Welcome to Moreh, Manipur town challenged by history, identity

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, Moreh/Imphal
  • Updated: Sep 13, 2015 22:01 IST
The Moreh Bazaar is a narrow road, punctuated with small shops, and is at the cusp of south Asia and south east Asia. (Prashant Jha/ HT Photo)

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.

Across the gate was Myanmar's Namphalong bazaar.

The Myanmarese security asked for an identity card and breezily let me in, with a cautionary note that I should not stray too far in. One official shook his head when I began taking shots from my phone camera- but another, his senior sitting at the back of the immigration outpost, waved me off.

Prakash Bhattarai was sitting in front of a sports shop. Bhattarai was a Nepali surname, I was excited to find someone with links to my own country, and we began speaking in Nepali. His family had been in Burma for generations. He was too far removed from his place of origin to know much about it, except that he had a distant aunt back there. 70 percent of the bazaar, he said, was controlled by people of Nepali-origin. The market had over 1300 shops, and three kilometres down was Tamu, a bigger trading hub.


Prakash Bhattarai at Namphalong, Myanmar says trade is down because of the bandhs on the Indian side.

A few others joined us. They talked about the upcoming elections in Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s party would challenge the military backed party. She had tremendous support in the urban centres, including Namphalong, they said. "But 25 percent of the house is reserved for the military. They still run the country," said Mangal Acharya, who owned a knife shop next door.

We turned to how business was faring.

Bhattarai and Acharya were not happy. "There are too many bandhs on the Indian side. Fewer customers are coming. Our big buyers are the Biharis but they have not come in two months. They also have a lot of money left to pay here." Bhattarai said that clothes and shoes in the market came from Yunnan in China - but there was now a worrying trend of Indians making direct purchases from units in China while using Myanmarese intermediaries and giving them a cut. "It works out cheaper for them. But we lose out money."

His unhappiness was shared by K Balasubramaniam.

I had strolled back across the border.


The border bridge in Moreh. The yellow marks the Myanmar side, while the rest is India.

Moreh could pass off as just another small market town in India. Yet, one could not but feel overwhelmed here - the eastern-most frontier of India, a trading point connecting South and South East Asia, a site witness to devastating wars and long insurgencies, a town central to the dreams of a continent reconnecting with itself through modern infrastructure.

Balasubramaniam was a member of the Border Trade Chamber of Commerce, and ran a money exchange shop. As he took a wad of notes for a customer, he said Indian currency was valid for three kilometres into 'Burma' - the neighbour is still referred to by its old name - and Kyat was legitimate in the Moreh bazaar. The market had about 200 shops, and was a three hour drive from the Manipur state capital of Imphal.

"This bandh has crippled movement. If a Burmese party asks us for goods, we cannot guarantee its delivery. And if we cannot do that, what's the point in taking the order?" He gave a sense of the goods traded. While Myanmarese usually asked for textile items, life-saving drugs, cosmetics, food items including pickles and biscuits, and lungis, the Indian side procured commodities like clothes, pulses, and electronics. "Most of the goods coming in from there are Chinese. It is just routed through Burma."

Moreh-Tamu is the ground zero of the economic transactions that will mark the future of Asian economic integration. A proposed Trans-Asian Highway will pass through the towns. The force of the market is such that the lull in the trade is probably temporary. Business will bounce back.

What is more significant was the reason for which the bandhs had been called which had harmed business- three bills passed in Manipur assembly. And underlying the bills were fundamental questions. What kind of society did Manipur want to be? What kind of economy and polity did it want to have? Was it ready to embrace the world or is it retreating and becoming insular even as it stood at the cusp of a transformative Asian project?

The mutual anxieties

Back in Imphal, I went to the meet leaders of the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), an umbrella civil society body that had led an agitation to demand strict regulation of entry for outsiders in the state.

Khomdram Ratan was working in the basement of the office of the National Identity Protection Committee at Keishampat Junction. Images of Manipuri icons were framed on the wall. An elder gentleman, Arambam Lokendra, accompanied them. Lokendra was an advisor to the group and the ideologue of the movement. A retired academic and civil society leader, he had led a delegation to PM Manmohan Singh when the agitation against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was at its peak in the state ten years ago. Little had come of it and the state remained subject to AFSPA. We sat around a table and sipped juice.

Lokendra and Rattan cited population figures which have now become conventional wisdom in the state to paint a picture of growing demographic imbalance. Manipur’s population had grown from 5 lakhs in 1948 to 28 lakhs in 2011; its rate of population growth was higher than that of average rate of growth in India; and how – and this is the most potent tool in their messaging – the migrant population had grown from 2719 people in 1948 to 10 lakh now, a ‘400-times increase’, and so in the next 70 years, it could reach as high as 40 crore. Population figures are from the census, but the breakup of the ‘outsiders’ is an estimate of Manipur’s civil society outfits, and remains deeply contested.


K Rattan, on the left, is the co convenor of the group that agitated for ILP. A Lokendra, in white, on the right, is the ideologue of the movement.

The government bowed to their demands and passed three bills.

The Protection of Manipur People Bill stipulates that only those whose names were registered in official records in 1951 would be considered Manipuris. Everyone else would have to register with a newly-established Directorate and get a pass, which would be valid for six months subject to extension. The Directorate would also keep track of tenants. An amendment to the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act now held that any land transaction in the state which involved a non-Manipuri would only go through with the approval of the state cabinet.

Meitei activists were pleased with the passage of the bills – they hoped it would allow them to protect their 'identity, culture, traditional values and livelihood'. But it provoked a fierce backlash from tribal groups in the hills, who saw it as a move to disenfranchise them and a conspiracy to take over their land. Nine people were killed in protests on August 31st and September 1st in Churachandpur. And when I was up at the border, the hills were in the middle of a 60 hour shutdown.

But it was not just the tribals who were unhappy. In the strikingly diverse town of Moreh, and the bazaars of Imphal, the Tamils, Bengalis, Marwaris, Nepalis, Punjabis were insecure, for they perceived it as a threat to their very survival.

Thangal Bazaar is Imphal’s most iconic old market. Brahmananda Gupta had come in 1977 from Rajasthan to settle here. I met him and his son, Kamlesh, at their clothes shop at a corner of the market and asked them how they saw the agitation for ILP. "Earlier, I thought this was my home. But they have now made us realise that we are outsiders. The mahaul, environment, is not friendly anymore. There is no apnapan, solidarity and belonging."

Slightly irritated now, Gupta added, "Manipuris should remember they are in thousands in cities like Delhi and Mumbai and Bangalore. What if others start doing to them what they are doing to us?"

Just the previous night, Bihar politician Pappu Yadav’s party men had stopped trains passing through the state and harassed Manipuri travellers – this was meant to be revenge for the treatment that had been supposedly meted out to Biharis in Manipur. Gupta seemed to have little sympathy for Biharis in general (‘they are lower-class, come here and marry and then run off, leaving their women’), but added this was an indication of the backlash.

Gupta had sent his other children – one daughter and one son – outside the state, and was planning to send Kamlesh off too, after he finished his M.Com. "There is no point in staying here anymore."

This was a refrain I was to hear from many traders in the bazaar. Very few of their children lived in the state anymore.

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.

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