Manipur, a state of concern

Source: Hueiyen News Service
Imphal, February 18, 2010: Surrounded by troops, the suspected militant saw the vehicle already waiting to take his corpse to the morgue.

He expected to die, like many others, in an “encounter” with the security forces.

In jail he told a human-rights activist himself held on charges of waging war against the state and tortured with electric shocks that he probably owed his life to a piece of journalism: the publication last year in Tehelka, a weekly magazine, of pictures of police killing a former militant in broad daylight.

The pictures triggered public outrage and a crippling four-month strike—over a steep rise in extrajudicial killings.

They may have also slowed the rate of killing.

Otherwise, not much appears to have changed.

Judged by the relentless violence and impunity, this might be next-door, army-ruled Myanmar.

But it is the Indian state of Manipur.

In this green and hilly region in India’s north-east, some 1,700km (1,060 miles) from Delhi, the Indian army and underground armed groups seeking independence have been locked in battle for more than 30 years.

The armed factions (38 at the latest count, roughly one for each ethnic group), have varied and shifting goals.

More than 10,000 people have died in the insurgency.

There is one security officer for every 40 of the 2.6m population.

Apart from Arunachal Pradesh, mostly claimed by China, Manipur is the only state where foreigners need a special permit to visit.

It is almost never granted, and movement beyond the valley including the capital, Imphal, is banned altogether.

Even strife-torn Kashmir is, by contrast, open to all comers.

Hidden from public view, Manipur has become a virtual police-state.

Human-rights groups say that 444 people were killed in armed violence in 2009, about two-thirds of them in “encounters”.

In most cases, these take place in remote places and the security forces suffer no casualties.

Locals say that the money the dead are carrying goes unaccounted for, too.

Since 2004 the army has delegated the fight against insurgents largely to the police.

Critics say that, seeking promotion and fearing no prosecution, the poorly paid force has become trigger-happy.

It scooped India’s gallantry awards in 2009, when its medal count tripled over the previous year to 74 (the rest of the country got 138).Almost all of these awards were for “encounters” with suspected insurgents.

In the Imphal valley even illiterate villagers can spell out the initials of what for many has become the symbol of oppression: the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the emergency law that serves as the legal umbrella for impunity.

Countless human-rights advocates have called for the repeal of the AFPSA.

Even the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has argued it should be replaced with “a more humane law”.

But the army is fiercely opposed to any changes, and the government is in fact strengthening the security forces in the north-east, to cope with a perceived Chinese build-up, and the smuggling of arms and drugs from Myanmar.

Against this background, the prospects of lifting the emergency laws appear bleak.

Other emergencies are likely to persist, too.

HIV/AIDS was once confined to injecting drug-users—and opium production in the insurgency-ridden areas along Myanmar’s borders has been climbing again.

But it has spread to the general population.

At 1.7% in 2006, estimated adult HIV-prevalence is the highest in India.

The economy is stillborn.

There are some 600,000 registered unemployed young people, nearly a quarter of the population.

Once self-sufficient in food, Manipur now depends on imported rice from Punjab.

Extortion is the state’s single-biggest industry.

A retired teacher says an armed group demanded $20,000 from him.

“India is the largest democracy, but we do not see its democratic face here,” says Oinam Bhogendra, chairman of Human Rights Alert Imphal, a local NGO.

“All people here want,” he says, “is to live in dignity.” For those on the edge of Indian democracy, that day may still be far off.

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