I was sitting at a restaurant for lunch with a friend. The guy serving us was new and trying hard to please. After we had told us about his recommendations, I casually asked, “Which part of the North East are you from?”
“Manipur. Have you been there?”
“No, but have been to other parts.” As happens often, I started discussing politics. “Isn’t Nagaland the most sensitive? Manipur is…”
“Manipur is in trouble,” he said.
It was the sort of trouble he understood, not the kind you read in print or watch on videos. He had returned home, hoping to work there and be close to the family. He came back two weeks ago. “It is very bad, nothing available.”
My plate was arranged with tidbits, fashionably minimalist cuisine.
His people are subsisting on the minimal. 60 days without essential supplies, the closure of the largest hospital due to lack of medicines and oxygen. Routine surgeries cannot be performed. People are going hungry. An LPG cylinder can be bought in Imphal for Rs. 1500 and petrol is available in the grey market for Rs 150 a litre. Transportation of essentials would make it not only difficult but hugely expensive and unaffordable.
This is Manipur today. It isn’t making big news in the international press; within India too it is a sidelight. No one seems to care that it is one state against another in the North East that is at war.
What is the blockade about? Naga protestors shut down National Highway 39 that links to Manipur. As one report stated, “On April 12, the All-Naga Students’ Association of Manipur (Ansam) had begun the blockade to oppose Manipur’s decision to hold Autonomous District Council (ADC) elections in tribal dominated hill districts. It claimed that the ADC Act ‘suppresses tribal rights’.” Worse, the general secretary was not allowed to visit his native village in Manipur.
The Centre has airlifted some essentials with the help of the Assam Rifles, BSF and CRPF. But, has it tried to bring the real issue to the table? “The government’s patience is running out. We have to come down with a hard hand on those who are doing this blockade,” said the Union Home Secretary G K Pillai.
Has the North East ever been considered Indian enough? The only times there are government jitters is when outside forces try and assert themselves or the Centre suffers from one more bout of paranoia regarding illegal immigrants.
The problem is not new and goes back to post-Partition. The fringe states with sensitive borders were not an immediate concern, since India was at the time more interested in the new enemy outside. Besides, it took them two decades at the very least to become a part of India. However, in the 60s the Indian state woke up to the region of the seven sisters, each similar and yet different.
Manipur even in 1947 remained a sovereign state with the maharajah as the executive head, later joining the republic. It was a union territory until 1972 when it became part of India. The demand for a separate state of Manipur accelerated. It is one place where you need special permission to visit.
Nagaland was a part of Assam soon after Indian Independence. There was bound to be discord. Instead of quelling the violence, the government gave primacy to one group over the other and immediately started a counter-insurgency operation by the early 70s. The Naga National Council accepted the Constitution of India unconditionally in 1975, but not everyone agreed and it split. This splintered group got further divided over tribal differences.
When two groups want one thing, the dynamics can get reasonably difficult to negotiate. Both wanted to establish Nagalim that would include Naga territories of Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and even Myanmar. While the Nagas do inhabit mainly the hilly regions of these places, the formation of a state – in a region that has already been divided – would cause tremendous territorial and social problems.
Ceasefire operations work sporadically. The situation is complex because granting autonomy to one state would mean the crumbling of an anyway precarious pack of cards. Even in the more accessible areas, one is acutely made aware of one’s Indian-ness as opposed to the regional loyalties of those living there.
A few years ago at the hotel in Shillong we decided to visit the bar. It was crowded and we were told there was no room. We thought we’d try after a while. Several minutes later, youngsters, all a little high, began trooping out. We found a nice little corner. All eyes were on us. These were smart young things, trendily dressed. They whispered something to the barman; he came and told us they were closed.
Whether we like it or not, the fact is that the people of the North East are exceedingly polite as long as we go there are tourists. The moment we wish to partake of their culture or intrude into their private space, they become apprehensive.
Due to their international boundaries with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh they face a double-edged sword. They have to deal with infiltrators and are expected to display their loyalty. It is to their credit that besides the local language they speak English as well as Hindi. However, the rest of Indian still considers them to be a hilly tribe; they are still asked if they are head hunters.
A Naga social scientist, M.Horam, had written, “Fabricated and callous talk of this kind becomes a veritable crime when the person indulging in it are those very people who are supposed to be ‘caring for’ and governing this region, be they civil or defence personnel or their wives or relations. The contempt and sneer of many sophisticated ladies for the ‘uncouth’ tribals was not a secret in the 60s and early 70s and this has certainly helped Calcutta and Rajasthan and labourers from Bihar, Orissa, Punjab and virtually every other state.”
One perceptive tourist observed, “It is obvious they do not feel a part of this country. They feel that India is being imposed on them. They don’t feel integrated which is why they appear so chauvinistic regarding even each other’s language.”
There is resentment against what has come to be known as ‘internal colonialism’, yet there is a belief that outsiders were encouraged by the ruling elite to swell vote banks. Every society has a way of reacting to this: you can seethe or you can fight back. Every community appears to have a political organisation.
Those really involved in the movements are sent out in the fields to get killed while the top brass, the so-called leaders, check into fancy five-star hotels and blow up money. These activities have also given rise to the extortion racket, sometimes by these people themselves or by those who want to make a fast buck.
A young Khasi I met reasoned, “To keep up with the changing times youngsters went out to get an education, during which time the outside business communities were busy consolidating their position here.”
The young people became acutely aware of their plight here. They wanted to run things by themselves but they could no longer use the infrastructure. Everything seemed foreign. They became revolutionaries to uphold their culture.
Culture is a fuzzy concept. So how do they know what they are upholding? Isn’t it true that Assam was split into three states on the language issue? And are there not distinctions made between the hill people and the plains people? Is it not said that the powerful amongst the Jaintias are called the “orthodox sudras”? They talk about being a classless group, but are they really cohesive?
If they were, then Manipur’s fate would not be resting on a blockade by one of its own. Siblings grow up and rebel. The Centre can quite contentedly work on these disparities to suit its own agenda. Divide and rule is a legacy we cling on to.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org