Now, call it ‘Messpur’

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Yambem Laba (Courtesy – The Statesman)

The more apt term to describe Manipur today would be to call it ‘Messpur’. Earlier I had used the term “functional anarchy” to describe the state, but that appears to have lost its relevance now. The state seems to have withered away before the revolution and it appears that there is nobody in charge although siren-wailing VIPs continue to criss-cross the state at any given moment of time.

The first symptom of this withering away of the state appeared when a handful of NSCN (IM) cadres prevented Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and his cabinet colleagues from inaugurating a 100-bed hospital at Ukhrul recently. The state machinery was well aware of the opposition they were going to face, as the apex body of the Tangkhul civil society organisations ~ the Tangkhul Naga Long ~ had called a bandh on that day. Ibobi had already sent some 800 of his Manipur Rifles and India Reserve Battalion security personnel. Yet, they and the district police did nothing to prevent the roads from being barricaded, making it impossible for the Chief Minister and his entourage to leave the helipad. And as they were about to leave, firing from the NSCN (I-M) cadres began.

The video footage uploaded on social media showed the CM’s chopper taking off and the security personnel running helter-skelter and later being herded inside a building by a person who appeared to be a senior police officer. All that was required for the NSCN (IM) men was to fire a rocket-propelled grenade or a lethod bomb at the building and that would have been the end. But seeing the chopper taking off they held their fire, sensing that their mission was accomplished.

Not a single shot was fired back by the security personnel. Back in Imphal Ibobi Singh told a press conference that the intelligence report of there being no retaliation was because of the fear of civilian casualties. They could have at least fired in the air to make their presence felt. It then appears that the Manipur Rifles and IRB men, the bulk of them recruited from Ibobi’s own Thoubal district in the recent past, have not been given any combat drill. Otherwise, they had been heroic while dealing with girl students agitating for the implementation of the Inner Line Permit system in Manipur. The Ukhrul district police suspended about 10 officials, including a few sub-inspectors and havildars, for dereliction of duty.

But the message was loud and clear that while Ibobi Singh governs Manipur officially, his writ does not extend to Ukhrul. And, for the NSCN(IM), it was sweet revenge for Ibobi as he had prevented NSCN(IM) supremo Th Muivah from entering Manipur at Mao gate to visit his village of Somdal in Ukhrul in May 2010. Defying a Central directive, Ibobi had threatened to arrest Muivah claiming he was on the state government’s “wanted list.” At that time Ibobi was hailed as a hero in the valley and his popularity soared, and even all graft charges against him seemed to have been condoled by the people. But to the NSCN(IM) and their Naga frontal organisations, his fleeing from Ukhrul was a clear sign of his weakness.

Like Ukhrul, which already is a semi-liberated zone of the NSCN(IM), the next testing ground then became Senapati district, through which runs Manipur’s lifeline, the National Highway 39. It did not take long for the NSCN (IM)’s main frontal organisation, the United Naga Council of Manipur to call for a two- day bandh followed by an indefinite economic blockade beginning 1 November. This was to protest against the proposal to bifurcate Senapati district to create a Kuki-dominated Sadar Hills district. They chose 1 November as it was a state holiday to celebrate the Kuki harvest festival of Kut.

Theoretically speaking, the Nagas or the NSCN(IM) have control over about 50 kilometres of the NH-39. It starts from Chaogabung village, five kilometres north of Kangpokpi HQ of the Sadar Hills Autonomous District Council, that lies 45 km from Imphal along the NH 39. By this count, Ibobi could have lined up from his “Thoubal Battalion” at least one jawan for every 200 feet all the way from Kangpokpi to Mao on the border with Nagaland, 96 kilometres from Imphal. On earlier occasions, he had deployed the CRPF to escort fuel and gas tankers and others carrying essential items but this time the Ukhrul fright seems to have unnerved him. Instead, he directed trucks to come via Silchar in Assam, entailing a detour of an additional 300 kilometres.

Meantime, petrol pumps are closed and the spot price of one litre had gone up to Rs 350, an LPG cylinder costs between Rs 1500-2000, potatoes sell at Rs 60 per kg while onions are being retailed at Rs 40 a kilo. Life-saving drugs may soon run out and the stock of aviation fuel might also follow suit. That will once again cut off Manipur from India at least for a while. The distance from Imphal airport to Uripok is less than 10 kilometres but an auto-rickshaw driver demands Rs 350 saying he had to pay Rs 300 for one litre of petrol. He also said some enterprising persons had started bringing fuel from Myanmar and Mizoram to meet the demand. Schools are closed.

To add fuel to the fire, came the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Suddenly the people were caught in the twin dilemma of spiralling high prices and lack of purchasing power. And with banks unable to dispense the new denominations overnight, emerged an unofficial money market charging a commission of 20 to 30 per cent for exchange of the old notes of Rs 1000 value. At Moreh, the Indo-Myanmar border town, the exchange rate is said to be 40 per cent.

The role of the State Bank of India, that is the currency bank for the other nationalised banks in the state has also come in for criticism. A manager of one of the nationalised banks told me that out of Rs 107 crore, his bank received only Rs 27 lakh since 10 November. It appears that some unscrupulous officials have kept “piles” of cash for VIPs of all sorts to have their black money laundered.

A post on the social media Facebook spoke about how a particular person got Rs 7 lakh in new currency in exchange for Rs 8 lakh worth of old notes at the SBI. The demonetisation also has a large bearing on the job market as the Ibobi government has gone in for a massive pre-election recruitment drive, offering over 2,000 government jobs. There are rumours that ministers have already started calling in the candidates and asking them to take back their bribes paid earlier in the old currency and to bring back the new ones. Also there is talk of the militant groups not insisting on early payment on their demand letters. The Newspapers Publishers’ Association has announced that it will cease publication from 18 November as it is not in a position to pay the hawkers as the subscribers are yet to clear their bills. The Centre had invited the UNC for talks in Delhi, but the state government stayed out of it. Following this the UNC leaders announced further intensification of their agitation.

Meantime, the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee has asked all Congress councillors of the Autonomous District Council to resign (by 17 November) and announced an indefinite economic blockade from 20 November. So NH 39 is going to see two economic blockades by two warring ethnic groups with demands that are diametrically opposed to each other.

With the assembly election round the corner, Ibobi has to play his cards well. He knows that the Nagas will not allow return of a single Congress candidate and it appears that he will also be losing the Kuki vote bank. That will most probably go to the BJP. And with Ibobi’s popularity on the wane in the valley, the Congress might suffer a loss. Perhaps the state deserves a short spell of President’s rule.

(The writer is the Imphal-based special correspondent of The Statesman)

Source: Sangai Express

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