guests were warmly welcomed by Prof Bijoy and his team. The PM expressed his admiration when he saw the exquisite artwork that adorned the facade of the auditorium-a beautiful depiction of the cultural diversity of North East India in the form of a colourful tile mural. He formally inaugurated the auditorium with a modest ribbon cutting ceremony. For the formal function inside the auditorium, six people were seated on the dais-Prime Minister Vajpayee, the then Union Minister of State in the Ministry of Communications Shri Kabindra Purkayastha, the then Governor of Manipur Shri Oudh Narayan Shrivastava, the then Member of Parliament of Inner Manipur Lok Sabha constituency Shri Thounaojam Chaoba Singh, the then Deputy Chief Minister of Manipur (L) Dr Leishangthem Chandramani Singh and the then Director of RIMS Prof (Dr) Ngairangbam Bijoy Singh. Prof. Bijoy welcomed everyone present and expressed his heartfelt gratitude to Shri Vajpayee for agreeing to come despite his hectic schedule and the serious security situation facing the country. He also laid out a brief summary of the journey of RIMS and the strides taken by the institute. The Prime Minister addressed the packed hall in his usual flamboyant fashion. In his address, he expressed his joy at being able to come for the occasion. He lauded the immense contributions of RIMS Imphal in the healthcare and medical education sectors in the North Eastern region of India. He also assured of maximum assistance by the Central Government to help the institute grow by leaps and bounds in the years to come.
After the end of the formal function, one small act remained-a modest tree plantation ceremony. The spot for the same was to be on the southeastern side of the auditorium enclosure, near the enclosure gate. Prof Bijoy had kept in mind the Prime Minister’s political affiliation in choosing the tree to be planted : an U-Thambal (Magnolia hodgsonii) sapling. In the Manipuri language, there are two types of lotus (Thambal)- one that grows in water and one that grows on trees. Although the two types are very different scientifically, they are both named Thambal in the local culture. And as we all know, the lotus (Kamal in Hindi) is the election symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party, to which Shri Vajpayee belonged.
The Prime Minister was naturally curious about the sapling to be planted and he enquired about it to Prof Bijoy, who promptly told him that it was a ‘Lotus-Tree’ ! Shri Vajpayee was quite surprised as one does not usually associate a lotus with a tree ! Prof. Bijoy briefly explained the ‘paradox’ and the PM smiled after the revelation. He planted the sapling, and then left the institute with his retinue. 25 years on, the sapling is now a full grown tree in front of which a small black metal placard is placed with the words “Planted by Shri AB Vajpayee, Hon’ble Prime Minister, India on 21st May 1999".
Shri Vajpayee left this world on 16th August 2018, but the tree planted by him remains in the RIMS Imphal campus, adorned with blooms of fragrant U-Thambal flowers every summer. Ever since his party returned to power at the Centre in 2014, the tree has been an object of reverence on more than one occasion for high profile BJP leaders visiting RIMS. Till date, Shri Vajpayee’s visit remains the only ‘formal’ visit by a Prime Minister of India to RIMS Imphal.

(The writer’s maternal grandfather served as Director of RIMS from 01/06/1996 to 05/02/2003. Since the event took place 25 years ago, some finer details may be missing in the report, for which the writer apologises)