As India rises, Manipur wrecked by chaos

In this Wednesday, March 9, 2011 photo, a security officer pulls at vegetables as he scuffles with a vegetable vendor at a market area in Imphal, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. While India tries to assume its place as a rising world power, it is vexed by the conflict in Manipur and the other seemingly endless chain of hidden wars that challenge its ability to fully govern its own country. (AP Photo)
IMPHAL, April 16 (AP): In his years as a police officer in the badlands of Manipur, Khaidem Muhi had his weapon seized by insurgents so many times that he was banned from the force for 12 years. Back on the job last month, the 50-year-old was guarding the home of a government official when a homemade grenade, tossed from a speeding motorcycle, killed him.
Muhi’s family was devastated. Most others dismissed the attack — in daylight, on a heavily guarded house, just meters (yards) from a major security base — as typical in the toxic web of violence, extortion, government corruption and general lawlessness that plagues this state in India’s rebellious northeast. “In Manipur, being a police officer is too dangerous. Anything can happen at any time,” Muhi’s wife, Bimola Khaidem, said as she wiped away tears with her white woolen shawl.
While India tries to assume its place as a rising world power, it is vexed by the conflict in Manipur and the other seemingly endless chain of hidden wars that challenge its ability to fully govern itself. From Kashmir in the north, where hundreds of thousands of troops face off against Muslim separatists, to the “red belt” sweeping through the east, where Maoist guerrillas are fighting to overthrow the state, wide swaths of India are under only the barest government control.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal, a private intelligence website which tracks insurgencies, lists more than 150 militant groups in the country, some little more than a few guys with guns, others running their own remote rump states. Few places are more remote than the seven states of India’s northeast, a region that often feels like an afterthought to the great idea of India that seeks to bring 1.2 billion people of different religions, cultures and languages into a cohesive, secular democracy.
The famed Indian railroad, the 108,000 kilometer (67,500 mile) skeleton that binds the nation together, does not reach Manipur. The state is geographically closer to Hong Kong than to Mumbai, and residents fear that their features — more Chinese than north Indian — make their loyalties suspect.
People here have resentments of their own against Indian authority, dating back six decades, to when Manipur was one of hundreds of princely states pressured — Manipuris say forced — to join newly independent India. Even as Manipuris stewed over the quashing of their aspirations, internal tensions boiled. Naga tribes in the hills began agitating for their own nation, to be merged with the neighboring state of Nagaland.
Another group, the Meitei, launched their own insurgency. Other tribes joined in, and the government gave security forces sweeping freedom to crack down. After decades of warfare and thuggishness by all sides, conflict has become routine for the state’s 2.2 million people. “People don’t know who to be afraid of,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press.
“The only difference is that the police are visible and the militants are invisible.” The state is regularly paralyzed by bandhs, or protest strikes. Shops in Imphal close at 6 p.m., and streets empty soon after nightfall.
“Because of the fear, we have developed a culture of going to bed early,” said doctoral student Mrinalini Nameirakpam, 27. Manipur University has become a battleground too. The previous head of the school was kidnapped, held for five days and shot in the leg. Two years ago a professor overseeing student elections seen as a competition between militant groups was shot and killed in daylight on campus. The dean of students came under threat for pushing ahead with a youth festival despite student calls for a strike.
The school’s top officials now travel in armed convoys and their offices lay behind five layers of security guards. None answers cellphone calls from unfamiliar numbers, lest they be from militants making threats or ransom demands. More than one-third of the school’s positions for professors are vacant.
The current head of the school, Nandakumar Sarma, insists that despite it all, his campus is peaceful and his students focused. “If you go to the library you will see students studying,” he said, before stopping himself with a chuckle. “But today is a bandh.”
The insurgents, known collectively as the “underground” or “UG,” used to be focused on their battles with India, demanding “taxes” from Manipuris to fund the fight. Now, the fundraising has become an end in itself, with militant threats, extortion rackets and kidnappings for ransom routine, according to residents. In one region under de facto militant control, a construction worker said he tried to cash his paycheck and was turned away by a bank because he didn’t have the required letter from the UG confirming he had paid the militants their share.
Another man said he was perplexed by a grenade attack on his house, only to find out later insurgents had been sending extortion demands by text message — a technology he had no clue how to use. As the kleptocracy grew, so did the array of groups. Phanjoubam estimates there are more than 40, with new ones springing up every few weeks. One, the Kangleipak Communist Party, is estimated to have more than a dozen offshoots, each demanding a cut of government contracts.
It is these contracts where the real money is made, with so many fingers in the government till that the demands often exceed the entire value of the deal. A construction contractor explained a recent shakedown on condition of anonymity for fear of militants, government officials and security forces. When he was awarded a 320 million rupee ($7 million) contract, 12 percent was instantly deducted by government officials — 7 percent for themselves and 5 percent for the Meitei underground in Imphal.
A powerful Naga militant group sent a delegation to demand its 5 percent cut. Then smaller groups, with names like the Manipur National Revolutionary Front, the Volunteers of Innocent People and the Naga Liberation Army, picked at the remaining scraps, he said. One demanded 3 million rupees ($67,000); he refused. A grenade was tossed at his house but failed to explode, he said. They called back, claimed the attack and eventually negotiated their cut down to 1 million rupees ($22,000). Another group got 1.5 million rupees ($33,000). Two others got 500,000 ($11,000) each.
“We have no choice. We have to fulfill their demands,” the contractor said. With only a fraction of the money to complete the project, he insists he doesn’t cut corners, but pays his workers poor wages and buys the cheapest building materials he can find. Security forces, in turn, are accused of carrying out their own terror with mass arrests, disappearances and staged killings, including the shooting of a pregnant woman and an unarmed ex-militant in Imphal’s busy market in 2009.
They are even implicated in the insurgency itself, with rights activists and police officers accusing paramilitary troops of ferrying militants through checkpoints to carry out attacks. One government engineer with oversight of contracts, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of all sides, said he once paid ransom for a kidnapped worker to a state Cabinet minister’s brother in front of police headquarters. Another drop-off was made at the home of a state legislator, he said. “Governm ent employees and police are also part of the same milieu ... either collaborating or participating (in the insurgency),” acknowledged Manipur’s top bureaucrat, Chief Secretary D.S. Poonia.
While there have been few extortion prosecutions because no one will testify, Poonia said the government had been working to weaken the militants. The National Investigation Agency, formed to fight terror in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, has threatened charges against anyone aiding the militants. And government paychecks, which had been issued only after militant “taxes” were deducted, are now direct-deposited in full into workers’ accounts, Poonia said.
In response, the militants have stepped up kidnappings for ransom to keep the cash flowing, Poonia said, while the government engineer said his employees can’t inspect contractors’ work sites for fear of being abducted. In recent months the Indian government has tried pacification. It captured, released and began peace talks with rebel leaders from the state of Assam. It appealed for Indians abroad to fund private investments in the region, and it lifted a requirement that all foreign visitors to the area apply for hard-to-get permits.
Addressing Parliament in January, Home Affairs Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said security in the northeast showed “remarkable improvement.” Manipur, he said, was an exception. Nevertheless, President Pratibha Patil traveled to Imphal recently to inaugurate an information technology park the state government heralded as the flowering of a new era. The barricades along her route, erected to hold back welcoming crowds, were empty; the militants had called a protest strike.
At the same moment, a crowd gathered outside a nearby hospital awaiting the release of Irom Sharmila, a 39-year-old woman on a decade-long hunger strike to protest the government’s tough counterinsurgency laws. Sharmila lives in police custody so she can be force fed through a nose tube, but by law must be released every year.
The frail woman, accompanied by dozens of supporters, walked slowly to a shrine in her honor and denounced all sides for Manipur’s anarchy, calling politicians “cowards” and the militants “insincere.” Yet, she said, her protest will serve as “the foundation stone for peace and justice,” and she insisted Manipur will get better. “Hope is alive. I can’t give up hope,” she said. The next day Sharmila was taken back into custody. Her fast continues.