India: Should Delhi Intervene in Troubled Manipur?

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Bullu Raj / AP

Trucks are waiting to be escorted by the Indian police to ferry supplies to India's northeastern state of Manipur on Nov. 8, 2011

India's northeastern state of Manipur has been under siege for more than 100 days, as rival tribes, the Kukis and the Nagas, vie for power. The isolated, landlocked state depends on two main highways for essential goods. On Aug. 1, 2011, the Kukis blockaded both routes, demanding the creation of a Kuki-dominated district. After 92 days, the government agreed, only to have the Nagas launch their own blockade against the settlement.

Three months later, the state is at risk of an acute humanitarian crisis, with fuel stocks and medical supplies running short. Indian television channel NDTV reported recently that the state's largest government hospital was running out of medicines and oxygen and doctors unable to carry out surgeries. Manipuris have been paying 3 to 5 times more for petrol and cooking gas. As the situation worsens, many Indians are calling on the federal government to get involved. "There is an immediate need for federal intervention," says Pradip Phanjoubam, editor-proprietor of Imphal Free Press and a resident of Manipur. "They are national highways, and hence the union government does have the right to intervene and open up the highways and ask the agitators to agitate somewhere else."

That might be tough. There are as many as 23 separatist groups waging a decades-old insurgency in Manipur. The rivalry between the majority Meiteis, who live in the valley, and the martial tribes of Nagas and Kukis who live in the mountains makes governing difficult. On Nov. 8, the 100th day of the blockage, Manipur's Chief Minister Ibobi Singh said the government's patience was running out and promised "stern action." A week later, the blockade persists and calls are mounting for direct intervention from New Delhi.

The federal government, though, seems wary of wading into a distant conflict between old rivals. "The problem lies as much in [the state capital] as in Delhi, which is totally ignorant of the strong emotions which these ethnic loyalties have," Ved Marwah, a former governor of Manipur told TIME. "There is no democracy" in Manipur, he said "but rather the trappings of democracy and a combination of tribal society, various insurgent groups and total corruption."

For these reasons, some observers have called for the state to be placed under President's rule. Others have argued against it for Manipur, which has seen political instability since the 1970s and has been under the President's rule seven times already. The last time President's rule was imposed in Manipur was in 2001 on the recommendations of Marwah, who was the then governor of Manipur. He doesn't think it is the solution anymore. "As long as Manipur remains polarized on ethnic lines, any long-standing solution is impossible."

One of the loudest voices in favor of direct federal rule in Manipur is the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "There is a failed government in Manipur which is not doing anything to ameliorate the sufferings of the people there," BJP party member and former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha told reporters in New Delhi last Friday. He demanded that the state government be dismissed immediately and President's rule imposed. The federal government, however, has shown little interest in this approach, preferring to offer money instead. When Home Minister P. Chidambaram visited Manipur on Nov. 2, he said keeping peace in the state would ensure "no shortage of fund[s] from the central government." While New Delhi mulls its options, Manipur is left waiting, hoping for change somewhere down the road.