Guns and drugs in India's wild east

In the dimly lit basement restaurant of one of the city's few hotels, the jukebox pumps out Cat Stevens singing It's a Wild World.

    Soldier on patrol in Manipur state - home to 20-plus rebel groups

    Outside, an armoured personnel carrier lumbers through the street, while beyond the city, soldiers in black bandanas patrol the road through the paddy fields, keeping a wary eye on the menacing jungle covering the nearby mist-shrouded hills.
    This is India's answer to America’s Wild West: home to a thriving heroin trade with neighbouring Myanmar and to 20-plus rebel groups fighting both Indian rule and each other.

    Here in the state of Manipur, to carry a gun is commonplace, extortion routine, kidnapping frequent.

    "There's a complete breakdown of law and order," says Pradeep Phanjoubam, editor of the Imphal Free Press.
    Up in the remote north-east of India, Manipur boasts a three-decade-old insurgency, on occasion as violent as the better known Kashmir separatist revolt far to the west.

    "There is a problem in every state in the north-east, but Manipur is different," says Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh in the state capital Imphal.

    Dragged into India

    Manipur is one of seven north-eastern states which jut out improbably into east Asia, inhabited by people who look more Burmese than Indian, connected to "mainland" India by a 32-kilometre-wide strip of land.

    After being dragged into joining India at independence in 1947, the people of the north-east began a string of separatist revolts, led in the 1950s by the Nagas, fierce hill tribesmen who live to the north of Imphal.

    But while India has begun inconclusive peace talks with the Nagas, the disintegration of the Manipur revolt into many different factions has made it all the harder to contain.

    "It's like mushroom growth," complains the chief minister.

    "Bomb explosions, encounters and harassment by security forces. All these have become part of our lives"

    Mani Hari Singh,
    taxi driver

    The army was sent to Manipur in 1980, but with a far smaller presence than in Kashmir it imposes only a semblance of control, with much of the jungle hinterland beyond the fertile Imphal Valley under rebel control.

    And even around the capital, the rebels hold sway, blowing up a bus just 24km south of Imphal on 14 August, killing six civilians. The rebels subsequently said this was an accident - they had meant to target security forces.

    Heroin trail 

    The former kingdom of Manipur traces its history back for 2000 years, at one time covering parts of present day Myanmar.
    After becoming a princely state under the tutelage of India's former British colonial rulers in 1891, it joined India in 1949. Manipuris complain their maharajah was forced to sign a merger agreement while under house arrest.

    Resentment, combined with high unemployment, poverty and corruption, drove many youths into the rebel groups - starting with the United National Liberation Front. It was formed in 1964 to fight for an independent Manipur, and was soon joined by others.

    The rebel groups take refuge either in the jungles of Manipur itself or in neighbouring Myanmar, with which the state has an open border stretching for some 350km.

    Christian Nagas want to secede
    from mainly Hindu Manipur

    Alongside the separatist revolt is the drugs trade. Much of the heroin produced in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand passes through here on its way to India and abroad, leaving behind a trail of heroin addiction and high incidence of AIDS.
    The government accuses the rebel groups of profiting from heroin trafficking; others blame corrupt government officials and security forces; yet others blame criminal gangs.

    Seeds of strife

    On top of all that, the state contains the seeds of civil war between the Nagas - who live both in the bordering state of Nagaland and the hill districts of Manipur - and the dominant Meitei community.

    The Nagas, many of whom have converted to Christianity, have long resented the Hindu Meiteis who dominate Manipur and want their land there incorporated into a greater Nagaland.

    "The biggest fear in the minds of the people of Manipur is the Balkanisation of Manipur," says Yamben Laba, from the Manipur State Human Rights Commission.

    The Nagas and Meiteis are joined by other smaller, tribal groups also fighting for their own land and rights.

    But for the people caught in the crossfire, it has become a conflict without end.

    "Bomb explosions, encounters and harassment by security forces. All these have become part of our lives," says 36-year-old taxi driver Mani Hari Singh.
    "Manipur is stagnating. Our children have no future," adds shopkeeper Sukumar Bose.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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