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The siege within

Published : Jun 18, 2010 00:00 IST

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Trucks carrying essential commodities for Manipur waiting at Mao Gate on the Nagaland-Manipur border on May 7.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Trucks carrying essential commodities for Manipur waiting at Mao Gate on the Nagaland-Manipur border on May 7.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Rice at Rs.150-200 a kilogram, a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) refill at Rs.2,000, petrol at Rs.200 a litre, and diesel at Rs.150 a litre this is a sample list of the prices of essential commodities in the northeastern State of Manipur now. Even if one can afford to pay such exorbitant prices, there is no hope one can buy these essentials. Often they are out of stock.

In Imphal West, only one fuel pump has been allotted petrol and diesel while the district has thousands of buses, including school buses, and other private vehicles. Some private schools have remained closed, while the attendance in government schools remains thin. Hospitals and pharmacies are running out of life-saving medicines. The non-availability of gas has meant that surgical operations cannot be conducted in hospitals. The Central government-run Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) has had to turn away hundreds of patients in need of surgical operations. The list of woes is endless.

Manipur is under siege, as it were. An economic blockade of National Highways 39 and 53, the lifelines of the landlocked State, has been choking it for more than a month now, and no one knows when it will end.

The blockade is enforced by the All Naga Students' Association, Manipur (ANSAM) to oppose the holding of the Autonomous District Council (ADC) elections in the State's hill districts. It has been in force since the midnight of April 11. ANSAM's main objection to the holding of the polls is that the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Act 2008 (Third Amendment) has, in its present form and content, failed to protect the rights of the tribal people. Although it had called the blockade for six days initially, ANSAM extended it by a week on April 17; this time it brought inter-State passenger buses also under the purview of the blockade.

Appealing for cooperation from all sections of people, ANSAM said: It is not our intention to cause inconvenience to the public. However, in the event of the arbitrary imposition of the stated Act, our rights are seriously threatened and therefore we expect all tribal people and those who believe in democracy to participate in the movement for justice.

Meanwhile, Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh urged the people to cooperate in the holding of the elections. However, he maintained that sections of the Act could be amended if need be. Ibobi said the Centre was mounting pressure on his government to hold the elections as the absence of elected district councils amounted to denying the hill people their right to local self-governance. Besides, he said, development funds provided to ADCs could not be utilised if there were no elections.

On April 22, the State Cabinet decided to go ahead with the ADC polls, and on April 24 ANSAM declared an indefinite economic blockade of the two national highways.

ANSAM's announcement was followed by a demand by the Manipur Tribal Joint Action Committee Against Election Under Unwanted District Council Act (MT-JAC-AEUUDCA) asking all tribal legislators and Ministers to resign the day the State Election Commission announced the poll schedule.

As ANSAM intensified the blockade, stocks of essential commodities began depleting rapidly. To top it, fresh trouble came up when Thuingaleng Muivah,the general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), conveyed to the Government of India that he wanted to visit his birthplace, Somdal in Ukhrul district of Manipur.

The Ministry of Home Affairs informed the Director General of Police, Manipur, Y. Joykumar, that Z-plus category security cover be arranged for Muivah during his visit to the State from May 3 to 10. The Ministry informed him that Muivah would also visit the Naga-inhabited areas in Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel districts of Manipur. A list of the public functions Muivah would attend in Manipur was also sent to him.

However, Ibobi refused to allow Muivah to enter Manipur. On April 28, he was called to New Delhi where Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily and Home Minister P. Chidambaram tried to prevail upon him. Ibobi succeeded in impressing upon the Central leaders that Muivah's visit would create law and order problems and trigger ethnic tension in Manipur.

In protest against the Central government's request, the United Committee Manipur (UCM) imposed a counter-blockade and banned the movement of all vehicles plying between Imphal and other hill districts of the State indefinitely.

However, UCM leaders withdrew the blockade after about a week when they realised that their blockade could create tensions between the people of the valley and the hills. However, spontaneous counter-blockades continued in different parts of the State; women's groups in the valley enforced one locally to prevent the transportation of essential commodities to the hill districts.

Naga reaction

Taking strong exception to the State government's decision to prevent Muivah's entry into Manipur, four Naga organisations the Naga Hoho, the Naga Mothers' Association, the Naga Students' Federation (NSF) and the Naga People's Movement for Human Rights jointly served an ultimatum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on May 3 to prevail upon the State government to lift the ban within 24 hours. They categorically stated that we will have no option but to take any action that we will consider appropriate and edifying in our quest for our rightful place. They maintained that the proposed visit of Muivah to his native village was for spreading the message of peace, not for waging war against any community or state.

Meanwhile, a delegation of the NSF of Nagaland, which wanted to visit Manipur on May 3 on a stocktaking mission, was stopped by the State government at Mao Gate, the entry point to Manipur from Nagaland on NH 39. In protest, the NSF imposed a blockade on NH 39 in Nagaland.

Muivah's trip

Muivah turned down the Centre's offer to facilitate his travel to his birthplace by helicopter. His convoy rolled out of the NSCN(I-M) headquarters near Dimapur in Nagaland, and he camped at Viswema village near Mao Gate. The Manipur government rushed the Manipur Rifles battalion and commandos to Mao Gate to prevent his entry into the State.

Two Naga students died and several others were hurt during a protest demonstration on May 6 at Mao Gate. Many Naga people in Manipur fled their houses and took shelter in Nagaland. Muivah deferred his visit at the request of the Prime Minister's Office, while Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai rushed to Manipur to prevail upon the State government to withdraw its forces from Mao Gate and institute a probe into the May 6 incident. He then went to Viswema to request Muivah to put off his visit until the situation improved. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, some of his Cabinet colleagues, representatives of various civil society organisations, and the Centre's interlocutor for the ongoing Naga peace talks, R.S. Pandey, were present at the meeting .

Two larger issues that have come to the fore amidst all this are the territorial integrity of Manipur and the integration of Naga-inhabited areas into a Nagalim. Seven Naga legislators in the Manipur Assembly resigned in the wake of the blockades and tensions.

The Manipur government's ban has in a way helped the NSCN (I-M) push for the integration of Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur during its peace talks with the Centre. However, this would mean compromising the territorial integrity of Manipur.

The tough stand against a visit by Muivah has helped Ibobi's Congress-led government to check the erosion of mass support. This was evident when Food and Civil Supplies Minister Yumkham Erabot was accorded a hero's welcome by people in the Imphal valley when he came with some 300 trucks carrying supplies of essentials from Jiribam point on the Assam-Manipur border along the NH 53, which has 12 suspension bridges which make it difficult for trucks carrying heavy loads to ply on it. The government also arranged the airlifting of rice and medicines from Assam, though the quantity was inadequate.

Muivah is still camping at Viswema, waiting for a convenient time to enter Manipur. The Imphal valley is witnessing strong protest demonstrations against him.

The 2005 uprising

In 2005, ANSAM called for a similar economic blockade in protest against the Ibobi Singh government's declaration of June 18 as State Integrity Day. The great June uprising was a direct fallout of the National Democratic Alliance government's declaration of the extension of the ceasefire with the NSCN (I-M) in 2001 without territorial limits and beyond Nagaland. This was seen as a move by the Centre to concede to the insurgent outfit's demand for the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, including the four Naga-inhabited hill districts of Manipur, which account for two-thirds of the territory of the troubled State. Altogether 18 protesters lost their lives in that uprising, most of them in firing by security forces. Since then, the territorial integrity of Manipur has been a rallying point for the people of Manipur.

On May 25, ANSAM rejected an appeal made by the Naga Leaders Forum, Manipur, to call off the economic blockade.

A Congress delegation from Nagaland, led by its Pradesh Congress Committee president Imkong Ao, met Ibobi in Imphal on May 26 in a bid to resolve the impasse over the Muivah issue The Chief Minister is understood to have told the delegation that his government had taken the decision after taking all factors into consideration.

Blockades along NH-39 and NH-53, the lifelines of Manipur, have become a recurring feature. Once truckers went on strike for 52 days to protest against such blockades and the people extended full support to them. The Manipur government moved the Centre for a highway protection force, but the latter asked it to mobilise State forces. The present economic blockade cannot be overcome merely by bringing in supplies by air or any other alternative route. The Centre will now be under tremendous pressure to address the larger issues of territorial integrity of Manipur and integration of Naga-inhabited areas as neither the economic blockade nor Muivah's proposed visit can be seen in isolation from them.

With inputs from Iboyaima Laithangbam in Manipur

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 18, 2010.)

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