Every time I try to write about Manipur without stereotypes I am confronted by the situation there which denies the narrative of a state that strives for excellence, of Mary Kom, and medals galore.
My tours to the state over the last decade have recorded a people that have learnt to live with conflict and isolation. A third of the year sees blockades, shutdowns and curfew. Life goes on.
Last year a marathon sixty-eight-day economic blockade seemed like the threshold. This year, another sixty-days-and-still-running blockade seems just another ritual in black humor.
Manipur, a state on the Indo-Myanmar border, can be reached by three highways: One through Nagaland, a second by South Assam in Barak Valley, and a third again via South Assam and through Mizoram. The road through Nagaland is fraught with militant threat even when it is open to traffic. The other highway, which cuts through Meghalaya and is landslide-prone, is not safe either. All the highways are now closed to traffic due to various ethnic groups demanding greater political autonomy and rights. It doesn't matter what they are demanding because Manipur is characterized by unending demands, many of them legitimate. What matters is that daily life for a common person is paralyzed.
Let me illustrate two examples of how life is hit during such times. Last year during my visits to the valley and the hills I stopped by a children's home called Kanglatombi Home, run by the state's social welfare department. When we walked in we saw that their kitchen was running out of supplies. There were 50 children waiting for help. The nation's attention was drawn but the response was feeble. Individuals extended help locally but the children perhaps had learned by then how to fend for themselves. The state social welfare department reacted to our report saying it was sensational. This year, when we woke up to the blockade, I was reminded of the children and found that their supplies had run out when this article was being written. The caretakers were not sure how to arrange the next meal at the home with 45 children.
We had also stopped by a hospital where the doctors were refusing new patients because they were running out of fuel and oxygen. They didn't know what to do with the existing intensive-care patients. In 48 hours they told us the hospital would run out of emergency stock as well. We tried playing it up and -- whether or not for our report -- some supplies were brought in. The nation merely watched. There was no disruption of Parliament, which was in session because it simply did not matter to anyone.
This year the stories are similar. It has always been. Cooking gas is not available and if so it comes at Rs 2000/- a piece. The streets are as usual filled with ladies selling petrol and diesel in mineral water bottles. The price has gone up by a few rupees more.
Petrol is selling at Rs 170 with eager customers. Fuel stations have day-long queues and car owners bear the wait without a word. They instead discuss the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act or the possible candidates in the coming assembly elections. Some have their personal stories to relate. There is a stoic distance they maintain with what is like a never ending tale of dispossession.
It is within the power of the state government to lift blockades if required forcefully for the sake of law and order. But in Manipur the state government has been on a vacation forever. President's Rule may be the immediate way out but certainly not the way forward. One lady is already on an epic fast unto death against an army act. Nothing has happened so protests and dharnas are far too feeble for the powers to be. The centre absolves its responsibility. The civil society can no more hold and "anarchy is loosed upon the world". We await a second coming!
Kishalay Bhattacharjee is Chair, Internal Security, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and Bureau Chief (NE) New Delhi Television Ltd (NDTV) (on sabbatical)