National Highway 53 – Why The Urgency
“Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.”
This famous single line is quoted from Rudyard Kipling’s ballad, ‘The Ballad of East and West’, which he wrote almost 100 years ago. In the current study of the flow and timing of an air in Manipur, having witnessed the systemic exploration and exhaustion of the possibility of keeping a freeway along the NH-39, Kipling’s ballad is repeated nearer to home in a similar refrain.
“Oh, Nagas are Nagas and Meiteis are Meiteis and never …”
I do not want to complete the line as I do not want it to happen, especially after someone wrote in E-Pao that the Tangkhuls are elder brothers of the Meiteis and that there is ‘concrete evidence’ that Churachand Maharaja, his son Bodhchandra and his grandson Okendra visited the Tangkhul king of Hundung Village to meet their long-lost elder brothers. As I am a person interested in anthropology and genetics I can’t help wondering how the Tangkhuls and the Meiteis communicated with each other in pre-history. The Meiteis do not speak Tibeto-Burman language, which the Tangkhuls speak. Perhaps it was in sign language and later in Nagamese. It is also a matter of research whether Ibudhou Pakhangba had an elder brother among the Tangkhuls.
There is a lot of talk about a garment called Leirum, a must in Meitei weddings. There is nothing exciting about it. The Tangkhuls imitated its design from the Meiteis long before Maharaja Chandrakrti’s time.
Brotherhood is one of those glib expressions about communities that you have to hope is true. It’s like my saying that I love the articles written by Tangkhul brothers. I am equally emphatic on my desire to keep blood relationship alive and kicking and I do not want to be ignorantly castigated as a racialist. I am not anti-Naga but simply pro-Meitei. By Nagas, I am referring to the Nagas of Nagaland. But the factors, which contributed to my “Starvation blockade” thesis or at least to the view that Meitei pluralism and non-violence were breaking up are an enormous problem, like the elephant in the living room, of which the communities on both sides of the divide would be aware.
Muivah is left in a dilemma of what to do now; whether to eat humble pie as everything has gone wrong about his triumphant return back home. Shakespeare has an answer for him. When everything went wrong for Hamlet, Shakespeare explained why: “Purposes mistook and fallen on the inventors’ heads.” It has been a very long time since I read Shakespeare. I can only explain the line quoting a Manipuri saw: nongdonthakta tin sitlabadi namaithakta tagani. Translated in English, if you spit onto the firmament it will fall back on your face.
This is not a political article. It is intended to serve as a brief introduction to the impossibility of maintaining NH- 39 as a free lifeline for the people of Manipur because of intermittent blockades and extortions by Naga NSCN(IM) cadres and Naga frontal organisations such as ANSAM.
Historically, Nagas and Meiteis never had cordial relationships. In my school days and maturity there were always unsolicited intimidations by some young Nagas while I and some others were in Nagaland or Dimapur. While it is deemed next to impossible for the Nagas to have sovereignty, it is also definitely not possible for them to have Greater Nagaland. It is as impossible as me being my own grand father. Nagas will do well to watch the old Mumbai movie “Moghul-E-Azam” in which Prithivraj Kapoor (Akbar) in his simulated Pathan accent says to Anarkali: Anarkali, Salim toomhei marne nahi denge, our Anarkali (Madhubala), ham tumhei jine nahi denge. In the end Salim lost his dream girl.
The Nagas know that the chief obstacle to their aspiration is Meitei obstinacy, refusing to part with four districts of Manipur, inhabited by the Tangkhuls, Kabuis and Mao and Maram tribal people along with a mixed-bag of other tribes such as Kukis, Paites, Koms and other 36 or so odd tribes. The Nagas who have been suffering for donkey’s years from ‘Sore-Thumb Syndrome’ ie like the miseries of a long standing white- bandaged sore thumb that would stick out at an unusual angle because of India government’s refusal to grant them sovereignty, would never forget this Meitei “arrogance” as if the Meiteis were solely responsible for their misadventure, forgetting that there are many Kukis and other tribes who are against the dismemberment of Manipur’s geography. Recent announcement by the president of the Organisation of 60 Kabui villages in the Manipur valley that they will not go back to the hills (to join Nagalim), and an article by Doulun Khonsai, published in The Huieyen lanpao on June 1 2010 identifying the Kukis with the Meitei for an integrated Manipur, speak volumes of it.
All the Nagas of Nagaland may not conform to the political ambitions of Muivah and NSCN(IM). In Hueiyen News Service of June 3 2010 there was a statement issued by the joint secretary of NNC, Nagaland, I. Toshi. He branded him as “politically Muivah is a traitor and a criminal in crime in first degree.”
Nonetheless, there will always be Naga repercussions against the Meiteis and that also will be served as a cold dish for years to come. This will have a calamitous effect on the flow of traffic bound for Manipur on Highway 39. They could block it and destroy any vehicle and its contents at anytime of their choosing while the Government of Nagaland turns a blind eye. And Meiteis could do nothing but write a few protest letters in the local newspapers. The Government of India will remain indifferent as it has always been, unlike a blockade in Assam or Kashmir when the Delhi government will bend over backward to resolve the problem.
Manipur is now in a serious crisis because of the blockades on NH-39 and NH-53 by the sympathetic Manipuri Naga groups. There is no way of knowing how long the blockade will last as the Muivah- imbroglio is far from being over. The time has come for a serious consideration by the prominent citizens of Manipur and the incumbent Manipur government about improving the alternative lifeline ie NH -53 with a two- lane tarmac carriageway from Jiribam through Nungba and the Tamenglong District to Imphal. Otherwise, the next Naga leap would be the rollout for a major penance demand from the Meiteis for the ‘sins’ committed by them. Let us be aware of the future mindset of the Nagas with new sets of habits, ingrained thoughts and actions created by the sore-thumb.
As of now, the ongoing blockade of NH-39 and NH-53 by the All Naga Students Association of Manipur (ANSAM), the ‘Nazi’storm troopers of NSCN(IM) entered 52 days today as I write this article. It has completely cut off all the essential commodities of daily living in the Imphal plain (Manipur valley) and parts of the hills, supplied through Imphal. It’s not an ‘economic blockade’. It’s a ‘starvation blockade’. A handful of these NSCN(IM)- led Kacha Nagas of Mao,Maram and Tamenglong hasdenied food to all including children since April 11 2010. It has also blocked the medical supplies for the ill and the infirm, and petrol preventing children from going to schools.Had it not been for some supply trickling through the mostly unpaved single- lane NH- 53, and several late sorties of food, fuel and medicines airlifted to Imphal from Assam the starvation and suffering from diseases would have been insurmountable. Having exhausted the meagre air-freighted supplies there is starvation of men, women and children of the poorest village of Sekmaijing, 36 Km south of Imphal, where the villagers live below the poverty line.
Why the blockade? In the first instance, certain Naga groups belonging to NSCN (IM) living in the four districts of Manipur enforced the blockade since April 11 in protest against the state government’s decision to hold Autonomous Hill District Council elections, saying that the “ADC Act suppresses tribal rights.” That is all My eye. It was simply because the elections will firmly establish the democratic and legitimate places of these districts in Manipur and that will wreck the political sleep-walking of these groups, like Judy Garland singing ‘over the rainbow’ in “The Wizard of Oz”. If the elections were anti-tribals then the Kukis of Churachandpur, the biggest district would surely have objected to them.
Further intensification of the blockade was prompted by the Manipur government’s refusal to allow Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of NSCN (IM) to enter Manipur. This resulted in gun fire by Manipur police commandos during the violent clashes with protestors on May 6 at the Mao Gat. There was a very unfortunate loss of lives of two young College
students and a few others were injured. The blame should be shared equally by the Congress Home Minister Chindabarum, who like the erstwhile BJP Home minister L K Advani who engineered the 21st June 2001 uprising, gave permission to Muivah to enter Manipur without consulting the Manipur government.
Chindabarum was fully aware that Muivah is unwanted in Manipur because of his criminal activities and that an arrest warrant is hanging over him with prize money of 3 lakhs of rupees for his arrest. Muivah is still a Police case from an order issued by the State Home department, vide No. 1/4(6)S-H(pt-1) dt 4 April 1994. History does not repeat itself, it just imitates. Muivah is the leader who brought the territorial ambition of Naga sovereignty, and failing which a putative ‘Greater Nagaland’ to the Naga people.
The “Battle of Mao” and its offshoots should be a defining moment for Muivah. He has given word that he is going to Ukhrul and nobody can stop him. He must be licking into shape tactical battlefield plans organising his heavily armed NSCN(IM) cadres and paramilitary units into formations. His planning now must be at the stage of what is called ‘operational warfare’ – an intermediate level in which the aim is to convert the strategy (highest level) into tactics (lowest level planning). He is to wait to find out whether his strategy would take an ugly turn like the ‘Dunkirk evacuation’ of British forces in 1940 during the Word War II. He is now bivouacking at Pftsera in the Phek district of Nagaland close to the border of Manipur for his troop’s advance from behind the least expected region, in the Imperial Japanese Army style during the WW II. If he succeeds he will be a hero of his people and I will take my hat off to him. Good luck to him.
Pitting against him is Ibobi, Paona Brajabashi style, with his state forces armed with 20-year old, now outdated British make SLR rifles and a few Russian made Kalashnikov assault rifles, and with no support from New Delhi. I have also a hunch at the back of my mind that some of the major Meitei insurgent groups would be playing strategic tactical games in view of the fact that in the first place, their counterpart, NSCN(IM) has thrown the gauntlet intimidating that they are “waiting for the right time to strike” (Manipur), and secondly, since they are fighting for an independent Manipur (composite of hills and plain) if the four hill districts of Manipur have already been gifted to Muivah, there will be nothing left for them to fight and all these years of waiting in the jungles would go unrewarded. Following the bugle call would help them to be able to hit a hole-in-one – all at the same time. As a Meitei myself, I am sure that they follow the motto: “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space.”
Muivah originally kick-started the ANSAM blockades to prevent the ADC elections in the four hill districts of Manipur. He then marshalled mob violence to dramatise his entry to Manipur. He could have visited his village in Ukhrul, in the Indian Army helicopter provided by New Delhi. He refused as he wanted to come in style to acknowledge the applause from the crowd at Mao and Maram, like a Roman Centurion returning to Rome from a victorious war. But it was not to be. Neither has he won any battle so far, nor has he any chance of winning in the offing. Besides, he does not represent all the Naga people in Nagaland and Manipur.
On May 20, NSCN(K)’s top leader Kughalu Mulatonu called him a terrorist, decrying the blockades on NH-39 and NH-53. He further said that the Nagas of Nagaland want to live with the Meiteis of Manipur in peace. He also claims that NSCN(IM) is an anti-Naga organisation and its leader Muivah is not a Naga. He is trying to adopt Naga identity for the Tangkhuls and
other Hill tribes of Manipur, which is not acceptable (to the Nagas ). Another article by Vilhouthie Rhiepfu, the President of Angami Regional Council, NNC, published by E-Pao on May 29 2010 impugns him a foreigner, a false Naga – a kacha Naga.
The National Highways of India
The National Highways Authority was constituted by an act of Parliament, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) Act, 1988. It is responsible for the development, maintenance and Management of national highways entrusted to it and for matters connected or incidental thereto. But what is the Government of India doing for Manipur’s lifeline highways?
We hear sometimes that Indian troops, BSF, CRPF and ASSAM Rifles battalions and quick reaction teams were working day and night to unblock the roads on NH-53 so that convoys of goods and fuel-carrying trucks could bring necessary goods to Imphal. But the goods-laden trucks have not moved. They Indian security forces seem to be taking a hell of a time, considering that these roadblocks are the handiworks of a few ANSAM students and they are few and far between. I can’t help wondering what all these troops have been doing day and night! The road stretch of NH-53 from the Manipur border of Jiribam to Imphal is only 220 km (Ref. Delhi to Agra 203 km and takes 5 hrs).
One understands that it is a hilly, windy and partly dirt single-lane road. This will take twice as much time as that of Agra to Delhi road. But this is not the 1962 Indo-Chinese war when Indian troops were ill-prepared.
Why Manipur should develop NH-53 and forget NH-39 as a dead loss.
The reasons are:-
- Nh-39 covers a distance of 311 km (100 km in hostile Nagaland and 211 km in Manipur) while NH-53 covers 220 km in Manipur.
- The stretch of NH-39 that is in Nagaland is where road blocks, extortions, kidnappings, and illegal taxation to the tune of 2 lakhs of rupees a day is levied by the NSCN(IM).
- Nagas, not only the NSCN(IM) but the common man in the street are becoming more and more hostile because of the Nagalim impasse. As we know the Nagaland Assembly has passed resolutions five times to integrate the Naga inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal pradesh. Their mood swings will certainly be unimaginably worse when the Government of India categorically says no to their demand on the negotiating table. Muivah will lose face and have a threat on his life if he returns home (Nagaland) with no take-home presents. He is in a big dilemma.
4. When there is trouble such as blockades and extortions the India Government’s security personnel are not there and often they are conveniently late in their arrival. Then they lose a lot of time in scratching their heads. So they are not reliable for the security of our transport convoys.
5. On the other hand, NH-53 covers all the way to Imphal from non-hostile Assam. It begins from Silchar through Banskandi, Lakhipur to the Manipur border town of Jiribam and then Nungba, Tamenhlong and Imphal.
6. For the moment there are hostile NSCN(IM) and politically motivated ANSAM students in the Tamenglong district, causing mayhem with an indefinite starvation blockade. But as they grow up, and with a settlement between NSCN(IM) and GOI, one way or the other, they will cease to be troublesome. The general public do not bother whether they are in Nagaland or Manipur, in the same way the general Meitei public are not interested whether they are in India or an independent Manipur. They will be happy to choose either.
7. If a similar indefinite blockade on the NH-53 has ever again to be launched it is easy to persuade them to stop by involving them in the starvation along with the rest of theManipuri people by another blockade at Meitei inhabited Jiribam. So in the interest of both hill and plain communities a blockade of NH-53 is very remote. The blockader will begin to learn that committing suicide is only for the deranged except the Japanese with their hara-kiri.
What do we do now during this crisis?
The Manipur government has now two options: (1) do nothing; just let these things go by without doing something to prevent future blockades as we have done with the previous blockades. We can simply throw over hands to heaven and cry over the blockade for God to make ends meet; (2) plan to avoid future similar catastrophes by developing an already existing albeit run-down NH-53 for transporting necessities of life to Manipur. We could try to remember the Russian saying (Nikolay Gogol). “In Russia there are two big problems: bad roads and a lot of fools.”
The current crisis on a much smaller scale ranks with the Berlin Blockade – the major confrontation of the Cold War when it came closest to turning into a nuclear conflict. The ANSAM blockade, with Muivah and NSCN(IM) thrown in, for the partition of Manipur is a very serious crisis, which can easily bring on the confrontation between the kacha Nagas of Manipur on one hand and Meiteis, Kukis, Pangals an other non-Naga tribes on the other. People of my age remember the partition of India in 1947 with its tragic events in the Punjab especially Lahore, and Bengal mainly in Noakhali, while the British Administration in Delhi just looked away with the excuse that there were not enough soldiers. One must not count on a couple of battalions of CRPF to protect all of us should such a partition of Manipur occur. And the people of Nagaland would be laughing all the way to the new capital of Nagalim. The Ibobi government would have to act now while the disaster is fresh in everybody’s mind and there is the possibility of catalysing action.
What should the Government do?
(1) It should bring the situation under control, ensuring the safety of the people with arrangements of enough food supply, medicines and petrol.
(2) Analyse the situation and gather all the facts once the essential commodities are provided to the people. Begin thinking of a future solution in the event of such a blockade happening without blowing the problem out of proportion.
(3) Keep internal publics informed
(4) Communicate with media as to what is being planned to allay fears.
(5) Convince the Government of India that we mean business and that a serious communal conflict can arise at any time. Bloodshed is bloodshed whether from one or many.
(6) Ensure that the Imphal railhead for the coming Assam-Manipur rail line is in Imphal in Malom and not at Tupul in Tamenglong. There is nothing like an engineering infeasibility. There are no places in Switzerland where there are no railheads, if they want to.
(7) Do not be bamboozled with the notion of a fanciful “The Asian Highway” network passing through Manipur to Myanmar and Vietnam, or the 3-lane motorway on NH-39 to Moreh. The government of India is unable to construct and maintain a single-lane dirt road of NH-53, the lifeline for the people of Manipur. India government is only going through the motions because of International pressure from the Asian Highway Network, which is being coordinated through the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific office in Bangkok, envisages a comprehensive network of road connecting the countries of Asia. Can you imagine for a mad split second that India would allow floods of Asian businessmen and tourists running all over Manipur?
We must not wait simply in hope. “Providence has given human wisdom the choice between two fates: either hope or agitation, or hopelessness and calm” (Francis Bacon).