A state in disrepair | india | Hindustan Times
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A state in disrepair

“Clear out, clear out,” a middle-aged Manipur Police constable shouted angrily. A white Maruti 800 stood next to what was once a pavement, but is now a garbage dump. Shattered glass panes lay scattered around a thin rivulet of blood on the tar. “It must be an encounter killing,” the driver muttered, reports KumKum Dasgupta.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2009 00:33 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

“Clear out, clear out,” a middle-aged Manipur Police constable shouted angrily. A white Maruti 800 stood next to what was once a pavement, but is now a garbage dump. Shattered glass panes lay scattered around a thin rivulet of blood on the tar. “It must be an encounter killing,” the driver muttered.

It was 6.30 pm and Imphal had already packed up for the day on September 16. Very few people venture out after sunset, afraid that they would either get caught in the crossfire between the security forces and insurgents (commonly called ‘undergrounds’) or be picked up by the former on suspicion of being an underground. There are 30-odd underground groups in the state.

About 2,500 kilometres away from Delhi, and from the glare of the media and civil society, Manipur has turned into India’s Wild Wild East. It has two major handicaps: first, the state belongs to the ‘invisible’ Northeast; and second, it has seen a complete breakdown of law and order and infrastructure. And corrupt politics.

For the common Manipuri, the lines between insurgents, security forces and politicians have become blurred. “There are backward and forward linkages between these three groups,” said Babloo Loitongbam, 40, executive director, Human Rights Alert.

In August, a rifleman of the Indian Reserve Battalion, a paramilitary outfit, was arrested for lobbing a grenade near a hospital in Imphal. He later confessed that he was paid Rs 5,000 by the Kangleipak Communist Party, a rebel group fighting for an independent homeland for the majority Meteis.

Even though the government has been carrying on its counter-insurgency operations since the 1960s, the undergrounds continue to terrorise people. In Manipur, no one takes calls from unknown mobile numbers, fearing extortion threats. Everyone pays a ‘tax’ to the insurgents. And, very few are willing to talk to journalists on record.

Imphal, with its decrepit roads, haphazard traffic, a hopeless power and water situation and the putrid Imphal river, is on the edge most of the time. So are other parts of the state.

Hindi films are banned in Manipur. Movie halls are out of bounds after dark due to the security situation. “The insurgents have a dress and content code for Manipuri films, which means no sarees, bindis or mangalsutras. Nothing remotely ‘Indian’. Effectively, it has killed the industry,” a senior film director said. To avoid trouble, directors set up the Manipur Film Forum, which “clears” movies before they are sent to the Central Board of Film Certification.

Bandhs and curfews called by insurgents and civil society groups are regular features. For the past one month, all educational institutions have been closed down by the Apunba Lup, an umbrella civil society organisation.

They want Chief Minister Ibobi Singh’s removal and the withdrawal of the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

The AFSPA has been in use in Manipur since the 1960s and empowers the military and paramilitary forces to arrest, shoot and even kill anyone on mere suspicion. The common people want the Act to go, but the state and the Centre disagree even though the centrally appointed Justice B.P. Jeevan Reddy Committee in 2005 recommended its removal.

According to Human Rights Alert, the ratio of armed personnel to civilians is pegged at 35:100 in Manipur, compared to 1:100 in Myanmar (which is ruled by a military junta).

Despite such tight security, on September 19, a car bomb with 25 kg of explosives was found outside the Governor’s residence. Many think it was an insider’s job, a ploy to show why Manipur needs heavy “security”.

“We are caught between the state and non-state actors. The only way to survive here is to adapt,” said Taiba, 28, a journalist. Last year, Taiba had to leave a promising career in Delhi and go back to Imphal after his father, a government official, was kidnapped from their Imphal home by insurgents. After four days, he managed to flee from the insurgents’ hideout.

On August 8 this year, Imphal West commandos and the 12th Maratha Light Infantry killed Taiba’s neighbour — 28-year-old Kshetri Mayum — on the suspicion of being an insurgent. Till today the police have not come up with the name of the insurgent group with which Mayum was allegedly associated. One can’t miss the predicament of a common Manipuri here.

For years, festering issues of civilian anger have remained unaddressed: the removal of the AFSPA, the high-handedness of security forces and fake encounters, widespread corruption and New Delhi’s obvious lack of interest.

“Why is it that New Delhi keeps on supporting the chief minister? When our boys get killed in fake encounters, there’s not even a murmur of protest in Parliament,” asks Sitara Begum, 45, of Imphal East. Begum is a member of Meira Paibi — a women’s group.

“Why can’t the government withdraw the Act for a trial period,” she asks. According to Human Rights Alert, at least 52 encounters since 2006 were staged. This year, Manipur Police have killed 225 people in encounters — insurgents have killed another 65, allegedly as part of their kidnapping and extortion campaign.

Manipur has also become a prized posting for the security forces: Manipur Police won 74 gallantry awards on August 15 this year, with the rest of the country getting 138. Almost all of these awards for Manipur Police were for encounters with suspected insurgents.

Lack of employment opportunities forces many to work for the undergrounds as ‘runners’. Out of 2.3 million people in Manipur, 640,000, or 27 per cent, are unemployed.

There are three kinds of underground groups: first, the hardcore outfits driven by ideology; second, the ones perpetuated by the government; and then the plain extortionists.

The ‘parallel’ taxation system and the Central funds feed the raging insurgency in Manipur. Infrastructure contracts are routinely given to contractors close to politicians and insurgents.

It pays to keep insurgency alive in Manipur.