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Monday, November 18, 2019

The death of a state


With successive spineless governments and a never-ending cycle of insurgency and ethnic conflict, MANIPUR has become an underdeveloped abyss and, as Rahul Pandita writes, these factors coupled with Centre’s ignorance have turned it into a failed state
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The death of a state In a heavily-guarded ward in the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in Imphal, a frail woman lies on the bed. She can barely speak; a rubber tube that runs through her nose is her lifeline. It is through this tube that doctors try to force-feed her in order to keep her alive. Irom Sharmila Devi has helped many make their careers – hers is one of the most widely-circulated cases in the human rights circuit, which extends from cosy seminars in New Delhi to passionate presentations in Geneva – and yet, no one is really bothered about her. Sharmila is on a hunger strike for almost seven years, protesting against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in her state. Doctors attending upon her have said that the continuous hunger strike has damaged her body organs; her esophagus has developed what her brother terms as ‘cancer.’ But in reality, the ‘cancer’ in her gullet symbolises the cancer that is almost threatening to wipe out this Northeastern state, considered by many as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia.

Just outside the hospital, a few men have gathered at a chemist shop. One of them is reading a newspaper aloud. He is updating the other men on the Kuki-Meitei clashes, which occurred recently in Moreh, the international trading centre on the Indo-Maynmar border. On June 9, bullet-ridden bodies of five people belonging to the Kuki tribe were found on the outskirts of Moreh. The killings triggered off a bloody fight between two rival underground groups, owing allegiance to the Kuki and Meitei tribes, resulting in six more deaths – this time from the Meitei community. The man reading the newspaper likes to be called Y. Sharma. He is a post-graduate from Delhi University. Seven years ago, when he came back to Manipur, looking for a job, the only organisation which approached him was a militant outfit. Ultimately, he opened up a chemist shop. Pointing at a cycle rickshaw-wallah, who has covered his face, Sharma says, “For all you know, this man could be a post-graduate like me. I could start my own thing while he could not.” There are hundreds of graduates in Imphal, who run cycle rickshaws, and out of embarrassment cover their faces while moving in their neighbourhood or crowded market places. The death of a state The fact is, and Manipuris know it too well by now, that Manipur is beyond repair. For decades, the state has been torn apart by ethnic conflict, which has left thousands dead and rendered thousands homeless. The 1990s itself has been witness to the killings of the Meitei-Pangal, Naga-Kuki and Kuki-Paite ethnic clashes, apart from those who have died in nearly five-decade-old insurgency movements. A string of governments each with a bagful of empty promises; numerous underground outfits engaged in armed conflict with the government, and a disgruntled population which has learnt to unquestioningly live with violence, corruption, and gross underdevelopment – these are some of the facets that best describe Manipur today.

In Manipur, as you move around, past the bustling markets selling contraband goods from Myanmar, the general decay overwhelms you. Potholed roads, rickety buses, dilapidated buildings – everything seems to mourn the idea of Manipur being a State. Just a few metres away from where the state ministers live amidst high security, kerosene oil is being sold in black at Rs. 35 instead of normal nine rupees. The public distribution system is completely non-existent, while the power and water supply in the state is abysmal. For more than one year now, people living in the heart of Imphal don’t get more than six hours of electricity per day. Tap water comes once or twice a week. According to a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), 99 percent of the people registered under central government schemes like the Antodaya Awaj Yojna (AAY) and the Below Poverty Line (BPL) in Manipur were not receiving food grains regularly. The records of the Manipur Food and Civil Supply department state that 63,000 households are beneficiaries under the AAY scheme. But then, nobody cares about statistics in Manipur.

The same CAG report says that the State government did not release Rs. 6.16 crore received from the Centre for Integrated Child Development Services during the period 2001-06, adversely affecting its programme of removing malnutrition in children. It further says that inefficient contract management resulted in sub-standard construction works in 655 Anganwadi centre buildings, and extension of an undue benefit of Rs. 73.64 lakh to the contractors. The CAG report points towards many other financial irregularities (see box), which have been brushed under the carpet simply because the State government can use insurgency as an excuse. The death of a state But in a State which has failed completely, even the government departments have not been let off. Extortion – it is termed as fund-drive in the state – is rampant. With perhaps the exception of the State Police department, all other offices have to pay money to one underground group or the other. Recently, the Tourism, Industries and Agriculture offices were threatened closed by suspected underground groups after they reportedly failed to meet their demands. It is no surprise that a majority of the central or state-funded projects could not be completed in time. The construction work of flyovers, market complex, dams – it is all lagging behind or not happening at all. “There is a need for an independent vigilance commission which could look into all these things,” says the Manipur Governor Shivinder Singh Sidhu.

There are around 20 insurgent groups in Manipur. These belong to various ethnic communities, and their objectives range from ‘restoring sovereignty’ of the region to protecting the interest of their respective communities. “We’ve to weaken their base and they will go automatically; whatever the underground groups are getting comes from the Centre,” says Yumnam Joykumar, DGP, Manipur. Interestingly, the telephone lines of 33 police stations out of 58 have been disconnected due to non-payment of bills. As a result policemen have currently been using their mobile phones.

According to an estimate, ten percent of the central government’s funding including five percent of employees’ salary goes to the coffer of insurgent groups. “These things are not new in insurgency-prone states,” says the State Forest and Environment minister, and Singh’s right-hand man, N. Biren. Meanwhile, stories of militant-politician nexus abound in Manipur. An underground organisation, Zomi Revolutionary Army recently revealed that Manipur Power Minister Phungzathang Tonsing had presented two Gypsy vehicles to its cadre. In May this year, Narengbam Marjit, the general secretary of the underground group UNLF was arrested in Guwahati, Assam. Cash worth around 50 lakh rupees and many laptops were recovered from him. He later told the police that top government officials from Manipur were routinely called outside the state by various insurgent groups to settle extortion demands. This, while the government prefers to look the other way. Pradip Phanjoubam, Editor of the local daily, Imphal Free Press says that the situation could have been definitely better if the state government were strong enough. “Governments came and went but no one could bring transparency in the administration,” adds Phanjoubam. The death of a state The Army also admits that the dynamics of insurgency in Manipur is much more complex than that of Jammu and Kashmir or other regions. The outgoing General Officer Commanding of the Army’s 57 Mountain Division, Major General E.K. Kochekkan feels that the people of Manipur need to put their foot down. “The people should learn to say No to the underground groups; I would like them to tell these groups that every demand of theirs is unreasonable,” says Kochekkan. But that is easier said than done. Suspected Kuki insurgents recently lobbed a hand grenade inside the residence of Dr Y Mohen, Superintendent of Regional Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital, Lamphelpat in Imphal. He had not paid heed to their demand of ten lakh rupees. After the incident, Dr Mohen has been given armed security escorts. Like him, eleven engineers of the Public Works Department of the state including its Chief Engineer, seven Superintending Engineers and three Executive Engineers were compelled to take police protection. Even the Vice Chancellor of the Manipur Central University had to request for security cover.

Life is tough in Manipur, doing business here tougher. Nobody knows it better than government-owned agencies like the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC). One of its offices in Imphal had to close down last month after an extortion bid of 20 lakh rupees by an insurgent group. A week later, four other insurance companies followed suit. It was only after the police promised them security that these companies reopened their offices. But in a lot of cases, even the over-manned police department – Manipur has 535 policemen per 100,000 population against the Indian average of 122 – cannot do anything. The death of a state For decades now, the National Highway 39, one of the two highways that connects Manipur with the rest of India, is under the virtual control of the Naga insurgent group NSCN (IM). The insurgents simply stand at various government check posts and collect ‘tax.’ According to a government official, every commercial vehicle passing through this stretch is forced to shell out at least four thousand rupees as ‘toll tax.’ They run a parallel government.

On the health front, the problem of drug abuse, mostly through injections, has led to a major increase in AIDS cases. Though Manipur’s population is only 0.23 percent of India’s, it contributes over 8 percent to the HIV-infected population.

Moreover, laws like the AFSPA have further alienated people. Often, the law has been misused by security forces, leading to mass agitations. One of them happened in July 2004, when elderly women, protesting the alleged rape and subsequent killing of a Manipuri girl Thangjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles, staged a naked demonstration outside its headquarters in Imphal. The armed conflict itself within Manipur and the Northeast is a grey area because while the government calls it a law and order problem, the army calls it a low intensity conflict. In other words, while the world outside may not be witness to it, affected areas in the Northeast are a part of a war, whatever the intensity.

As this report is being filed, eight government schools have been burnt down by unidentified miscreants in three districts.

The final proverbial nail in the coffin is, perhaps, hammered by a letter referred to TSI by a government official in Manipur. The letter has come from a government office in Delhi, and below the name of the addressee, it reads: Imphal, Nagaland. Can’t gag the CAG

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on Manipur clearly reveals the rampant corruption in the State. Here is what the report says:

The Manipur Police Housing Corporation Ltd. could not complete 206 works out of 561 works targeted to be completed by 31 March 2006. The company awarded 90 percent of the works without calling for tenders.

65 cheques for Rs. 56.21 lakh were fraudulently drawn during March 2005 for payments to contractors against fictitious works by one division of the Public Works Department.

Steel and cement valued at Rs. 24.88 lakh were issued by one division under Irrigation and Flood Control Department to a contractor who retained them without execution of the work for the last 6-7 years resulting in undue benefit to the contractor.

State government employees were granted GPF advances/withdrawals by their drawing and disbursing officers of various departments in excess of their balances resulting in negative balances in the GPF accounts of 362 subscribers amounting to Rs. 1.24 crore at the end of March 2005.

The accounts of 13 government companies were in arrear for periods ranging from nine to 23 years. Where there isn’t a problem . . .

Just create one. That’s what the Centre has managed to do, quite consistently, in the Northeast

If there was one way that New Delhi could have hoped to effectively douse the separatist fires of the Northeast, it would have been by keeping at least a part of history on its side – that is by ensuring that Assam remains trouble free. But that was not to be; by letting millions of Bangladeshi immigrants settle in the state, New Delhi alienated the Assamese, the one community that historically had the maximum interaction with pre-Independence ‘mainland’ India. And in this, perhaps, was lost the core that could have been so effective in the Centre’s firefighting effort. For many of the other states where insurgencies fester, there are the instruments of accession that are still fresh in public memory; Manipuri extremism is said to be a result of the one that Manipur signed with Delhi in 1947, the princely state of Tripura signed one as late as 1949, only to have Delhi silently watch as its people were reduced from over 53 per cent at that time to a bare 28 per cent of the population by 1981, by a flood of immigrants from neighbouring East Bengal. Nagaland’s separatist leaders are quick to point out that their state was annexed despite an assurance to the contrary being given by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. The biggest opportunity to sort out the issue with the Nagas was of course lost by the Centre when it signed the Shillong Accord in 1975, splitting the movement. The result of that blunder—the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN)—as it is called, is there for all to see. All put together, it got the Nagas membership of the Unrepresented Peoples and Nations Organisation (UNPO). Add to that inefficient, corrupt and subservient, at best powerless, local governments, and insurgency in the Northeast isn’t difficult to understand. That is what has happened elsewhere too. Centre’s apathy and reckless corruption at the state level has ensured that fissiparous tendencies take root.

As group after group takes up arms against the Union of India, the central government, rather than earnestly prove to the people the sense of staying with India, has set up a second line of defence, deploying the army and placing retired army generals in the region’s Raj Bhawans. If decentralisation is what was envisaged for Indian democracy, access to the region’s main natural resources has stayed with the Centre. At people’s level, in a region where cultural identity is supreme, communities fight for decades before having their language placed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Couple it with New Delhi’s ignorance, and it is not hard to understand why a solution to the bloodshed in the Northeast has been so difficult to find. Insurgent groups in manipur

United National Liberation Front (UNLF)

People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK)

Kuki National Army (KNA)

Kuki Revolutionary Army (KRA)

Zomi Revolutionary Army

National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM)

Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL)
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017