Despair and democracy

Print edition : June 18, 2004

Outer Manipur lives in the perennial shadow of guns, drugs and disease, and the system has failed to offer a way out. Still the people participate in large numbers in the democratic process of electing their representatives to Parliament.

PRAVEEN SWAMI recently in Chura Chandpur Photographs: Parth Sanyal

SOMEWHERE along the road to Singnat, the Indian state disappears. Tarmac gives way to unpaved rock and earth, churned up by thunderstorms and passing trucks. A local militia, the Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA), in return for a small toll fee, ensures travellers are not looted, kidnapped or shot by other, less civilised armed groups; the police and paramilitary forces who ought to be doing this job do not care to travel down the road. For a day, electronic voting machines (EVMs) also made their way up the road. Strangely, it sparked off some hope. "Who knows," said local college student Jeff Hmar, "things might change. Miracles do happen, don't they?"

A view of Swangdoh village, near the India-Myanmar border in Manipur's Chura Chandpur district.-

Zomi Revolutionary Army members participate in combat exercises at a camp near Swangdoh.-

Training sessions of the ZRA near Swangdoh.

At a training session of the ZRA.-

A woman cadre of the ZRA undergoes combat training.-

In Singnat village, a ZRA member poses in front of a poster that says, 'Journey to the Promised land'.-

Phanznianpau Guite, ZRA president, in Swangdoh.-

ZRA commandos with villagers near Swangdoh.-

At a government college in Chura Chandpur, during an examination attended by a handful of students.-

Inmates watching television at the Sahara drugs rehabilitation centre.-

Livening their lives with music at the rehabilitation centre.-

On paper, Singnat is a subdivisional headquarters, a key administrative centre within the border district of Chura Chandpur. The Sub-Divisional Officer's headquarters, though, has been abandoned in the past decade, its run-down rooms stripped of so much as a filing cabinet. Not much remains of the police station either, which was set on fire by ethnic-Meitei insurgents in 1993. The fire department has no staff, but an almost-red truck rusting in a shed bears witness to the fact that it once existed. A hospital building exists, but no doctors come to work there. There is also a government-run school, but again, without teachers. The boarded-up Singnat post office still has a sign proclaiming that it works from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but no one who is not well past their teens has any idea what the red cylindrical box outside the building is for.

Across the street are the only signs that this is, in fact, a part of India. The beaming visage of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, among others, looks down on those gathered around Singnat's sole water tank, which holds just enough to give each resident of the town one bucket a day. While the posters are normal, the politics is not. Vajpayee's poster endorses the campaign of D. Loli Adanee, who has the support of the ZRA. The ZRA's sometime-friend, sometime-foe, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim's Isaac-Muivah faction or the NSCN(I-M), chose to back independent candidate Mani Charenamei. On one occasion, NSCN(I-M) cadre stopped Adanee at gunpoint, and warned him against campaigning in their area. Other groups, each claiming to represent a specific tribe, backed other candidates. The president of the ZRA's parent organisation, Thanzlianpau Guite, a former Member of Parliament in Myanmar, said: "We did not want to get involved in the elections, but since other organisations have stepped in, we have to defend the rights of our community." Terrorist violence, poll fraud and landslides meant that voting in the Outer Manipur constituency could only be completed on May 17, well after Indians knew who would rule them.

Can democracy function where nothing else does? Here is a mystery: well over half of the district's voters chose to cast their vote. It is tempting to be dismissive about these turnout figures. Elders in parts of Outer Manipur have been known to cast votes for their entire family, a practice respected by both polling agents and election staff. Candidates have also secured the support of the welter of tribal militia and insurgent groups who pepper Manipur, a practice that has led to the institutionalisation of booth-capturing in some areas. Yet, these problems are not unique to the Manipur hills; other areas that suffer from election fraud do not register high turnouts. What, then, is going on?

HE says he is 16 but looks 12, and will only identify himself as `Nixon'. It is afternoon. An M-16 assault rifle in hand, `Nixon' is collecting a toll of Rs.100 paid by the Chura Chandpur-Aizawl bus service's conductor at the small village of Swangdoh. `Nixon' dropped out of school after the 5th grade, since his parents could no longer afford to send him to school. After a few years of hard, unrewarding labour on fields owned by his parents and with no prospect of a job in sight, `Nixon' volunteered to serve with the ZRA. He receives no pay, but the weapon in his hand seems to have given him some sense of self worth. "I joined the ZRA," he says, "to defend my people." Asked who he is defending them against, `Nixon' is uncertain. "Our enemies," he says, after a long pause.

`Nixon' is the child of a failed state. In 1992-1993, NSCN insurgents initiated the wholesale ethnic cleansing of the Kuki from Nagaland, in reprisal for the support that elements of the tribe had given the Indian Army. Kuki refugees streamed into Chura Chandpur, dislocating the fragile balance of tribes in the region. At about the same time, the Zomi Reunification Organisation (ZRO) came into being with the support of several social and church groups, claiming to represent a welter of non-Naga hill tribes spread across India and Myanmar, mainly the Paite, Simte and Vaipeh. Although Zomi ideology included the Kuki among its ranks, the tribe, the poorest of those in the hills, felt otherwise. Convinced that the newly formed ZRA, the armed wing of the ZRO, was allying itself with the NSCN, Kuki insurgents joined ranks with Meitei insurgents in the plains of Manipur, who have historically opposed Naga claims.

Like in Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon, everybody's accounts of what happened next are different and mutually exclusive. Whatever the truth, a full-scale ethnic war broke out in 1996. No accurate figures exist on how many died, but the figures could run into hundreds of people. For the most part, the Indian state did nothing to stop the carnage. A generation of young people turned to the armed groups within their tribes. Today, members of each tribe pay a percentage of their salaries to the militia organisations. Most militia groups have an unsavoury reputation for extortion, and politicians routinely pay protection money. Sometimes wars break out. The ZRA, for example, exchanged fire this spring with Hmar insurgents along the India-Myanmar border. Alliances form and re-form. Three years ago, warring Hmar groups took the help of the Meitei PREPAK to settle a feud; Kuki factions have sometimes turned to their enemy, the NSCN.

Today, Manipur has what former Border Security Force (BSF) chief E.N. Rammohan described as a "degenerated insurgency". In key senses, both the insurgency and the degeneration were New Delhi's doing. The welter of insurgent groups who sprang up in the Meitei-dominated plains of Manipur from the 1950s - PREPAK, the People's Liberation Army, or the United National Liberation Front - in part represented chauvinist resentment against the growing assertiveness of the hill tribes. Considered untouchables by the Hindu people of the plains, the growth of Church-led education, and political awareness in the hills represented a serious challenge to the ambitions of traditional elites. However, the Meitei insurgents also tapped the anger against corruption and developmental failures. New Delhi's policy, Rammohan has written, was "to flush (sic) the north-east with funds". Political hangers-on in New Delhi benefited from the funds paid for roads and bridges that were never built, and the loot was "carried back to Delhi by this coterie of contractors". As time went by, the political establishment and administration joined in the pillage.

In time, though, so did the insurgents. The wages of their involvement in narcotics and protection rackets have been calamitous for their own communities. "It's like a water tanker," says Guite, "some of the water is bound to splash out."

A recovering addict at the Sahara rehabilitation facility in Chura Chandpur talks about `shooting galleries': stick your arm through a hole in the wall with a Rs.50 note clenched in your fist, and someone will stick in a needle filled with Number 4, the local name for the high-grade heroin that makes its way in from Myanmar. Chura Chandpur has perhaps the highest rate of intravenous drug use in India, and for a while had the distinction of being the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) capital as well. Now officials claim that things have improved, but the decline is illusory. Hospitals have a three-month waiting list for HIV tests, and most addicts have no interest in queuing up. Sahara itself is short of funds because officials handling grants would not release them without bribes, and the organisation wants to stay clean. Other non-governmental organisations have alternative sources of funding, but no one can treat despair: the despair felt by young people with no jobs, no dignity and no future.

Number 4 came to the Manipur hills along with the insurgents, who needed protection money to pay for their weapons, often hand-me-downs purchased by dealers from the remnants of South-East Asian armies such as the Khmer Rouge. Insurgent armies often shoot street peddlers and those within their own ranks who use narcotics to demonstrate their care for their communities. De-addiction facilities in Chura Chandpur regularly receive clients shot through the knees - former members of insurgent groups who turned to peddling narcotics when they ended their military service, putting their military skills to work in order to make a living. No group, however, seems to have made a serious effort to stop the flow of drugs through the areas it controls. It is part of a larger pattern. Part of the kerosene supplies routed through the public distribution system to Chura Chandpur are handed over to insurgents, as are stocks of grain. So, too, are a large chunk of development funds.

Near the India-Myanmar border, in Chura Chandpur district.-

Part of the solution is, obviously, military: communities that feel secure will not turn to tribal militia. In April, the Army launched a brigade-strength holding operation in Tajik Sampak, in the district of Chandel. For local residents, it holds out hope. The Deputy Commissioner of Chandel had shifted to Imphal, along with all other government officials, after November 2000. At that time, NSCN and United Kuki Liberation Front cadre had disarmed his escort and forced him to sign cheques for Rs.44,80,000 - District Rural Development Agency money meant for development projects. Since the bank had closed for the day, the Deputy Commissioner was then kept in custody until the cheques could be encashed. Neither the Manipur Rifles nor the police even bothered reporting the incident. Local rumour has it that the Chandel operations will soon be widened into the ZRA-held territory around Singnat and to free National Highway 150, now under the de facto control of Kuki and Meitei insurgent groups who had made it impossible to traverse.

Oddly, for a man committed to carving out a new State, the ZRA's Guite seems calm at the prospect of military intervention: "We have never fought the Indian Army, and never will". It takes little to understand the sentiment. For most people, the stated ideological objectives of most insurgent groups - new states, unified homelands - seem almost surreal. Students from the hill tribes at Chura Chandpur note that their college has just four part-time science teachers, because academics from the plains do not wish to serve there.

Others talk of the need for cooperatives to replace traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, now in terminal decay. People want electricity for more than two hours a day, an assured supply of drinking water, a decent education for their children and jobs. Politicians could have worked for these ends, for the creation of genuine developmental assets, which would encourage inter-tribe dialogue and reconciliation. Like everyone else, though, they are now paying the price for choosing the easier way.

Will this election change anything? Decades ago, Tonsing Vunglallian chose not to cash in on his degree from New Delhi's prestigious St. Stephen's College and returned to Chura Chandpur to set up a school.

He has stayed on, despite the violence and ethnic carnage. "When I go to bed," he says, "I know I have done a little good for one or two children. It isn't much, but I sleep well." It is time, perhaps, that Manipur's politicians went back to school.

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