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Manipur pushed to brink by Nagas

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CHOKED AND ANGRY: Manipuris protest (above and below) the Centre's inaction in resolving the economic blockade on NH 39 imposed by Nagas.


Prices of essential goods skyrocket in Manipur as its main highway,NH 39, remains blocked by protesting Nagas.

There is not much hope in Manipur these days, not enough food either, or medicines, cooking gas and petrol. The only thing in abundance is despair, fear and bitterness at being on India's fringes, literally and metaphorically.

At its hospitals in Imphal, the shelves are bereft of medicines, even common antibiotics, and doctors go around with forlorn, sorrowful expressions on their faces, cringing every time a patient is wheeled in. There is an acute shortage of lifesaving drugs and oxygen. And even the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences and Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, the top care centres in Manipur, have stopped all routine surgeries. "There are no oxygen cylinders, no syringes, nothing, " says a nurse. "The blockade will kill us all."

It's been more than 50 days since Manipur, which depends entirely on National Highway 39 for all its supplies, has remained choked. The All Naga Students' Association of Manipur (Ansam) enforced an economic blockade beginning April 11 this year, opposing local body elections which they allege will suppress their tribal rights, and there's no telling when the roads will open again and ease the stranglehold.

In fact, the blockade has only intensified after the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah ), or NSCN (IM), a group that has been demanding the creation of Greater Nagaland - 'Nagalim' as they call it - by merging Naga inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur with Nagaland, lashed out at Manipur recently. NSCN (IM)'s separatist leader Thuingaleng Muivah wanted to visit his ancestral village in Somdal, Ukhrul district of Manipur, but Imphal wouldn't allow it fearing mischief.

So anxious was Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh about Muivah's visit - there is a large population of Nagas in Manipur and many still hope to break away and form Nagalim - that on May 2 he rushed a police commando force and India Reserve Battalion troops to Mao Gate, the entry point from Nagaland, to prevent the NSCN leader's "home coming". Nagaland-based Naga Students' Federation (NSF) immediately swung into action and banned the entry of all Manipurheaded vehicles into Nagaland, the main supply route for the neighbouring state. NH-39 passes through Nagaland and Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, running from Moreh in Manipur to Numligarh in Assam, via Imphal and Kohima.

To make matters worse for an already bleeding Manipur, especially Imphal valley, the alternative route, National Highway 53, which connects Imphal with Silchar in Assam, was also blocked by Naga students. With the death of two Naga protestors in police firing during a rally at Mao Gate on May 6, the situation turned even more ugly and fraught with danger. The Manipur-Nagaland border today looks like a war zone with no respite in sight.

"The Indian government doesn't care about Manipur," says an angry Suraj Kumar in Imphal. "We are buying a litre of petrol for Rs 170. When Delhi increases the price of petrol by Rs 2, there are protests everywhere and the matter is raised in Parliament. What about us? Are we not Indians, part of this country? An LPG cylinder costs us Rs 1, 500 and a kg of coarse rice is being sold for Rs 50. Where is the money, where is justice?"

Seven Manipur trucks have been burnt down by miscreants inside Nagaland since the first week of May. Two trucks were pushed down a deep gorge. Hong Kongbased Asian Human Rights Commission and Imphal-based Human Rights Alert in a statement have said that the "economic blockade of Manipur and the plight of its ordinary people is the ultimate example of the failure of the government of India and that of the state governments in Manipur and Nagaland to counter armed insurgency in the region. The blockade is sheer exploitation of the many political power loopholes that exist in the region."

Flights are not much of a help either. Indian Airlines and other private airlines operating from Kolkata and Guwahati to Imphal have had to reduce their passenger intake and cancel cargo bookings as all of them need to budget for return journey fuel. No aviation fuel is available at Imphal airport.

Though the Centre has now stepped in with the Union cabinet committee on security deciding to airlift food, life saving drugs and fuel to Imphal from Guwahati, it is too little. There are far too many mouths to feed, kitchen fires to light. The situation has also eased up a bit after the government cleared NH-53 to carry food and fuel from Silchar using huge convoys of Army, paramilitary and police commandos to guard it. But it's far from normal. "NH-39 has to open, " says Udoy Thongam, a Manipuri activist. "The Manipur government can hardly do anything otherwise."

But that looks like it'll take a long time in coming. Muivah, who is currently camping at Nagaland's Viswema village, just a few kilometers from Mao Gate where Manipur troops are deployed, has dug his heels in, screaming his lungs out that Imphal wants to suppress the Nagas. Senior NSCN (IM) functionary VS Atem says they will "move forward and not go back". Naga leaders have been lashing out at the Centre, too, saying it betrayed its own commitment to let Muivah pass into Manipur.

The Centre had in a surprising move allowed Muivah to visit his village and other Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. But Ibobi Singh, knowing fully well how Muivah is perceived in Manipur - as a rabble-rouser encouraging secession for the cause of Greater Nagaland - decided to oppose the Naga leader's entry, scared that it would create social unrest and serious law and order issues in Manipur. Annoyed at the way the Union home ministry took a unilateral decision on the matter without consulting Manipur, Ibobi Singh, who's brought the Congress to power twice in the state, put his foot down.

Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee intervened and summoned Ibobi Singh to Delhi for a meeting with home minister P Chidambaram, defence minister A K Antony and himself. But the Manipur CM refused to budge. It was only then that the Congress core committee, prime minister Manmohan Singh and the AICC leadership, which discussed the precarious situation in detail, veered around to Ibobi Singh's point of view and let him have his way. By then they had, of course, rubbed Muivah the wrong way Though Ibobi Singh has managed to score brownie points, it is not enough to save his beleaguered state from the immense hardship it has been facing, and will face in future. Either the roads will have to open or a viable alternative route laid out. Until that happens, the people of Manipur will suffer endlessly, sandwiched between the conflicting politics of neighbouring states that fail to take into account the misery of their people.

HIGHWAY HISTORY


NH 39, known as 'Imphal Road' in history books, has seen many wars being fought for its control. This strategic road, which connects the Burmese plains with Assam's Brahmaputra valley, is an essential component of New Delhi's 'Look East Policy', geared to take India to the South East Asian markets

The Imphal Road was the highway Netaji Subash Chandra Bose dreamt of capturing during his 'Delhi Chalo' campaign

The control for this highway was the flashpoint for Naga-Kuki ethnic clash in the '90s which claimed 2000 lives

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