Manipur: A failed state?

Jaideep Mazumdar

It is worse than J&K. “Freelance insurgent groups” ensure that even the ministers pay up extortion demands. Not only funds for development, but also those for counter-insurgency operations, go to the militant groups’ coffers! ...

The arrest of 12 militants belonging to four rebel outfits from the official quarters of three Congress legislators and an ex-legislator in Imphal the other day made for screaming headlines in the national media. What didn’t is more shocking and not only symptomatic of the mess that Manipur is in, but also mainland India’s apathy to the plight of the hapless people of the state. 

For more than two weeks now, pharmaceutical companies have stopped supplying drugs, including critical life-saving medicines, to the state. The reason: militant groups had demanded a larger slice of the profits made by the drug companies in Manipur. Consequently, drugs are in severely short supply and relatives of many patients have been flying out of the state to procure drugs from Guwahati, Kolkata and even Delhi! 

Incomprehensibly, the state government hasn’t done anything beyond issuing a perfunctory appeal to the drug companies to resume supplies and holding out the flaccid promise of ‘ensuring security’ to them. And till just a few days ago, Manipur had been reeling under a desperate shortage of cooking gas due to a nearly three-week-long strike by drivers of trucks transporting LPG cylinders protesting the abduction of two of their colleagues by rebel groups. As a result, people had to buy LPG cylinders for as high as Rs 750 to Rs 800 a cylinder!

Find all this very appalling? The average Manipuri, whether in the Imphal valley or in the hill districts buffeting the valley, doesn’t. For the simple reason that all this, and more, has become commonplace, part of normal life in the state. For the landlocked state, National Highway 39 that enters Manipur from Nagaland and winds its way through the hill districts dominated by various tribes before touching the Imphal Valley and going up through the hills again to end at the Indo-Myanmar border at Moreh is the sole lifeline. 

The other entry into the state, National Highway 53, is not much to write about, not the least because it connects to Barak Valley that is itself a backward, remote and neglected part of Assam. And taking advantage of the state’s dependence on NH 39, militant groups frequently block this lifeline through bandhs and ‘curfews’, thus crippling life in the state. It’s like all roads entering Delhi being blocked and supplies of foodstuff and all commodities, including fuel, being stopped. An unimaginable scenario, and one that would have not only resulted in a huge outcry, but also invited swift and decisive action. But in this remote part of Northeast India, the lifeline remains a ‘no-traffic’ zone for weeks at a stretch. 

Last year, various militant groups and other organizations blocked the highway for a total of 146 days to highlight demands ranging from integration of Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur with ‘Nagalim’ or ‘Greater Nagaland (as is being demanded by the NSCN’s Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah faction) to better health facilities. Since all commodities and materials required by the people of the state, save for some rice and vegetables that grows in the sprawling Imphal Valley, comes in through NH 39, the severe shortages that resulted, and the consequent suffering of the people of the state, from this highway being blocked for 40% of the year can well be imagined. But did we read or see anything in the national media about this? Compare that to how the media would have gone into a frenzy if people in any other part of the country, leave aside Delhi, been subjected to such sufferings.

But the Manipuris’ sufferings don’t end there.

Lack of even basic civic amenities, healthcare, education and job opportunities, interminable power cuts, scant water supply and the twin threats posed by rapacious rebel groups and the trigger-happy security forces for whom human rights hold no meaning puts the life of a resident of this state beyond the pale of description. Nowhere else in the country, not even in Jammu & Kashmir, are citizens’ fears and sufferings so acute. So how do Manipuris cope? 

Well, they do. 

When LPG prices shoot up, they use kerosene and firewood as fuel. People take to walking or rickshaws when petrol and diesel runs out of stock. They subsist on the little that grows in the state when food supplies are stopped. The ones who can afford it migrate to Assam and other parts of the country during the periodic bouts of blockades. Children are more accustomed to studying by kerosene lamps and candles than Edison’s invention. All government offices still have and use the manual typewriter; since power supply is intermittent, electronic typewriters or computers and printers don’t work most of the time. Every household buys water. 

No one ventures out after dark when the streets are taken over by gun-toting soldiers who have the power to detain people on mere suspicion (it’s a different matter than many of the detained are roughed up and maimed or, if unlucky, disappear). During a recent visit to Imphal, human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam told me: “Manipur is a classic case of functioning anarchy; a situation where the state has failed, but people have evolved ways of getting things done and maintaining whatever small semblance of normal life is possible, often with the help of non-state entities”. Even getting a glass of water is a struggle, he says, adding that a feeling of dark depression and dread envelopes him whenever he returns to Imphal from the rest of the country or the world. 

Yambem Laba, Director of the Manipur Dance Academy tells me that people have “got used to” the dismal conditions. “We have developed the psychology of the oppressed,” Laba, the ex-chief of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, says. The oppressors are, as is normally thought, not only the security forces but, to an equal or even greater measure, the militant groups that extort money wantonly and issue diktats at will. The entities most responsible for the plight of the people of Manipur are the “freelance insurgent groups”. Laba calls them ‘freelance’ since their only aim is to extort money and harass people, they lack any ideology or goals and exist in a permanent state of flux, shifting allegiance from one major rebel group to another. 

It is a small state, but Manipur has more than 20 rebel groups, most of whom have been demanding sovereignty for the state or the small portions of it they claim to represent. Three of these groups draw inspiration from China and Mao and have, at various points in time, received assistance from that country. And most of the remaining have no ideology at all. But all extort a lot of money from government and private sector employees, traders, businessmen, contractors and politicians. It’s an open secret, we are told calmly, that even the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police have to part with a portion of their monthly income.

The ‘tax’ imposed by the militants ranges from five percent (of the income) for a small farmer or petty trader to 12 or even 15 percent for a senior officer or an affluent businessman. And on top of this, 15 to 20 percent of the outlay on any project, even a small road repairing work, goes into the militants’ pockets. Every item that’s sold in Manipur is ‘taxed’ by the militants.
For instance, a tube of toothpaste whose MRP is, say, Rs 15, would cost Rs 17 in Imphal and even more in the hill districts, the difference being the money that the trader selling the item would have to pay to one or more militant groups operating in that area. 

Each group has its own area of influence and dominance carved out and is the undisputed master in that area. In nearly the whole state, barring the small pocket of Imphal town, it is the militants’ writ that runs and not that of the state administration. The rebels have often triggered violent clashes among the various ethnic groups in the state, like the infamous Kuki-Naga clashes in the early 1990s that left more than 750 people dead. Fratricidal clashes and bloodshed are common.

The obvious question then is: why doesn’t the state do anything to curb militancy? The answer is simple: the state can’t. And more than the largely corrupt politicians in Manipur, it is New Delhi that has to bear the burden of the blame for Manipuris’ untold sufferings. For decades now, the union government has been content with relying on the army and para-military forces to contain the militants. But the security forces, despite the blanket powers given to them by the much-reviled Armed Forces Special Powers Act, have failed miserably to carry out their mandate. Because it’s a mandate that cannot be fulfilled. The reason: New Delhi, thanks to its myopic policies, is responsible for keeping militancy alive. 

Let me explain this conundrum: holding the view that militancy stems from socio-economic deprivation, Delhi’s glib response has been to pour in millions of Rupees into militancy-affected states like Manipur. But since no mechanism is put in place to ensure proper utilization of these funds (audits in these states are a farce), most of it is siphoned off by politicians, bureaucrats and contractors. The militants then want a share of this pie and get it by holding out threats to the vulnerable politicians, bureaucrats or contractors. This is easy money for the militants, and it emboldens them to hike their demands and start extorting from all others, including businessmen and even petty traders. 

When the politicians, including ministers, pay up, there’s little that the common man can do except not follow suit. Thus, a flourishing parallel economy that finances not only the militants, but also the politicians they prop up, takes shape. Since militant groups wield enormous power and use it to decide the outcome in elections, contesting candidates have no option but to seek the rebels’ help in winning. The rebels help whichever candidate pays them the most. Very often, such deals are struck at the party level with one or more groups supporting one party or the other. And if that party comes to power, it’s not hard to imagine what favours and concessions they extend to the group that has helped them in the electoral battle. The help is in the form of outright rigging and issuing diktats to the electorate to vote for a particular party or candidate; and the voters dare not defy the militants. 

This is all an insidious game and arrangement and the security forces, as well as the state administration that anyway has already been co-opted and compromised, can do little to stop it. The union government is well aware of all this, but prefers to turn a blind eye to this vicious cycle that feeds militancy. Because it is also complicit in the game—a portion of the funds that politicians siphon out of the central grants finds its way back to the pockets of politicians in Delhi. That’s the price the powers-that-be in Delhi extract for keeping quiet and allowing the loot to go on. 

Also, like other militancy-affected states, Manipur, too, gets huge funds for fighting militancy. But once again, most of these funds are siphoned off by politicians, bureaucrats, police officers and even high-ups in the army and para-military forces. A substantial portion of it, quite naturally, goes to the militant groups. So here’s the supreme irony of the situation: not only funds for development, but also those for counter-insurgency operations, go to the militant groups’ coffers! Is it any wonder then that the politicians, the bureaucrats, the police and security forces and the elite in Manipur don’t really want militancy to end? If insurgency is curbed, not only would the flow of funds for fighting insurgency dry up, attention would also shift to proper utilization of development funds and greater transparency in the government’s functioning. Why would Manipur’s politicians and those who gain from the present situation want that to happen?

Now then, given this complex and hopeless situation, does the news of militants being caught from legislators’ official quarters seem so shocking? It is a given that politicians have to seek support of the militants and in return for that favour, politicians have to pay large sums of money and provide other assistance like safe shelters to the rebels. No one, with perhaps just a couple of honourable exceptions, contests elections in Manipur without an understanding with the rebels. The union government knows it, but for reasons elucidated above, keeps quiet. All parties are guilty of having close ties with insurgents. And so, they can never be expected to make a way out of this impasse in Manipur. 

As for the other stake-holders in Manipur, including the central security forces, it suits them fine to allow things to continue as they are in the state. Only, it is the largest group of stakeholders—the suffering masses of Manipur—who are paying a heavy price for the shenanigans and chicanery of the political-bureaucratic-security establishment in the state.