by Yambem Laba
BY definition, Manipur has been called a “failed state”. Personally, I prefer the term “functional anarchy” because, going by the events of the day, Manipur should have ceased to exist amidst the chaos and confusion that prevails at the moment. But life seems to go on as though things are normal. How does one exist in a situation where onions costs Rs 60 a kg, potatoes Rs 40 a kg, eggs are pegged at six rupees apiece, petrol costs Rs 150 a litre and an LPG cylinder sells for a “mere” Rs 2000? The going rate for a sub-inspector’s post in the police department is Rs 25-30 lakh and a supervisor’s post in the social welfare department is said to be available at Rs 30 lakh. Everything is available in the state provided you have the purchasing power, to use economic jargon. Manipur is also said to be the place where money pours through many pores.
From “Switzerland of the East’, it graduated to “Bandhpur” and now it can aptly be called “Blockadepur”. There are two blockades running concurrently in Manipur — an economic one called by the Kukis in demand for a separate Sadar Hills District and a counter-blockade called by the Nagas opposing the creation of the Sadar Hills district. Strategically, the battle for the creation of the new district and those opposing it are being fought on three national highways that connect Manipur with the mainland. The first, National Highway No. 39, connects the state with Dimapur in Nagaland and Moreh on the India-Myanmar border; the second, National Highway No. 53, connects Imphal with Silchar in Assam; and the third is National Highway No. 150 that connects Imphal with Nagaland via Jessami in Ukhrul district.
The writ of the Sadar Hills wallahs ends at Kangpokpi, some 45 km north of Imphal on NH-39, from where on it is in the hands of the Naga opposers; and on NH-53 it ends 40 km from Imphal at Tupul and thereafter it is Naga territory till it tapers down to Jiribam on the border with Assam, where another blockade is in the offing, thanks to the demand for a separate Jiribam district. On NH-150, the Nagas have almost full sway all the way through.
The Manipur government seems to have abandoned NH-39 to the protagonists of the new district and those opposing it, as the only bid to break the blockade has been to deploy the Assam Rifles, whom the protesters have accused of bringing in goods meant for civilian consumption under the guise of requirements for the Army. This led to a major confrontation at Kangpokpi on 6 September where some nine fully laden trucks were reduced to cinders and the Assam Rifles ultimately resorted to a baton-charge that left 56 women protesters injured. The state has been concentrating on NH-53, commandeering some 500-700 trucks to ply along it with security escorts. But the Nagas have been able to ambush a few trucks, leading to the truckers refusing to ply along NH-53 because of “inadequate security cover”. They even pointed out that miscreants armed with sophisticated weapons and apparently “belonging” to the counter-blockade wallahs were behind the ambushes.
Theoretically, the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee hinges its drive for a separate district on the full implementation of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Act, 1971, (Parliament Act No.76 of 1971). The Sadar Hills has an autonomous district council with an additional deputy commissioner in charge of the area, but technically it forms part of Naga-dominated Senapati district, although in the Sadar Hills area the Kukis are in a majority. Practically, the Nagas see this as a major threat to their dream of a greater Nagalim or the alternate administrative arrangement they are demanding from the Centre for the Naga areas of Manipur. That is why the NSCN(I-M) ambushed Phungyar legislator Wunoshang Keishing of Ukhrul for demanding a separate Phungyar district. Some six of his security escort party were killed earlier this year but he miraculously survived.
Former home secretary GK Pillai was in Imphal the other day and he said the National Highways were the Centre’s responsibility, but one can forget about New Delhi noticing the happenings in Manipur. Chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh was likened to Nero fiddling as Rome burned, as he went off on a jaunt to Japan, an extended tour of Europe on the cards. But apparently he had to return post haste from Tokyo upon the Union home ministry’s directive. BJP national spokesman Prakash Jadavedkar was in Imphal too, and he demanded President’s Rule be imposed in Manipur, citing the failure of the state to open up the highways and curtail the runaway inflation that is now plaguing Manipur.
At the height of the Naga-Kuki conflict in the early 1990s, I was asked to define the situation. I had then said that both sides were mad but the Nagas had a method in their madness while the Kukis had none. This was aptly demonstrated when the Sadar Hills wallahs called for a month-long general strike along NH-39, bottling up thousands of ordinary Manipuris who leave the state every day by bus. Mercifully, the general strike has been lifted but a lot of goodwill has been lost in the process. This was coupled with not allowing life-saving medicines in and even ambulances to ply, resulting in hospitals closing down their intensive care units and postponing operations.
The last straw entailed the leadership of the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee issuing a “call to arms” to its supporters. “The decision of the SHDCC is legitimised by the village chiefs and therefore the people must stand by the decision of the demand committee. We must be ready with any weapon grade objects at our disposal,” read a statement issued by the committee, advising people to stock up essential commodities and food for at least two months, adding that “we are prepared for the worst”.
This was something the Ibobi government could not ignore. At a Cabinet meeting held on 13 September, it decided to file FIRs against the leaders of the SHDCC. The Cabinet also issued directives to the state home department to seize the thousands of licensed guns in the hands of the people of the Sadar Hills area. Whether such directives would amount to wishful thinking or not is yet to be seen, but in the meantime I have started using wood to cook my food.
The writer is The Statesman’s former Imphal-based Special Correspondent.