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Are Manipur citizens less important than Kashmiris?

Last updated on: June 4, 2010 16:46 IST

Image: Cars damaged by Muivah's supporters outside the Manipur Bhavan in New Delhi
Photographs: Reuters

New Delhi's inaction on the grim situation in Manipur, whose people are facing untold hardship due to the economic blockade by Naga rebels, is shocking and can have disastrous consequences for India, warns Colonel (Dr) Anil Athale (retd)

Indians often complain that when they visit the northeast, they are asked if they have come from India. Conversely, many north-easterners are asked for a passport, as they are mistaken to be foreigners. There is a communication gap and there are problems of distance; but lack of governance and the media's obsession with happenings in Delhi has widened the gulf further.

As the economic blockade of Manipur by Naga rebels enters the second month, the miseries of common Manipuri citizens have seldom found space on the so-called national media. The price of petrol has gone up to Rs 150 a litre and a gas cylinder costs Rs 2,000. Delhi either seems asleep or too weak to take any action to break this blockade.

I am reminded of another era and another blockade. I refer to the oil pipeline blockade organised by Assam agitators in 1980s. The idea was that if the oil remained blocked in the pipeline through winter, the heavy crude would freeze. Oil experts had warned that if the oil was not flushed out, the whole pipeline would have to be replaced as cleaning the wax would cost more than a new pipeline. We had the no-nonsense Indira Gandhi as the prime minister then. She ordered the army to solve the problem.

The utter paralysis of decision-making

Image: Women hold placards during a protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Secretly, the army sent its engineers to the Gujarat oil fields and trained soldiers in complex operations (codenamed Amar Prem). Once the army was ready, in a swift operation, the troops were airlifted to oil fields and in a fortnight, Operation Indra Vajra broke the oil blockade.

The Assam agitation never recovered from that blow and such a tactic has never been attempted again.

The saddest part is that today the National Socialist Council of Nagaland rebels are a shadow of their former self. There is very little support for them in Nagaland, since their leader Thuingaleng Muivah is himself from Manipur. It is possible to call the rebel's bluff and end the blockade. If need be, the Indian government should threaten to revoke the ceasefire and resume operations. But such is the lethargy/indifference of the Centre that a small group of trouble makers have been holding the whole state of Manipur to ransom.

The media silence is in glaring contrast to the shrill noises made when a couple of years ago Kashmir valley faced a similar blockade in Jammu.

But there is another major failing that this episode has brought to light, namely the utter paralysis of decision-making. Seems Union Home Minister P Chidambaram is so overwhelmed by the Naxals and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism that the woes of Manipuris are not registered in Delhi.

There is a non-violent solution

Image: The border at Moreh

Our think tank Inpad was at the forefront of demanding the reform of higher decision making apparatus and had hoped that now that the National Security Council and its associate organisations are in place, security issues would receive due attention and see refined decision-making.

The reason to voice this disappointment is that the kind of deep psychological wound this would inflict on the Manipuris would create trouble in the future. Are Indian citizens of Imphal not as important as those living in the Kashmir valley?

The saddest part is that there is a non-violent solution, though a temporary one! Manipur has a common border with Myanmar (Burma) at Moreh. A limited border trade is permitted across the border. What stops the government from importing petroleum products from Myanmar? The infrastructure up to Moreh is reasonably developed and the road to the border post runs mostly through Meitei-dominated (Meitei are the majority ethnic group in Manipur) areas.

The NSCN must be served an ultimatum

Image: The Moreh border

Simultaneously, the NSCN must be served an ultimatum -- that their greater Nagaland demand can only be achieved through peaceful means and violence would mean an end to the ceasefire.

Our foreign office seems so obsessed with our neighbour to the west that it fails to think of these alternatives.

On a visit to Nagaland two years ago, I found that the Nagas have no desire to resume armed conflict. Nagaland is already enjoying the dividends of peace -- it has the lowest percentage of people below poverty line and thanks to the reservation policy, many Naga youth are in the IAS, IFS and IPS.

The situation in Manipur is desperate

Image: Thuingaleng Muivah
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

Some years ago, when the agitation against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was at its peak in Manipur, I had suggested that the least the government could do was to hand over the Kangla Palace area to the people (since British times it has been occupied by the Assam Rifles and was a reminder to the Meiteis of their humiliation). Somewhere, someone apparently liked the idea and today the area has a lovely garden and a monument.

The situation in Manipur is indeed desperate and any delay will leave a deep scar on its people's psyche. After the Bangladesh victory, it was said that Indira Gandhi not only made history but also changed geography! Her daughter-in-law (Sonia Gandhi) who is the current supreme leader of the ruling party, may also get that credit (though with disastrous consequences for India), for let us make no mistake, the neglect of Manipur's woes by tolerating the economic blockade would reap a whirlwind of secessionist movement by the Meiteis.

Colonel Ani Athale (retired) is the coordinator of Pune-based think-tank Inpad.