For those who witnessed the events of 18 June 2001 in Imphal, the images are unforgettable. That morning the entire city was aflame, accompanied by the smell of burning rubber tyres. Trees were downed on the roads to bring traffic – and life – to a standstill. Thousands of people also took to the streets on that day, as Imphal descended into chaos. The state Legislative Assembly was burnt down, as the people protested the decision of the New Delhi government to extend the ceasefire with the armed Naga group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), in some Naga-inhabited parts of Manipur. One of the outfit’s longstanding demands has been (and remains) the creation of a pan-Naga homeland, and the extension of the ceasefire was seen as the first step in that direction. One of the enduring images from that day is a girl in a phanek and dupatta stopping a military jeep and banging her head against its bonnet. She was neither an activist nor a volunteer of any student group. She was just a lay person who walked out from nowhere to express distress at what she perceived as a threat to the territorial integrity of Manipur.
What followed is history. In July 2001, the continuing opposition to the move forced the central government to restrict the ceasefire with the NSCN (I-M) to Nagaland and not extend it to other Northeastern states, but not before 18 protesters died by police bullets on 18 June, engaged in what the demonstrators felt was a struggle to save Manipur’s territory. The irony is that these young men and women had little sense of belonging to the territory they were protecting, but were still ready to give up their lives for it. Territory is marked only by thin lines, and in Manipur even those lines are often little more than a blur.
|Photo: Kishalay Bhattacharjee|
The issue of Nagalim, or Greater Nagaland, has once again come to haunt Manipur, driving a wedge between the hills and the Imphal Valley below. On 11 April, the United Naga Council (UNC) and All Naga Students Association of Manipur (ANSAM) imposed a blockade on National Highways 39 and 53, the only two arteries into Manipur. Their demand: greater autonomous powers to the district councils in the hills of Manipur, where they reside. As a corollary, they also resisted elections to the district councils (slated to begin in late May) before amendments were made to the legislation that governs the councils, the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act of 1971. The situation become still more confused a few days later, when the Naga Students Federation (NSF), which controls ANSAM, extended the blockade on the Nagaland stretch of the highway in protest against the Manipur government’s refusal to allow its members to enter the state to hold an annual assembly (for an overview of these events, see box).
Manipur is a bowl-like valley, and it is on the valley floor that about 56 percent of the population lives – the majority ethnic Meitei, largely Hindu. The other 44 percent, largely composed of tribes such as the Naga (around 22 percent), Kuki, Kabui and Paite, all of whom largely follow Christianity, occupy the surrounding hills, which in fact constitute almost 90 percent of the territory. The grievance has long been that the Imphal Valley controls the political power and financial authority, and has historically neglected the hills. The people of the valley, while admitting to this neglect, also claim that the hills have been hostile towards the state, and have thus distanced themselves from development. Also, the valley people cannot purchase land in the hills, but hill people can buy land in the valley – given this additional protection, the people of the valley feel that those in the hills have no grounds to feel resentful. But distrust has been building over the decades.
Most of Manipur and Nagaland, along with the rest of Northeast India, suffers from a sense of alienation and persecution. Geographically distant from the rest of the country, their failure to connect emotionally with the rest of India often translates into rebellion against the Indian state. For similar reasons, there is also considerable resentment against the national media out of New Delhi. Though the national print media has always had representatives in the area, the Northeast still received little visibility; for a long while, the arrival of the electronic media a decade and a half ago did little to change this. The situation has changed of late, however, with states such as Manipur receiving far more significant coverage in the electronic media. Still, there is a lack of consistency in much of this coverage, particularly with long-held stereotypes about the Northeast refusing to die down, exacerbated by the size of the region and its complicated logistics. Together, these factors continue to contribute to a visceral sense of alienation among the peoples of the Northeast, along with the impression that the rest of India remains largely indifferent to their problems.
Beyond this more general sense of alienation, Manipur itself has long been beset by insurgency and unrest. Coupled with a dysfunctional polity, this has conspired to ensure that the state as a whole has not been able to take advantage of the development taking place elsewhere in India. There are dozens of Imphal Valley-based armed ‘underground’ groups, while the hills are dominated by the largest armed rebel groups of the Northeast – the two splinters of the NSCN, the Isak-Muivah and Khaplang groups. Though both groups are currently operating under a ceasefire with the Indian government, they continue to maintain underground networks.
The NSCN-IM, led by Thuingaleng Muivah, has for decades been demanding integration of what it claims to be Naga-inhabited areas into Nagalim, including parts of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Burma. This is a demand for sovereignty that was eventually diluted to a federal structure – and, following his 60-odd rounds of talks with New Delhi that have taken place in the last 13 years, Muivah today seems optimistic about achieving it. Indeed, as noted earlier, the Indian government had already agreed to consider the demand, but was thwarted by the June 2001 uprising. At that time, this writer was one of the first broadcast journalists to visit Muivah’s native village of Somdal, in Ukhrul District of Manipur. On that day, the bells of a huge church at the entrance of the picturesque village were ringing out, and Muivah’s brother was hoisting a white flag on his ancestral house.
Reconciliation, however, has not happened. By the end of April 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs was once again treading the same dangerous path it had taken with its 2001 proposal, which had led to such unrest. Responding to Muivah’s request to be allowed to travel to his native village – for the first time in four decades – it issued a note to the NSCN-IM, and sent a copy to the Manipur government, recommending special security cover for Muivah to visit Somdal. Although it could have been accidental, the timing seems to have been chosen to coincide with the district council elections, which took place as scheduled in late May and early June, and in which the NSCN-IM had significant stake. Official in New Delhi appeared to be fearful that, if it was allowed to take place sooner, Muivah’s journey into the hills and his village would enable him to influence voters.
The state government, which has been extremely unpopularin both hill and valley, paused and weighed the political ramifications before eventually deciding to stand firm against Muivah’s entry. In retrospect, Chief Minister Ibobi Singh’s refusal to allow Muivah’s visit seems to have been a master stroke by a politician whose effigy was being burnt and kicked around the valley’s roads just a few months back. The chief minister’s unpopularity has stemmed from the widespread popular perception that he is ineffective and a terrible communicator, and is overseeing a state that is slipping into administrative anarchy abetted by murderous police commandos. In August 2009, two individuals were killed in broad daylight in Imphal, and there was audiovisual evidence that at least one was killed by police commandos without any provocation. This alleged ‘fake encounter’ rocked the state, leading to a virtual shutdown for almost four months (see Himal September 2009, ‘Snapped’). With 40 of the 60 state assembly seats filled from the ‘Meitei belt’, the chief minister desperately wanted to change the public political discussion, particularly directing it away from the subject of the alleged fake encounter.
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|Photo: Bipin K Sharma|
Interestingly, the state government’s rigid stance appears to have suited Muivah as well. The deal and peace talks with the Indian government would benefit Nagaland, but the NSCN-IM’s rank and file is from Manipur. Thus, if the group does not continue to demand the integration of Manipuri territory, it would be seen as foisting yet another compromise on the Naga insurgency, after the informal pull-back from its demand for full independence two years ago. As such, people close to the outfit say that Muivah was pressured by his own people to push to enter Manipur.
The inevitable faceoff began on 6 May at Mao Gate, the thin line that marks the boundary between Manipur and Nagaland. On that day, the border was teeming with state security forces, and this reporter’s film crew was caught in the middle of a huge gathering of Naga women, from both Nagaland and Manipur, sitting in protest. As if in a trance, they offered a prayer and started marching, singing ‘We Shall Overcome’, a favourite protest song here. The policemen fired a first round of teargas to break up an advancing group of NSCN-IM supporters, leading to a battle that quickly transformed the quiet township into a virtual war zone. Two individuals died in police firing, and several more were arrested. After three hours the demonstrators dispersed, but the simmering protest only intensified. The road blockade, which had begun as a demand for autonomy, was now a sub-national protest, as the demand for autonomy overlapped with the NSCN demand for Nagalim.
Reminiscent of that day back in June 2001, the road was burning. Trenches were dug, trees thrown across the road, and activists built huge brick ‘fortresses’; even the media was not allowed to move. Security forces, normally present in large numbers in the Mao Gate area, were invisible that day. The armyhoped to stay away from what it saw as a state law-and-order problem, and wanted to avoid confrontation, especially since most of the protesters were women. The following day, the army assured the media that soldiers would be clearing the route, but the barricades – stones and boulders piled high, large spools of fibre-optic cables, huge trees – only rose higher, while the security personnel still had no idea how to deal with an army of women. Indeed, this has long been a specific tactic adopted by Naga protests, as the demonstrators are aware that the army does not have female personnel to take them on, while there are also very few holding cells for women even if they are arrested.
Our crew was finally allowed to pass through one of the brick installations, which was quickly rebuilt. Further down the road, in the town of Senapati, effigies of Chief Minister Singh were being burnt, while a silent procession had enveloped the town wearing colourful traditional dress. Like a conductor directing an orchestra, a lone woman was running a siren, but the government against whom she was demonstrating was far removed from this reality. The demonstrators chanted, ‘No rest till Muivah is allowed to enter!’ But the state government remained firm that if Muivah did make the move, he would be immediately arrested. The ceasefire, after all, exists only within Nagaland, and NSCN-IM cadres are not supposed to be seen outside of designated camps in that state – there are criminal cases against them, including Muivah, in Manipur.
By 1 June, the economic blockade broke the 52-day record of the 2005 blockade, the longest in recent memory. (That blockade was imposed by Naga groups over the Manipur government’s declaration of the 18 persons killed on 18 June 2001 as ‘martyrs’ and 18 June as State Integrity Day.) This time around, it would continue on for another 17 days. Fuel queues were taking more than 24 hours to navigate. Cooking-gas cylinders cost INR 2000 in the black market, if they were available at all. Prices for pretty much everything else had likewise spiralled out of control. Hospitals were asking patients to leave, as keeping intensive-care units running was becoming nearly impossible. Schools and offices registered incrementally lower attendance, as people ran out of fuel even as public transport became prohibitively expensive. But one of the most telling pictures of the blockade’s impact came on a visit to a children’s home in Kanglatombi, a village not far from Imphal. Manipur’s oldest home for children (set up in 1947), it is today a rundown wooden structure but with neat, tidy beds. When we visited, they were running out of food. Run by a local committee with meagre government funds, the home generally gets its food on credit from nearby shops; but by then, the shops too had run out of supplies.
|Photo: Mallika Aryal|
Travelling through the hills, the scars of ethnic conflicts are still visible. The impression one gets is that the current situation in Manipur is not a valley-versus-hills divide as much as one of Naga versus non-Naga. In some Kuki villages, for instance, one can still find quit notices issued by Naga groups in 1993. At that time, Kuki villages were gutted and, according to the Kuki Inpi (the Kuki umbrella organisation), 900 people were killed, allegedly by NSCN-IM cadres; thereafter, some of the worst ethnic riots in the country displaced almost 100,000 Kuki. In these villages, the current crisis has brought back memories of those times.
Two hours away from the resettled Kuki villages, however, the voices suddenly change. Here, wooden shop shutters are covered with NSCN-IM slogans, while photographs and graffiti on the walls declare that Muivah is merely trying to enter Greater Nagalim – not Manipur. In some ways, the blockade-related difficulties faced here are more critical than in the valley – though not a single person admits it, instead talking about righting historical injustices. As compared to ten years ago, the Naga locals seem to look at the Indian government in a more positive light, probably as a result of agreements between the NSCN and New Delhi. But they also say that, now, it is the Manipur government that is terrorising the hills.
By 18 June, the situation had come full circle. The protesting Naga groups decided to temporarily withdraw the blockade on that day, the ninth anniversary of the violence in Imphal. The suspension of the blockade also coincided with the Centre’s decision to use force to open the highways into Manipur. With the Naga groups leaving the highway, they also announced that they had severed ties with the Imphal government, requesting New Delhi to find ‘alternative’ arrangements for the Naga of Manipur. This is essentially the selfsame demand for integration, though couched in different language.
The suspension of the blockade evoked very little response in the Imphal Valley. The people of Manipur had been deprived of essential commodities for close to three months, but what they really wanted as a permanent solution to the situation, to ensure that such blockades do not happen again in the future. While the Naga groups have used the highways to hold the state to ransom whenever they have felt that their voice was not being heard, the state government has failed to reach out effectively and sincerely to the hill areas. Thus, the blockade might have been called off, but the political deadlock remains.
Nor did the suspension of the blockade solve more immediate problems. Truckers operating on Highway 39 refused to ply the route until the Nagaland government gave assurances that insurgent groups would stop extorting the vehicles. A typical truck carrying medical goods, for instance, reportedly is forced to pay some INR 25,000, in addition to an annual fee INR 10,000, to multiple outfits for whom the highway is a central source of income. Such demands on the part of the truckers are legitimate, of course, but the highway is also an economic lifeline for Manipur, and until alternate routes are made functional the government will have to provide security to the truckers. As Himal goes to press, that is exactly what seems to be happening – but even this is little more than a temporary arrangement.
~ Kishalay Bhattacharjee is Northeast Bureau Chief of NDTV (New Delhi Television)