IMPHAL, INDIA: Promoted in official tourist brochures as the “jewel of India,” the tiny state of Manipur seems closer to an ignored family heirloom than a proudly coveted gem.
“Backwards,” “marginalised,” “isolated,” “insurgency-wracked:” the adjectives that most frequently precede any mention of Manipur — for all its stunning natural beauty — are overwhelmingly negative.
And for many Manipuris, the concept of being “of India” in any meaningful sense is one they find difficult to entertain.
“Why should I care about India when India does not care about me,” says Jiangam Kamei, a 22-year-old history student in the state capital Imphal.
Such expressions of alienation are common in a number of the “Seven Sisters” — the group of northeastern states encircled by five other countries and connected to the rest of India by a sliver of land that arches over Bangladesh.
Their relative isolation is not just geographical, but also ethnic, linguistic, economic and political.
“We look so different to start with,” said Kshetrimayum Onil, who works for a local human rights group in Manipur and also runs a youth network called ReachOut.
“We are often mistaken for Chinese or Koreans because of our Mongol roots,” Onil said.
One of India’s smallest states with a population of just 2.7 million inhabitants, Manipur borders Myanmar and its people have always tended to look eastwards in their search for cultural links.
“We are virtually cut off from mainland India,” said Shyam Singh, a history professor in Imphal. “Culturally and socially, we identify ourselves more with the countries of Southeast Asia as they are closer to home.”
One striking example is the massive popularity in Manipur of Korean movies, soap operas and pop music, which have filled the vacuum caused by a separatist-led boycott of Bollywood films.
Separatist violence has been part of daily life in Manipur for decades, as it has been in most of the northeastern states that have spawned more than 100 militant groups whose demands range from autonomy to secession.
Manipur was incorporated into the Indian Union on October 15, 1949, two years after the country won independence from British rule.
According to political analyst Sharat Chandra, the enormous problems India faced after partition meant its leaders neglected remote states like Manipur which were never properly integrated into the socio-political mainstream.
The central government’s “step-motherly treatment” fuelled separatist sentiment from the outset and rebel outfits sprang up “each vying for political supremacy and promising secession from India to its people,” Chandra said.
The perception of New Delhi as a quasi-colonial power was reinforced by the huge deployment of security forces armed with sweeping anti-insurgency powers to counter the separatist violence that peaked in the 1980s and 1990s.
“The government exists only in name here,” said Inder Laishram, who runs a shop in Imphal’s main Burma Bazaar, where heavily armed commandos are a constant presence.
“The real power is in the hands of the army and the underground outfits. Both run the show with the power of the gun. We have nowhere to turn to,” the 35-year-old said.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the myriad rebel groups are largely formed on tribal or ethnic lines with rival agendas that regularly erupt into bloody internecine disputes.
Manipur has a strong ethnic mix, and the state’s Meitei, Naga, Kuki and Pangal communities are all deeply committed to preserving their own cultural autonomy.
Laishram belongs to the Hindu Meiteis who dominate the Manipuri plains, and it is that community which provides his primary identity, as he makes clear when asked whether he voted in recent elections.
“Why should I? We are Meiteis. We are not Indians,” he said.
The disconnect with the rest of the country extends to sport. In the streets of the bazaar, young boys play a game of sepak takraw, or kick volleyball, a sport native to the Malay-Thai Peninsula, as opposed to cricket.
Many goods come through the border town of Moreh from China, Thailand and Myanmar. Moreh boomed after it was declared a Free Trade Zone by the Indian government in 1995, but plans for it to become a key transit point on the future Trans-Asia Railway have been stymied by the threat from rebels.
Manipur has a primarily agrarian economy and is one of the least developed states in India — one of only five with a per capita income of less than 30,000 rupees ($600).
Recent figures released by the federal planning commission showed that while poverty levels have fallen substantially in India as a whole, they have actually increased in five northeastern states, including Manipur.
The charge that Manipur has been neglected and marginalised by the Indian government has found a powerful symbol in the person of Irom Sharmila — a 40-year-old activist who has been labelled “the world’s longest hunger striker”.
For more than 11 years, Sharmila has refused food and water to back her demand for the withdrawal of the special powers wielded by — and according to critics widely abused by — the security forces.
“I have no other option but to continue my protest as long as rights of innocent people continue to be violated,” said Sharmila who began her fast in 2000 after the killing of 10 people by the army at a bus stop near her home.
She was arrested shortly after beginning her protest — on charges of attempted suicide — and was sent to a prison hospital where she is force-fed via a nasal drip several times a day.
“I don’t want to be glorified. I just want that the government should accept my only demand instead of spending huge amounts of money for keeping me alive,” said the frail and extremely pale 40-year-old.
While a 12-day hunger strike by an anti-corruption activist in New Delhi last year became a national cause celebre, Sharmila’s protest has gone largely unnoticed and receives little media attention.
“I am sure if she had been protesting in Delhi or Mumbai, things would have been different,” said ReachOut’s Kshetrimayum Onil.
“This kind of discrimination just completes our alienation.”