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Look to Manipur before looking East

On December 3, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Imphal, the capital of Manipur, in the midst of an economic blockade that had stalled life in the state, he said, “There are no winners in the Manipur blockade,” He was only stating the obvious. In the last five years, strife-torn Manipur has witnessed at least half a dozen blockades each of which have lasted more than two months – economic work and transport stoppages to protest everything from the creation of a separate district to removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers act.

And none of Manipur’s three communities which support these blockades – Meities (the majority comprising 70% of the population), Nagas or Kukis – have really benefitted from these periodic events orchestrated to make their voices heard.

The latest obstruction, called by the SHDC (Sadar Hills District Committee), prevented trucks carrying essential commodities from entering Manipur between August and December. The SHDC, primarily an organization of the Kuki tribe, which lives uneasily with another tribe, the Nagas, across two districts of Senapati and Tamenglong (through which the national highways run), wants a separate district. Opposing this demand is the organisation of the Nagas called the United Naga Council (UNC) which launched a counter-blockade. The combined stoppages sent prices of petrol and cooking gas spiralling. Petrol, when available, sold at Rs. 200-250 rupees a litre – nearly four times its cost elsewhere in India. Ditto with the home-maker’s gas cylinder. This was priced at between Rs. 1500 to 2000. Stocks of essential drugs and medicine ran to dangerously low levels until the SHDC lifted the blockade 96 days after it was launched.

So what have these ‘economic blockades’ actually achieved? Physically, they succeed in choking off the supply chain of an already isolated region. They are called by organisations with conflicting political demands and inter-tribal rivalries. Typically they obstruct the state’s two main road highways—one entering from Nagaland the other from Assam— and create an artificial shortage of food items and petroleum products, crippling normal life for Manipuris.

Politically, they have not achieved much. But disruptive as they are, these are hardly likely to be the last blockades Manipur will experience. For given the volatile mix of population and unique political geography of Manipur, organisations with real and imagined grievances find the method of blocking the main highways the easiest means of registering a protest. Last year, when the Nagas of Manipur wanted Th. Muivah, the leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) to visit his village in the Ukhrul district, non-Nagas found it most convenient to put barricades at the border between Nagaland and Manipur to prevent his entry.  Ukhrul district with its overwhelmingly Tangkhul Naga population, supports the call by the NSCN(I-M), at one time considered India’s most powerful insurgent group, for the “integration of Naga-inhabited areas outside Nagaland into a single political unit” – in other words, Nagalim, or greater Nagaland. Inherent in this demand is an enlarged Naga Land, a claim that threatens other tribes like the Kukis living in close proximity to the Nagas. It also has the potential to alter the map of Manipur, a prospect that the majority Meities both resent and dread.

Adding to this potent mix of struggle to preserve ethnic identity and tiny homelands is the apathy of the state administration and indifference of the Centre. Caught between conflicting demands of warring tribes, the state government often chooses not to act. The people, used to hardships, seemed resigned to fate. The Centre awakens only when VIPs come to visit the state – conveniently ahead of elections.

Writer- journalist Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Manipur’s foremost daily Imphal Free Press, articulates the dissatisfactions most succinctly. “Everybody seems to have come to accept this as normal in a frustratingly fatalistic way. No accountability is ever fixed by the government for all these failures and equally, no accountability is ever sought by the public either.”

It seems as if Manipur, located at the far end of India, is truly a forgotten land.

But the ‘frustrating fatalism,’ as Phanjoubam calls it, need not remain a permanent feature if policy makers both in Imphal and New Delhi rise above political and ethnic considerations. That will happen only if they start looking at Manipur as an important starting point in India’s ‘Look East’ policy instead as a dead end of the country’s road network.

Manipur shares a 398-km border with Myanmar. But more importantly the Manipuri border town of Moreh has been a traditional trading hub with Myanmar and therefore has vast potential to become a major export centre from India for the South-East Asian region. Here’s why: According to available statistics, bilateral trade between India and Myanmar more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, expanding from US$557 million to $1.2 billion, most of it through Moreh. Disappointingly though, it pales in comparison to the bilateral trade between China and Myanmar which in 2010 amounted to an estimated $3 billion.

So last July, when India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, speaking at the Indonesian resort town of Bali said of India and South East Asia, “We need connectivity more than ever before between our younger generations, entrepreneurs, IT experts, scientists, diplomats, media and students,” he was only highlighting a long-desired need. Krishna’s also announced that a car rally will be held in 2012 to commemorate India-ASEAN trade ties.  “I propose that, unlike the car rally in 2004, this time the car rally begin from ASEAN countries into India and culminate at Kolkata,” Krishna said, underlining the need for deepening geographical connectivity among countries of the region.

In the seven sister states of India’s North-East, Krishna’s announcement was met with stony silence. Many remembered November 2004, when a similar car rally was organized between Guwahati and Singapore, passing through the Indian states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Then too, the rally was seen as the beginning of a new era in connecting India’s isolated North Eastern region to East and South-East Asia. Manipur, in particular hoped the new initiative would help it overcome its inherent handicap of being a remote and landlocked state, as it would have brought huge improvement in infrastructure, particularly the roads leading in and out of the state.

Alas, that was not to be.

It is the failure of actualizing intent that rankles in Manipur. That, combined with multiple frustrations emanating from prolonged bouts of economic blockades, a state administration in terminal atrophy and the continued and unchallenged writ of underground armed groups, has left the people despondent. It is this hopelessness that the Centre and State government must work hard to overcome. For that, a solution to long-standing ethnic insurgencies has to be found in double-quick time.

Now is the time to press for peace and security in Manipur – politics in Myanmar are undergoing a dramatic change. With the junta taking tentative steps towards genuine democracy and showing signs of warming towards India, New Delhi must seize this moment to establish lasting trade and cultural ties with its eastern neighbour. But before India can play a larger role in Maynmar, it needs to fix Manipur’s broken socio-political landscape.

Nitin A. Gokhale is NDTV’s Security & Strategic Affairs Editor, and spent 23 years (between 1983-2006) reporting on and from India’s North-East.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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