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Alienation breeds insurgency

Instead of controlling terrorism, the law & and abuses committed under it, have swelled rebel ranks.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2005 11:41 IST

Nearly five years ago, human rights activist Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike in Manipur.

Appalled by the shooting of 10 people by the army at a rural bus stop in November, 2000, she said she would fast until the government repealed a law that gives soldiers sweeping powers to kill suspects, with virtual immunity from prosecution.

Ironically, in the country where Mahatma Gandhi made fasting such a potent political weapon against British colonial rule, the government's reaction has been to lock Sharmila away in a prison hospital. She lies there still, on a nasal drip.

"We have not been allowed to see her since 2003," said her brother, Singhjit. "We are not even allowed to send books. We are just waiting for death to take place finally."

Human rights groups say the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, introduced only in northeast India in 1958, has given the army licence to kill, torture and rape.

Sharmila's protest has been a peaceful one. Some people in Manipur have reacted more violently. Instead of controlling separatist insurgents in northeast India, the law - and the abuses committed under it - may have swelled rebel ranks.

"When you touch an innocent person, their first reaction is to defy authority, to retaliate," said lawyer and activist RK Anand. "This is why a lot of people have joined the underground."

But abuses are just one reason why thousands of Manipuris have joined an insurgency demanding independence for this ancient Hindu kingdom on the border with Myanmar.

Proud history

The Meitei people of Manipur are thought to be of Tibeto-Burman origin, tracing their kingdom back through 74 kings to 33 AD Around Imphal, the bright green paddy fields and lush hills are more reminiscent of Indonesia than India.

But Meiteis do share the Hindu religion with hundreds of millions of Indians, and many Manipuris were happy to be associated with the newly independent nation of India in 1947.

The first stirrings of discontent came in 1949, when the Maharaja of Manipur was pressured into signing its full accession to India. But armed insurgency did not take off until the 1960s.

By then, Manipuris say, India had shown it did not care about this remote land 1,500 miles (2,400 km) from Delhi and far from the national consciousness.

India's economic development since independence has largely passed Manipur by. There are no industries to speak of here, and few jobs outside government service to employ school leavers and graduates. To get those jobs, you have to bribe, locals say.

New Delhi does send money - 90 per cent of the state government's budget is funded by the central government - but does not seem to care if it is spent or stolen, critics say.

Corruption is rampant.

"We have developed a culture of dependency which has been manufactured by the government of India," said Manipur University professor Nubakumar Singh. "It is the life of a beggar."

Economics professor Bijoykumar Singh says 2,000 students graduate in Manipur every year. Expectations, fuelled by television and travel, have risen faster than opportunities.

"Because of the gap between what they want and what the economy can offer, dissatisfaction has been growing for some time," he said. "This has been feeding the insurgency."

Looked down upon

Many Manipuris also feel looked down upon by their fellow Indians. Human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam was brought up as an Indian, and says his father wept when the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, died. But he describes his first stay in Delhi, at university there, as a traumatic one.

"Nobody recognises you as an Indian, people say 'you Chinky' because we look Chinese," he said. "They treat you as a secessionist, and as morally lax."

But whatever grievances Manipuris have against New Delhi, many still see their future within India. The army may be widely hated, but the rebels are not entirely popular either.

At Manipur's university, some students indignantly insisted the rebels were "freedom fighters" rather than terrorists. Others were not so sure. "They are in insurgent groups because they are lazy, they want easy money," said one female student.

Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of the English-language Imphal Free Press, says there is some sympathy for the rebels' demand for independence, some sympathy for their anger at Delhi, "but plenty of distaste for their methods".

"Part of me is there (with the rebels). In their anger is a bit of society's anger, and that is why they survive. But I don't like them at all. They extort money, they kill people."

Phanjoubam says Delhi needs to change its approach to Manipur, from suspicion to trust, from the stick to the carrot, offering development instead of repression.

"You have to be seriously interested at making this place self-sustaining, and not fear it is going to ask for secession," he said. "Look seriously at development here and a lot of issues will be solved."

In theory, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government is moving in just this direction, promising a plan by the middle of next year to develop the entire northeast and its seven states.

Singh has also promised to make sure there are no more human rights violations under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. But those promises may not be enough for 33-year-old Sharmila.

"Making it more humane means continuing with the Act," said Singhjit. "What Sharmila wants, and what all the people of Manipur want, is complete repeal of the Act."