Rebels, not govt, run the show here
There is no pomp just a house with a tin roof, lost behind rows of shops selling stationery, meat and groceries. But in Manipur’s Ukhrul town, this inconspicuous house is far more powerful than any office of the central or state government.
This is the office of the Underground. Rebels, not the government, run the show in Manipur and several other areas of the northeast. Largely ignored by the national government and media for decades, the region is home to some of the world’s longest running insurgencies, the most complex web of militancy in India.
“It is an open secret. There is a parallel government running in Manipur because people are not getting what they expected of the government,” said LM Ngaranmi, a Naga community leader in Manipur’s Ukhrul district bordering Myanmar.
In Ukhrul, the face of the Underground is the man known to most by his position the “Chief Administrative Officer”. He was travelling to Dimapur, the rebel headquarters, when HT sought a meeting. Among his many jobs is collecting “tax”.
In Manipur, government employees have it deducted at source by the rebels’ agents at the workplace. Across the region, hundreds of thousands of contractors, traders, shopkeepers and most people with any sort of stable income pay hefty cuts to the Underground. Abductions for ransom and killings are frequent.
Even the governor admits the State has been invisible in many areas. “When I came to Manipur (in 2004), there were six sub-divisions totally under Underground control for 10 years. A 10-year-old boy had never seen the face of a police constable,” Manipur Governor Shivinder Singh Sidhu told the NE TV channel. Not much has changed; in fact the rebels’ influence is even more sweeping.
According to police estimates, the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) makes hundreds of crores of rupees annually from extortion. Central intelligence officials say that the NSCN (IM), the main Naga insurgent group that has a cease-fire with the government, has been passing its annual budget of between Rs 20 crore and Rs 25 crore from taxes each year. There is no way to independently confirm the figures.
Across the region, insurgency exists to some degree in almost all the eight states of the northeast Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Almost 5,700 militants attacks have taken place since 2003 killing almost 4,000 people, mostly suspected militants and civilians.
In Manipur, nearly all consumer goods being sold in shops from torches to cars cost substantially higher because all vehicles coming into the state have to pay extortion money at Dimapur in Nagaland, headquarters of the NSCN (IM), the main Naga rebel group. “It is not possible for any government to prevent this (extortion) completely,” Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio recently told the State Assembly.
“Money comes from different departments of Manipur. And the IM is taking annual taxes transport tax, godown tax, and so on. It is becoming quite unbearable,” said Yumnam Joykumar, the Manipur police chief.
Cadres of the NSCN-IM mostly teenagers and men in their 20s roam the streets of Dimapur, checking if vehicles have the receipts they get after paying tax to the ‘Government of People’s Republic of Nagaland’.
Any vehicle without the receipts is burnt or damaged. Some face a worse fate. Ramesh, a trader’s son who declined to give his surname, fled the state after his father was killed in daylight, publicly.
“We had a flourishing shop and used to get letters from the rebel groups, including both factions of the NSCN for donations. My father paid these people, but when demands became unreasonable he refused, and had to pay the price,” he said. Worse, there is deep alienation between New Delhi and the northeast, adding to the churning.
A police officer recalls the day when he was summoned for official work to Agartala by aides of a High Court judge from outside the state. The next morning, the judge summoned the officer to his room and said he was not pleased with the state government’s arrangements. “But Agartala is the capital of Tripura, it does not come under Assam, your honour,” the officer said.
On the other side of the divide, are citizens like those on a recent flight from Dimapur from Kolkata, who muttered: “So many Indians on the flight today!”
Tomorrow: Rebels try to play Robin Hood