Imphal : As one travels along the national highway in Manipur inhabited by two rival tribal groups – the Kukis and the Nagas, one can see the chassis of burnt trucks on the roadside with protestors enforcing an economic blockade that entered its 99th day Monday.
A meek state government and an equally insensitive central government — ably aided by some sectarian leaders of the two warring tribal groups — have turned the northeastern state into a lawless region, literally on the brink of complete breakdown, say Manipuris.
It’s a near-anarchy-like situation with hospitals running out of oxygen cylinders and life saving drugs, while stocks of all essentials, baby food and petroleum products are almost drying up.
“The ongoing blockade has resulted in acute shortage of food, medicine, petroleum products, and other essential commodities in the state and very soon the entire life support system in the state would collapse,” T. Singh, a civil rights leader, said.
During the blockade – which some say is the longest in Indian history, four people have been killed and 10 government buildings burnt down.
The Sadar Hills District Demand Committee (SHDDC) had launched the economic blockade Aug 1 on two national highways — Imphal-Dimapur-Guwahati (NH 39) and Imphal-Jiribam-Silchar (NH53) — to press their demand for conversion of the Kuki tribal majority Sadar Hills area into a full-fledged district.
However, tribal Nagas inhabiting the area are opposed to the creation of a Sadar Hills district. The Nagas have since Aug 21 launched a counter-blockade on the two highways. This protest is spearheaded by the United Naga Council (UNC).
The turf war between the two warring tribal groups has literally held the majority of Manipur’s 2.7 million people to ransom with the landlocked state depending on supplies from outside the region — trucks from the rest of India carry essentials to it.
“People are forced to buy a litre of petrol for Rs.200, while a cooking gas cylinder is being sold at Rs.2,000, a kilogram of potato at Rs.20 to 25,” said Runu Devi, a teacher and mother of three children.
There was a ray of hope when the SHDDC last week announced lifting of the blockade following a written assurance from the state government, agreeing to concede their demand for creating a new hill district.
But the Naga groups led by the UNC are adamant on their stand and have continued with their agitation – so the blockade continues.
“I feel very sad when I see people queuing up in front of fuel pumps for the whole day to purchase petrol or diesel, and that too may be just one or two litres, as stocks are limited,” said Manipur government spokesperson and senior minister Biren Singh.
Common people are getting restive by the day.
“A time might come when people like us might be forced to take guns into our hands to protest such blockades. What a shame to find the state and the central governments surrendering before a handful of agitators,” an angry college student Nanda Singh said.
Nalini Singh, a woman activist, said: “Can you ever imagine such a blockade continuing for the 99th day in mainland India? It may sound cliched but it’s true – who cares for the northeast? How does it matter to New Delhi even if people die of starvation in Manipur.”
Not just food and petroleum products, even life saving drugs and oxygen cylinders are becoming scarce.
“We are putting on hold several surgeries that could wait and only dealing with emergency operations,” said a senior surgeon at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal requesting not to be named.
Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram made a two-day visit to Manipur last week – but his mission failed, with his assurance failing to cut much ice among the Naga groups.
“It’s the faulty policies of the government that lead to such agitations at frequent intervals. Obviously if you agree to one group secretly without consulting a rival group, there is bound to be trouble,” said A.R. Singh, a student leader.
Manipur has a long history of economic blockades – mostly between the Nagas and the Kukis, and Nagas and the majority Meiteis.
Given the deep tribal, geographical and historical divisions in Manipur, however, few expect it to end.
“We are like a football, tossed from one end to another, with groups with no humanitarian concerns enforcing strikes and the government literally impotent,” said Sharat C. Singh, a community elder.