The M on the 'Indo-Yanmar Friendship Bridge' board was missing at Gate Number 2. Shops selling clothes, cosmetics and groceries punctuated the narrow road leading up to it. Lanes branched off into smaller 'bastis', muddy and wet after early morning rain. And people - old women balancing sacks on their head, younger men with big packets - casually walked across a gate, occasionally putting their acquisitions through an X-Ray machine, often just nodding at the security personnel and passing by.
A Sikh shopkeeper down the road was reluctant to speak, fearing reprisal, but called another friend of his from an adjacent shop.
He refused to give his name to me, but spoke in Bengali-accented-Hindi. “They have always hated us, but this hate has increased. I don’t understand why. We are not competing for any government jobs, government contracts. We just have these small businesses which they do not do themselves. What opportunity have we taken?”
As we stood outside a Marwari eatery, he added, ‘The UGs are behind this. Their ultimate aim is to throw out all Indians and secede.” UGs, in popular Manipur lexicon, refer to the multiple underground-outfits in the state demanding secession, many of which operate from across the border in Myanmar. As a journalist from ‘mainland India’ with north Indian looks, he probably saw me as a sympathiser and said, “See, this is not one state – but three states, of the Meiti-dominated valley, the Naga dominated hill districts, and the Kuki dominated hill districts. Tribals have already opposed the bills. We should all work with the tribals against these Meiteis.”
I went back to Lokendra and Rattan, who were categorical this was not about hating any community.
Rattan said he had met representatives of different communities in the state and assured them that no harm would come to them. “In the two month agitation, not one outsider was touched. This is not a communal movement. These bills do not have any retrospective effect. We have not said anything about sending people back. We will continue to respect them.” Rattan also said while UGs may have ‘sympathies’, there was no direct link or support from them.
Lokendra pointed to three issues which had made Meiteis insecure.
The economic structures, he argued, were being controlled by ‘Indian merchants, traders’ – this included exports and import of goods, supply chains, markets. If earlier, migrants could be accommodated, there was now a contentious economy, with competition between ‘those who came from outside and the indigenous communities’ for land, for resources and jobs.
The JCILPS had also spoken of how outsiders had taken over labour force. But if Manipuris were complaining about lack of opportunities, why did they not fill in these positions? The committee members were candid. “The outsiders are more hard working; they can sustain grueling lifestyles; they have the ability to save and send back; they are more technically adaptable,” admitted Lokendra.
And finally, what worried them the most however was that the influence of the outsiders had increased over ‘political structures and political decision-making’ in the state.
Where history meets the present
'Many Meitei interlocutors had recommended a book shop in the town. As I was browsing through the collection, a young man came over to chat.
He did not want to be named either, and argued the 1951 cut-off to define who is a Manipuri and who is not was deeply unreasonable. “They say show you were in the official records in 1951. Does anyone in Delhi, in Mumbai, in big cities also have papers from 1951? How do they expect me to have a record from that year?”
Did the Meitei agitation not violate the principle of free movement of citizens? What was this seemingly arbitrary 1951 cutoff?
The JCILPS leaders insisted I must understand the context first. Manipur could not be treated as just another state in India; there were past circumstances which had to be taken into account. History weighed heavily as they explained their case.
Lokendra spoke about Manipur’s independent past, its pluralism and its willingness to absorb people both from the east and the west in pre-colonial times. Since 1901, he said, Manipur had a permit system and issued passports to foreigners. In 1949, the state merged with India – this is the merger multiple Manipur secessionist groups hold as illegal, done under duress, and forms the basis of the insurgencies that continue to rage in the state.
“In 1950, the Chief Commissioner, Himmat Singh, abolished the permit system, saying that think of your rights and entitlements as Indians first and Manipuris second. He said using the term foreigners was discriminatory. He arbitrarily removed the system even though he had no authority to do it.”
It was in this backdrop and growing 'influx of outsiders' that student movement in the state began an ‘anti foreigner’ agitation in 1980. It culminated in an agreement with the ruling Congress government that the state would identify ‘foreigners’ and even deport them. Foreigners were to be identified on the basis of 1951 official records. This agreement however, the JCILPS claims, was never implemented. In 1994, when the state was under President’s Rule, a similar agreement was signed. It too was not implemented. All this while, outsider population had increased, and it was time to act.
A protectionist turn
That was history, this is the present, and there is a future. Would Manipur allow past grievances to hold it back? I asked the activists whether Manipur wanted to engage with the rest of India and the world or not? At a time when states were competing for investment internally, would this kind of insularity and attitude not hurt Manipur economy? If it was the lack of opportunities that was driving the agitation, how would these opportunities be created by turning back at the outside world?
Shanata Nahakpam had been sitting with us and was working on his laptop. He now turned around and rejected my assertion. “No one is stopping the process of change.” He had studied outside – in Chandigarh, and in Melbourne, and had returned home to set up a food processing industry. “We understand the need for investment. Three or four telecom companies were set up here, and it must have created 10,000 jobs. All we are saying is we need some regulation. We cannot assume when outside firms come in, it will all be good.”
I had met Babloo Loitongbam, a human rights activist, the previous day, and posed the same question to him – about how Manipur would take advantage of being at the hub of a new and connected Asia if it turned inwards. Loitongbam argued that it was precisely because of the change that was in the offing that regulation was needed.
He was well aware of the possibilities and spoke of how in a few years, Manipuris will travel far more easily to Mandalay, to Bangkok, to China, and to reach out to the world. “It will change our orientation of who we are, where we belong. This idea of living in isolation is not possible. The neighbours will come. But the question is will you allow them into your courtyard, into your drawing-room, or will you let them into your kitchen and into your bedroom? It cannot be a free-for-all.”
There were structures of disadvantage that indigenous people suffered from, and they needed protection, he said. “Once the trans-Asian highway comes in, locals won’t be able to retain their land. It will be sold like vegetables, and we will not have the resources. And it is not just Indians, but also others. We will all be reduced to chowkidars in some factory opened up by a Singaporean.”
It had not been easy for the Manipur government to bow down to the agitators, especially because they had been wooing investors and knew it would not send a positive message. The state was also ruled by Congress – it is not easy for a national party to push regulation measures for those from outside the state, for the party could well pay costs elsewhere in the country for the move.
But there could well have been a cynical calculation once the protests escalated. While the assembly had passed the bills, the Governor had not given his assent. The joke in Imphal political circles is that the government was now in a sweet spot – it had defused the protests, and could now palm off the blame on Delhi if it did not agree to the bills.
Gaikhangam Gangmei is among the state’s most powerful politicians. He is the deputy chief minister and home minister, as well as the president of the Congress unit. We met at his office in the old secretariat, with a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in the backdrop.
He clarified the bills would not hamper movement of Indian citizens, but would regulate it. “Also remember this is a border state. We have to take precautions against the possibility of infiltration from neighbouring countries. The regulation is for everyone’s safety. It will not affect private enterprises, for we know that we cannot deliver without their participation.”
When I pushed him a bit on this turn to insularity that seemed to be define the mood among the valley’s intellectuals and students, Gaikhangam was candid, “There are certain psychological barriers. We will have to convince the local people slowly that nothing wrong will happen. There have to be visible development measures.”
Another top government official, who was from outside the state but had worked with the top political leadership closely, cautioned me from jumping to any hasty conclusions. “The problem with Delhi’s policy here is we all come from outside and want to tell Manipuris what is best for them. What is best for Bengaluru may not be best for Imphal. There is a certain pace at which people want change; this is a different society; it has its own history. We cannot impose one model of development on them. Let them arrive at their own conclusions.”
Back in Moreh, Balasubramaniam, who is also the general secretary of the Tamil Sangam, a local community organisation, said he had been born in the small bazaar.
His family lived in Burma, but like hundreds of thousands of other Indians, had left the country during the Second World War. “My parents went back to Chennai. But they did not like it. They wanted to return to the same region, the same climate, same culture, and similar people, and so came to Moreh. Trade here was illegal till 1995 and it was on the initiative of the Tamils that it got formalised.” Moreh and Manipur, he said, are home for him. “I have known nothing else.”
How Manipur balances the aspirations of Rattan, the ideological beliefs of Lokendra, the fear of Loitongbam of being subsumed under ruthless capital, and the hopes of young Meiteis who feel that opportunities are being wrestled away from them with the insecurities and anger of Gupta and the anonymous shopkeepers of Thangal bazaar, the hurt felt by Balasubramaniam, the state’s own rich history of pluralism and migration, and the economic opportunities about to arrive will determine the future of the region.