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As India rises, northeast state wracked by chaos

IMPHAL, India (AP) ― 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 fatter cut of state development funds when a militant racing by on a motorbike threw a homemade grenade that killed him.

Muhi’s family was devastated. Most others dismissed the attack ― in daylight, on a heavily guarded house, just meters from a major paramilitary base ― as life in the toxic web of militant violence, extortion, government corruption and general lawlessness that plagues this state in India’s rebellious northeast.

Three people were arrested in the attack, but few believed they were guilty. 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,” Muhi’s wife, Bimola Khaidem, said as she wiped away tears with her white woolen 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 northeast, which hang like a meaty fist attached to the body of India by a skinny arm curving around Bangladesh. 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-kilometer 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.
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. (AP-Yonhap News)
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. (AP-Yonhap News)

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 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 neighboring 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, editor of the Imphal Free Press. “The only difference is that the police are visible and the militants are invisible.”

The state is regularly paralyzed by bandhs, or protest strikes.

Shops in Imphal close at 6 p.m., and soon after darkness falls, the streets are deserted.

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

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 lay behind five layers of security guards. None of them answers cellphone 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 paycheck 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.

As the kleptocracy grew, so did the array of groups. Phanjoubam estimates there are more than 40, with new ones springing up every few weeks. One, the Kangleipak Communist Party, is estimated to have more than a dozen offshoots, each demanding a cut of government contracts.

It is these contracts where the real money is made, with so many fingers in the government till that the demands often exceed the entire value of the deal.

A construction contractor explained a recent shakedown on condition he not be identified out of fear of the militants, government officials and security forces.

When he was awarded a 320 million rupee ($7 million) contract, 12 percent was instantly deducted by government officials ― 7 percent as a kickback for themselves and 5 percent for the Meitei underground in Imphal.

A powerful Naga militant group then sent a delegation to demand its 5 percent cut. Then smaller groups, with names like the Manipur National Revolutionary Front, the Volunteers of Innocent People and the Naga Liberation Army, picked at the remaining scraps, he said.

One demanded 3 million rupees ($67,000); He refused. A grenade was tossed at his house, but failed to explode, he said. They called back, claimed the attack and eventually negotiated their cut down to 1 million rupees ($22,000). Another group got 1.5 million rupees ($33,000). Two others got 500,000 ($11,000) each.

“We have no choice. We have to fulfill their demands,” he said.

With only a fraction of the money to complete the project, he insists he does not cut corners, but pays his workers poor wages and scours for the cheapest source of building materials he can find.

Security forces, in turn, are accused of carrying out their own wave of terror with mass arrests, disappearances and staged killings, including the shooting of a pregnant woman and an unarmed, former militant in Imphal’s busy market in 2009.

They are even implicated in the insurgency itself, with rights activists and police officers accusing paramilitary troops of ferrying militants through checkpoints to carry out attacks.

One government engineer with oversight of contracts, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of all sides, said he once paid ransom for a kidnapped worker to a state Cabinet minister’s brother in front of police headquarters. Another drop off was made at the home of a state legislator, he said.

“Government employees and police are also part of the same milieu ... either collaborating or participating (in the insurgency),” acknowledged Manipur’s top bureaucrat, Chief Secretary D.S. Poonia.

While there have been few extortion prosecutions because no one will testify, Poonia said the government had been working to weaken the militants.

The National Investigation Agency, formed to fight terror in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, has threatened charges against anyone aiding the militants. And government paychecks, which had been issued only after militant “taxes” were deducted, are now deposited directly and in full in workers’ accounts, Poonia said.

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

The government engineer said his employees cannot inspect contractors’ work sites for fear of being nabbed. 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.

R.K. Anand, a local legislator and human rights campaigner, blamed the government for the law and order vacuum that allowed the chaos to flourish.

“People are really fed up about the problems. The killing, torture, human rights violations have been going on for too many years,” he said. “Unless the government is willing to work on a political solution, I don’t see a bright future.”

Hoping to stop the madness, India has embarked on a drive to pacify the northeast. It captured, released and began peace talks with rebel leaders from the state of Assam in recent months. It appealed for Indians abroad to fund private investments in the region, and it lifted a requirement that all foreign visitors to the area apply for hard-to-get permits.

In his annual security address to parliament, Home Affairs Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said security in the northeast showed “remarkable improvement.”

Manipur, he said, was an exception.

Nevertheless, Indian President Pratibha Patil traveled 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 to protest draconian laws the government uses against the insurgency.

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 honor.

Outside, more than 50 police stood guard.

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.