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In Manipur, India, hostilities persist despite blockade's end

The Kuki tribe's 92-day blockade to demand a new district has taken a heavy toll on Manipur. But even as the Kukis vote to end their protest, a rival group vows to step up its 'counter-blockade.'

November 02, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • The Kuki tribe's 92-day blockade in India's Manipur state left four people dead, 10 government buildings burned and extensive shortages of fuel, food and medicine.
The Kuki tribe's 92-day blockade in India's Manipur state left… (Mark Magnier / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Keirao, India — Truck driver Rahman Anwar, 33, was on National Highway 39 in September when his vehicle was surrounded by protesters angry because he was breaking their economic blockade. They smashed his head with a boulder and he died days later without regaining consciousness.

On Tuesday, the Kuki tribal group voted to end its 92-day blockade of the road in remote Manipur state after the government agreed to consider establishing a new administrative district known as Sadar Hills, part of the Kuki community's bid for greater autonomy.

During the blockade — which some say is the longest in Indian history — four people have been killed, 10 government buildings burned and Manipur residents have faced extensive shortages of fuel, food and medicine.

"We can only hope we're the last family that has to suffer like this," said Mohammad Anwar, 29, the slain truck driver's brother.

Given the deep tribal, geographical and historical divisions in Manipur, however, few expect it to end there.

A rival group representing the Naga tribe vowed Tuesday to step up a "counter-blockade" it began in September of the only highway linking the isolated northeastern state with the rest of India. Its concern: Sadar Hills would be carved out of a majority Naga district. Distrust between the two groups extends at least as far back as the British Empire, when administrators were accused of drawing borders arbitrarily.

"We're in a difficult position: If you give it, you have a problem; if you don't give it, you have a problem," said D.S. Poonia, Manipur's chief secretary. "Everything here's divided on ethnic lines. You can call it a madhouse, complex, challenging, take your pick."

In addition to the Kuki-Naga differences, there is also wariness among residents of hill and valley communities, armed sectarian groups vying for independence, criminal gangs and politicians allied with various camps.

Further clouding the picture is a weak economy, endemic corruption, widespread drug use, frequent strikes and social upheaval.

Not surprisingly, ordinary people are the biggest losers.

"Gun violence, blockades, killings, you find it all in Manipur," said Jimmy Leivon, a reporter with the Imphal Free Press newspaper. "I don't see a solution. It's pretty bleak."

A few miles outside Imphal, the state capital, Rahman Anwar's burned-out truck is one of several littering the road, its radial tires now bracelets of charred wire. The other deaths occurred when a protester's rock struck a driver, who then lost control and crashed, killing her and both passengers.

The economic blockade has driven up prices in Manipur by as much as 300%, with gasoline selling for $12 a gallon, onions for 75 cents a pound, and potatoes for 30 cents a pound. Even without the counter-blockade, officials say, it would take weeks to restock shelves.

Some find it difficult to understand how a national highway could be blocked for months on end. But analysts say politics, ethnic differences and the unique sensitivities of India's restive northeast work against tough law enforcement.

"The mob attacks us right in front of the police," said Naobi Heman, 32, a driver fixing his vehicle by the roadside. "There's no adequate protection."

The blockade is a moving target. Road barriers pop up and disappear as lookouts relay intelligence on truck and security movements, allowing attackers to strike, then melt into the community.

Last month, a foreigner's car was stopped by a woman who knew his identity even though he'd never seen her before.

"We usually think about the Cuban missile crisis and Israel-Palestine when we talk about blockades," said H. Rajendra Singh, a retired economics professor. "Here it's in our own country."

Konthoujam Bilasini, 37, sits by the roadside outside Imphal selling gray market gasoline at an 80% markup, procured after waiting five hours in a gas line. Her profit, however, doesn't make up for her higher food and school-bus costs, she said.

"It's miserable as a housewife. Politicians, underground groups — they're in cahoots and we're the field hockey ball getting hit by both sides."

At Imphal's Divine Polytechnic Clinic along a muddy, pothole-marked road, laboratory director H. Yaiphaba, 35, has been forced to ration oxygen and saline solution since two medicine-laden trucks were burned.

"We've postponed many elective surgeries," he said. "And we've stopped taking emergency cases, although fortunately no one's died yet."

As a disproportionate share of available food and fuel has gone to wealthier, better connected city dwellers, rural residents in Manipur are left to struggle.

Hevah Kipgen, 37, who runs a restaurant on a deserted stretch of highway, has watched her customer base and profit fall by 80%.

"I'm not happy with all this unrest," she said, as a diner eats rice and curry with his hands. "But what can you do? If you say you're angry, you'll only get in trouble from one group or another."

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