x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fear rules in the badlands of India's north-east states

The seven states tucked into India's north-east, including Manuphur and Nagaland, are a world apart. Here, where Bangkok is nearer than Delhi, the streets are deserted after dark, gangs extort money from workers with impunity, and the police are intimidated by militants.

Bimola Khaidem, wife of police officer Khaidem Muhi who was killed by a homemade grenade hurled by a militant, cries at her home in Imphal, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur.
Bimola Khaidem, wife of police officer Khaidem Muhi who was killed by a homemade grenade hurled by a militant, cries at her home in Imphal, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur.

In his years as a police officer in the badlands of Manipur, Khaidem Muhi had survived an attack on his post and an ambush on a convoy he was guarding. He had been overpowered by insurgents and had his weapon stolen so many times he was hit with a 12-year suspension.

Back on the job last month, the 50-year-old was guarding the home of a government official under threat from insurgents demanding a bigger cut of state development funds when a militant racing by on a motorbike threw a homemade grenade that killed him.

Mr Muhi's family was devastated. Most others dismissed the attack, in daylight, on a heavily guarded house, just metres from a major paramilitary base, as life in the web of militant violence, extortion, government corruption and general lawlessness that plagues this state in India's rebellious north-east.

Three people were arrested in the attack, but few believed they were guilty. Mr Muhi's fellow police officers, two of whom were themselves injured in the blast, refused to testify out of fear of the militants.

"In Manipur, being a police officer is too dangerous. Anything can happen at any time," Mr Muhi's wife, Bimola Khaidem, said as she wiped away tears with her white woollen shawl.

While India tries to assume its place as a rising world power, it is vexed by the conflict in Manipur and the other seemingly endless chain of hidden wars that challenge its ability to govern fully its own country.

From Kashmir in the north, where hundreds of thousands of troops face off against Muslim separatists, to the "red belt" sweeping through the east, where Maoist guerrillas are fighting to overthrow the state, wide swathes of India are under only the barest government control.

The South Asia Terrorism Portal, which tracks insurgencies, lists more than 150 militant groups in the country, some little more than a few guys with guns, others running their own remote rump states.

Few places are more remote than the seven states of India's north-east. The region often has felt like an afterthought to the great idea of India that seeks to bring 1.2 billion people of different religions, cultures and languages into a cohesive secular democracy.

The famed Indian railroad, the 108,000-kilometre skeleton that binds the nation together, does not reach Manipur. The state is closer to Bangkok than to New Delhi, closer to Hong Kong than to Mumbai, and residents fear that their features, reminiscent of Chinese more than traditional north Indians, have long brought their loyalties into question.

People here have resentments of their own against India, dating back six decades, when Manipur was one of hundreds of princely states pressured - Manipuris say forced - to join the newly independent India.

Even as Manipuris stewed over the quashing of their aspirations, internal tensions boiled.

Naga tribes in the hills began agitating for their own nation, to be merged with the neighbouring state of Nagaland. The Meitei of the valley, fearing the breakup of the state, launched their own insurgency. Other tribes joined in with their own groups, and the government fought back with a crackdown that gave security forces relative impunity.

After decades of warfare and thuggishness by all sides, conflict has become routine for the state's 2.2 million people.

"People don't know who to be afraid of," said Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of the Imphal Free Press. "The only difference is that the police are visible and the militants are invisible."

The state is regularly paralysed by bandhs, or protest strikes. Shops in Imphal close at 6pm, and soon after darkness falls, the streets are deserted.

"Because of the fear, we have developed a culture of going to bed early," said Mrinalini Nameirakpam, 27, a doctoral student.

Manipur University has become a battleground, too. The previous head of the school was kidnapped for five days and shot in the leg. Two years ago a professor overseeing student elections seen as a competition between militant groups was shot and killed in a daylight attack on campus. The dean of students came under threat when he pushed ahead with a youth festival despite student calls for a strike.

The school's top officials now travel in armed convoys and their offices are behind five layers of security guards. None of them answers mobile phone calls from unfamiliar numbers, lest they be from militants making threats or ransom demands. More than one-third of the school's positions for professors lie vacant because no one wants to come here.

The current head of the school, Nandakumar Sarma, insists that despite it all, his campus is peaceful and his students focused.

"If you go to the library you will see students studying," he said, before stopping himself with a chuckle. "But today is a bandh."

The insurgents, known collectively as the "underground" or "UG," used to be focused on their battles with India, demanding "taxes" from Manipuris to fund the fight. Now, the fundraising has become an end in itself, with militant threats, extortion rackets and kidnappings for ransom routine, according to residents.

In one region under de facto militant control, a construction worker who tried to cash his paycheque was turned away by a bank because he did not have the required letter from the UG confirming he had paid them their share, he said.

Another man said he was perplexed by a grenade attack on his house, only to find out later that insurgents had been sending extortion demands by text message, a technology he had no clue how to use.

The National Investigation Agency, formed to fight terror in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, has threatened charges against anyone aiding the militants. Government paycheques, which had been issued only after militant "taxes" were deducted are now deposited directly and in full in workers' accounts, said Manipur's top bureaucrat, the chief secretary DS Poonia.

In response, the militants have stepped up kidnapping for ransom to keep the cash flowing, Mr Poonia said.

The government engineer said his employees cannot inspect contractors' work sites for fear of being kidnapped. He has been attacked so many times during extortion negotiations that he supplements his police details with a pistol hanging from a shoulder holster under the jacket of his tracksuit.

India's home affairs minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, said in his annual security address to parliament that security in the north-east showed "remarkable improvement". Manipur, he said, was an exception.

Nevertheless, India's president, Pratibha Patil, travelled to Imphal recently to inaugurate an IT park the state government heralded as the flowering of a new era. The barricades erected along her route were empty. The militants had called a protest strike.

At the same moment, a crowd gathered outside a nearby hospital awaiting the release of Irom Sharmila, a 39-year-old woman on a decade-long hunger strike in protest against draconian laws the government uses against the insurgency.

Ms Sharmila lives in police custody so she can be force-fed through a nose tube, but legally must be released every year.

The frail woman, accompanied by dozens of supporters, walked slowly to a nearby hut erected as a protest shrine in her honour. Outside, more than 50 police stood guard.

Ms Sharmila blamed all sides for Manipur's anarchy, calling politicians "cowards" and the militants "insincere".

Yet, she said, her protest will serve as "the foundation stone for peace and justice," and she insisted Manipur will get better.

"Hope is alive. I can't give up hope," she said.

The next day Sharmila was taken back into custody. Her fast continues.