In Manipur, blockades are a way of life

Two main roads connect this state to the rest of India, leaving it vulnerable to blockade

The Kuki tribal group, seeking the creation of a separate administrative district in its area, had imposed a blockade in August, severing the only two roads that lead here, and with them Lisam’s access to crucial medical supplies. Oxygen canisters, vital for surgery, were already scarce. All nonemergency procedures were cancelled indefinitely.

“Many patients come to me and beg to get their surgeries done,” Lisam said. “I tell them: “A hernia can wait.”

It is an astonishing but fact, and it is indicative of India’s peculiar challenges, that an entire state of the world’s most populous democracy, and a rising economic power, can still be held hostage by a small ethnic group demanding a relatively modest amount of local administrative control.

India’s remote northeast is attached to the rest of the country by a slender thread of territory that arcs over the northern border of Bangladesh. It lies at the crossroads of India, Myanmar, China and Nepal, and is an ethnic and religious crazy quilt, populated by a diverse mix of indigenous tribes. In addition to Muslims and Hindus, many of the tribes are Christian or practice smaller, traditional religions.

That makes for fractious politics all over, from the eastern end of West Bengal to the deepest reaches of Arunachal Pradesh, from Assam to Tripura. Some places have suffered through full-fledged insurgencies while others have remained simmering for decades on a lower boil. Violence has dropped sharply in Manipur, once one of the most insurgent-wracked states in the country. But the state remains fragile. “Manipur is like a mini India,” Nongthomban Biren, a state government minister and spokesman, said in an interview at his palatial home. “There are 36 tribes in such a small state. We have to be very careful. If something is happening, and it hurts someone’s sentiments, it is a big problem.”

Two main roads connect this state to the rest of India, leaving it vulnerable to blockade by whatever group has a gripe with the government. Such protests have been a routine part of life here for four decades. This summer’s blockade lasted more than three months, costing the state tens of millions of rupees. Like other blockades through the years, this one stopped as abruptly as it had begun, when the state government said it would create a district for the Kukis. But there was already a competing partial blockade in place by an ethnic group opposed to the move. All summer, gasoline was in short supply and rationing was in force. People lined up for hours, parking their cars in line at night and returning to wait again in the morning, to get a few liters of oil. In remote and isolated Manipur, blockades ensure that what little commercial life there is gets choked off.

Breaking large chunks

Usually when Manipur is sealed from the outside, the perpetrators are ethnic Nagas who want to break large chunks of the state off to add to what they call Greater Nagaland, an enlarged version of the existing state of Nagaland.

This time, however, it was another tribal group that was blocking the roads. The Kukis are a hill tribe who complain that they are dominated by both the Nagas and the Hindu Meiteis of the Imphal Valley, who dominate political and economic life in Manipur.

In order to have greater control over the development of their community and a measure of self-governance, Kuki activists are demanding that the state government create a new district, which is a local administrative unit, in the southern half of the existing Southern Hills district. While this may seem like a modest proposal, Naga groups oppose it because they worry that a Kuki-dominated district could disrupt their plans for Greater Nagaland. “The Nagas are against it,” Biren said, with more than a hint of weariness in his voice. “If the Nagas get angry, that affects the whole state.”

The government, despite draconian anti-insurgency security laws that allow it to clamp down hard on dissent, was unable to stop the blockade. But it is easy to see why this was the case. The village of Gamgiphai, on the outskirts of Imphal, was one of the front lines of the blockade. Villagers had dug a trench through the asphalt of the road, banning all traffic.

A huge crowd of women surrounded a young army major in wire rimmed glasses, who pleaded with them. “I ask all the people to calm down,” the soldier said through a scratchy bullhorn. “We apologise to the people.”

There were several different versions of what had prompted this impromptu rally, but the most commonly told was that a paramilitary soldier had tried to break the blockade on his scooter. The women enforcing it got in his way, and, according to Lamshi Haokip, a homemaker and mother of three, he had threatened them.

“He said: ‘I am a soldier. What can you women do to us?’ ” Haokip said. The army major was clearly trying to soothe tempers, but he was meeting with little success. “Please, listen to me,” he pleaded. “I am here to help you. Whatever happened has happened as a result of a misunderstanding. I am standing here empty-handed. I have no weapon with me.” He paused, waiting for the shouting to subside so he could be heard. “If you have faith in me, please raise your hands,” he said.

A few hands went up. The crowd quieted. Volunteers formed a human chain to keep the protesters back. The major, it seemed, was going to produce the offending soldier to offer his own apology. “I will bring my boy here,” he said. “I appeal to you again and again: Please do not hurt him!”

A teacher named Kimboi stood a little apart from the scene, wearing a yellow dress.
She explained why she supported the blockade. “It is not only the people in the valley who suffer,” she said. “This is harvesting time. The majority of our people are farmers. This is a big sacrifice for us. We are not trying to destroy Manipur. We are not asking for our own state. We just want control over our own development.”

Meanwhile, a truck arrived carrying the offending soldier. Flanked by his colleagues, he made his way to where the major was standing. The crowd surged but was held back by the human chain. “Please, I have brought this boy here,” the major said. “He will now apologise.”

The young man was about to speak, but one of his accusers grabbed the microphone. He had accosted them in civilian dress – why was he now brought forward in military fatigues? Another of the women lunged forward and slapped him. A melee broke out, and the young soldier had to be whisked away. “Please stop, please stop, please stop, please stop!” the major cried.

Lakhi Kanta, a lawyer in Imphal, said these blockades were almost entirely the government’s own making. “Nobody is serious about tackling this problem,” he said. “There are so many central forces and they cannot ensure the safety of trucks? It is simply a lack of will. As common citizens of this state, we are living with great difficulties.”

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