06/02/2017 2:26 PM IST | Updated 07/02/2017 9:44 AM IST

A Drive Through Manipur's Fraught Highways, Into The Grievances Behind The Crippling Blockade

"The Naga people are presented as Prem Chopra."

Indrani Basu
The Naga leaders who called the blockade on 1 November, 2016, are based out of Senapati, Manipur.

IMPHAL, Manipur -- It was the night before I was to leave for a drive along National Highway 2, which has been indefinitely blocked by the Naga community in Manipur since 1 November last year. The economic blockade, in protest against the state government's decision to carve out seven new districts from the existing ones, had been going on for three months--and continues, without any sign of relenting.

I planned to drive along the blocked highway from Imphal valley up to the Naga-dominated hills, a route that has been blocked for any commercial vehicles taking goods to the valley. Two local journalists were at my hotel in Imphal valley, trying to convince me that it was a terrible idea.

"It's too dangerous," insisted the woman journalist. The male photographer with her nodded assent, shaking his head as I recounted my conversations with government officials who had declared the route "totally safe." "In Manipur, we don't think. We just act first," she said, attempting to explain the unpredictability of the welcome I could receive if I travelled from the valley to the hills. "You don't want to go there."

Fear Psychosis

The blockade is not a physical one--there are no barriers along the highway--but the effect of a blockade called by the Naga community in Manipur is such that few people from the valley or from outside the state would dare defy it. Around 240 kilometres of the highway passes through Manipur, connecting its border with Nagaland to its north to Myanmar on its south. Despite regular patrolling by the oldest paramilitary force in the country, the Assam Rifles, along the highway, the route is almost deserted, except for some local traffic.

I found that travelling on the highway was deemed safe or suicidal depending on who you were, and who you asked for an opinion. Politicians, government officials, and security officers dismissed any possibility of danger for a journalist travelling along the route. Locals in the valley appeared panicked at the idea. My driver--a Meitei Hindu from the valley--paled at the prospect of driving up to Senapati district, home to the headquarters of the United Naga Council (UNC) that had called the blockade. It was largely locals of the valley--like my journalist friends--who were the most apprehensive of travelling to the hills.

"If you must go, please contact my friend who will help you," the woman journalist told me as she left the hotel that night, messaging me the phone number of an officer of the Assam Rifles who was on deputation along the route we would travel on. "Best of luck."

What National Highway?

Early next morning, as we made our way up the highway, the road was predictably empty. Riddled with potholes and stretches filled with rubble instead of a smooth bitumen coating, the so-called national highway narrowed to a single lane in some parts. If you didn't know better, you could easily mistake it for an unnamed local roadway in India, where development was yet to make its way. There were few road signs to help you navigate.

About an hour and a half into the rocky ride, we were at our first stop--Kangpokpi--one of the seven new districts announced on 9 December by the Congress state government led by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi. The creation of Kangpokpi, carved out of the Naga-dominated Senapati district, has been a long-standing demand by members of the Kuki community, who do not get along with the Nagas.

Here, the economic blockade did not seem to faze the locals, who complained of rising petrol prices--you got a litre of petrol in ₹150--but were happy they had their own district now.

Over cups of steaming "red tea" (tea without milk), Thangminlen Kipgen, 32, a leader in the Kuki Students' Organisation (KSO), recounted his emotional first meeting with the newly-created district's deputy commissioner. "I told him, 'I have been waiting for you even before I was born,' because we have been waiting for this district for 44 years," he told HuffPost India. "We were a minority in Senapati, so there was little development here. It took us four hours to go to the headquarters for any small government work."

A Tested Strategy

The tactic of a community imposing an economic blockade to make their demands heard is not a new one in Manipur. There have been various economic blockades by different communities, their reasons ranging from demanding a new district to protesting over police killings, each time causing acute shortages of essential commodities like fuel, medicine, and food. The blockades are almost always the result of identity politics, and the Manipur government, unable to resolve the conflicts, has sometimes stoked the fire instead.

The Nagas believe that they are stakeholders in what they see as their land, and that the government made the decision unilaterally in a bid to curry political favour just in time for the upcoming elections.

The call for the current blockade took place in November because the state government made a decision to bifurcate two valley districts and all five hill districts--most of them traditionally Naga strongholds--without consulting the Nagas. The Nagas believe that they are stakeholders in what they see as their land, and that the government made the decision unilaterally in a bid to curry political favour just in time for the upcoming elections.

The economic blockade, initially at a low boil as rumours floated that the government was considering creating new districts, erupted after the arrests of two top leaders of the UNC--council president Gaidon Kamei and publicity secretary Stephen Lamkang--on 25 November. This infuriated the UNC and NSCN (IM) (National Socialist Council of Nagaland--Isak-Muivah). Days later, the announcement of the new districts was followed by violent protests.

Naga militants allegedly set trucks and government buildings on fire, and soon Meiteis had called for their own "counter blockade" in the valley, reportedly stopping vehicles carrying goods from the valley to the hills, storming one of the largest churches in Imphal, and burning buses and vans meant to carry Nagas from Ukhrul district home for Christmas.

As the violence continued, petrol prices shot to ₹300 per litre, and many essential commodities became scarce or unavailable.

In the new year, the blockade continues, though the incidents of violence have decreased considerably. In Kangpokpi that day, the morning market had just started, and women were busy selling vegetables. Many essential commodities cost twice or even thrice as much as usual, but the people in the district seemed calm, going about their daily routines. Still, the danger of fresh violence always lurked in the background.

To The Hills

As we drove onwards, we were instructed by my local journalist contact's friend to follow a truck full of soldiers of Assam Rifles, who were also headed to the Senapati battalion. My driver, earlier undeterred from driving at breakneck speed over rubble and through potholes as large as his car, slowed down considerably to drive behind the truck.

The 15-kilometre journey to Senapati felt markedly different from the earlier leg of the trip. As we drove higher into the hills, the road became worse, and the view more beautiful. The dire warnings I had heard, along with my driver's obvious mounting anxiety, combined to create a more menacing atmosphere. As we crossed into Senapati district, we passed a dust-covered Indica parked by the side of the road on which someone had traced "Keep calm" with a finger.

Every few metres along this stretch were handmade signs that read "NRL petrol and diesel sold here," and scooters, cars, and vans were being filled with fuel from plastic containers. As we made our way to the interiors of Senapati, one of the local officers of the Assam Rifles introduced us to some Naga leaders, leaving us in their care.

With John, the general secretary of the Naga People's Organisation (NPO), a local outfit that falls under the UNC, driving ahead of us, we headed to an undisclosed location where the UNC's general secretary Milan S had promised to meet us.

As we slowed to a stop near a church, we were asked to wait at a small tea shop, where we were soon joined by Milan and KS Paul Leo, the former president of the UNC. My driver refused to get out of the car--even when he was offered tea and snacks by the locals. He would later tell me that being a Meitei in the Naga heartland made him nervous.

Shadow Lines

To me, a visiting journalist, the Naga leaders were generous and kind. They insisted on drinking several cups of tea with me as I interviewed them, and as we dipped hard boiled eggs in salt and talked, what struck me most was the urgency with which they tried to explain their history and their position in Manipur politics.

I was scheduled to record a live video on Facebook with them, but both Milan and Leo first wanted to explain in detail the history of the Nagas in Manipur and how they came to sign four Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with the state government over any decisions made on the land they considered rightfully theirs.

"Since time immemorial we have lived in Manipur, and it has been clear that the Nagas have the hills and the Meiteis have the valley," Leo said. "This is why we have signed multiple MoUs with the state government."

They claimed that Kukis, who had migrated to Manipur almost two centuries ago, were influenced by the creation of Israel and tried to get their own "homeland" in the Sadar Hills (Kangpokpi) area.

"We can live together with all communities and believe that we should live and progress together," said Milan. "But if the objective is of a 'Kuki homeland' then it is big 'no' from the Nagas."

"Over the graves of my grandfather and great grandfather, how can the Kuki carve out a homeland?"

A 'Surgical Strike'

After several talks with the state and central governments over the decades, the Nagas had been told that they would be consulted if any decision was made about "their" land. At first, when they had heard that the state government was planning to create separate districts for Sadar Hills/Kangpokpi and Jiribam, the Naga leaders had sent official communication to the government in the state and the Centre reminding them of the MoUs signed.

"It is a story of betrayal and false assurances."Milan S, United Naga Council general secretary

In the early days of the economic blockade, the Naga leaders had written to the union home ministry, asking it to intervene before any such districts were announced. The home ministry decided to call a tripartite meeting on 15 November, but talks failed to happen after the state government did not send a representative to the meeting. While the state government has claimed it received the notice for the talks too late, the UNC leaders have a different story to tell.

"It is a story of betrayal and false assurances," said Milan.

They alleged that the UNC president, Gaidon Kamei, was assured that the tripartite talk would happen, but the Manipur government never showed up. "We wanted a resolution early on, but the communal state government wasn't interested," said Milan. A few days later, Manipur police commandos arrested Kamei and UNC information secretary Stephen Lamkang while they were travelling in Imphal. They are still in judicial custody after their bail pleas were denied.

"And then Ibobi, in a late night surgical strike on 8 December, decided to create the districts without consulting us," said Milan.

'A Pandora's Box'

The Naga leaders believe that Manipur CM Ibobi chose to announce new districts with full knowledge of what was to follow. "With the sole aim of getting a political advantage, he opened a Pandora's Box," said Milan. "He knew very well that creating these districts without consulting us would be disastrous."

He alleged that Ibobi was aware of the strong anti-incumbency sentiment in Manipur, and this was his attempt at diverting the attention of the people and "reap the fruit of the political gambit."

But wasn't land in the state the property of the government? And wasn't the government free to make decisions that would help in better administration? "That theory holds no water here," said Milan. "We swear by our ancestral land, and government has to take permission from landowners before making any decisions."

He also added that bifurcating the districts under claims of ease of administration were "convenient" but misleading. "Nagas might be fools but not idiots," he said.

"Ibobi has become despotic and does not represent the will of the people any more," he said, alleging the Naga leaders have not been able to meet the state government since the new districts were announced. "He is stabbing the Nagas at the back."

'Nagas Are Presented As Prem Chopra'

One of the biggest complaints of the Nagas is how the media has reported the sufferings in the valley, but not about how people in Ukhrul and Chandel are also not getting supplies because of the blockade.

"The Naga people are presented as Prem Chopra," said Milan, referring to a popular actor in Bollywood who was always cast as the villain in movies in the 1960s-90s.

"Why did he light a petrol bomb? Now he must defuse it."

"We are not committing a crime," he said, adding he saw Ibobi as the villain responsible for the current situation in Manipur. "Why did he light up a fireball? Why did he drill a volcano? Why did he light a petrol bomb? Now he must defuse it."

The Naga leaders alleged that Ibobi had plenty of opportunity to resolve the issue through dialogue. Instead, he had opted for sending over 4,000 paramilitary personnel to lift the blockade. (Actually, it was the Centre's decision to send the soldiers.)

"But the Nagas aren't new to suffering," said Ibobi. "We can continue this (blockade) as long as required."

Returning To The Valley

As we drove back to Imphal valley--this time unaccompanied by any soldiers in trucks--the road felt more familiar. As the daylight dimmed, the beautiful view was interrupted only by the hundreds of jolts that bounced us around in the car.

Less than two kilometres away from the border that would lead us out of Senapati, we were flagged down by young men wearing black bandanas. Something in their expression told me it was a bad idea to take their photo. As they peered into our car from a distance, they waved us away. My driver was convinced it was the 'Press' sticker we had pasted in the front and back of the car before we set out that day that saved us from a confrontation.

He visibly relaxed as we sped towards Kangpokpi, and picked up speed as we moved closer to the valley. On the way, we passed an Indian Oil petrol pump crowded with scooters and cars. It had just opened after weeks of staying closed, and the line for buying petrol was almost a kilometre long. At roughly ₹60 per litre, it was a bargain.