Manipur has the dubious distinction of having the maximum numbers of bandhs, which adversely affect its economy and inconvenience the people. Though directed against the state, these bandhs underscore the deepening polarization of society and polity there. With about two dozens militant groups, Manipur is one of the most volatile states in India.
Topographically, Manipur is divided into hill and valley. The densely populated valley, constituting just one-fourth of the geographical area, is surrounded on all sides by the sparsely populated hills which constitute two-third of the remainder. The tribal groups, who mainly inhabit the hills, are generally critical of the state government which is largely dominated by the Meitei community that lives in the valley.
The state government's near ineffectiveness in meeting the growing aspirations of the people and the alleged excesses committed by the security forces in the course of countering militancy are the main reasons for calling bandhs in the state. Militants also call for bandhs on days of national significance like Republic Day, Independence Day, etc. Today, bandhs or blockades (blockades in Manipur refer mainly to blocking of the movement of goods-laden vehicles along the inter-state highways) have become the most common and effective means to force the government to redress popular grievances. It is observed that the tribal groups mainly resort to blockade of the inter-state highways that serve as the life-line of the landlocked state. In contrast, in the plains, bandhs are common.
A recent online opinion poll conducted by a news portal (Kanglaonline.com) revealed that 13 per cent of the 996 respondents considered the "unreasonable demands of numerous organizations" as the major factor for bandhs in the state. 7 per cent of the respondents identified "insensitive government that works only when there is large scale violence" as the main reason for bandhs. 3 per cent said that bandhs have become a favourite pastime of the people. Interestingly, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) of the respondents considered all the above factors as responsible for bandhs.
As things stand, there were altogether 42 bandhs (state-wide, district-wide, etc.) in the state during 2006-07 (till January) as well as 77 blockades of inter-state highways. The figures for 2005-06 stood at 48 and 97, and for 2004-05 they were 20 and 60, respectively. Two organisations - the All Naga Students' Association of Manipur (ANSAM) and the Meitei Erol Eyek Lionasillon Apunba Lup (MEELAL) - were responsible for calling the maximum number of these bandhs or blockades during these three years. While the former has significant influence in the Naga-dominated hill regions, the latter draws its strength from the valley.
Manipur is connected by road to the rest of India and to Myanmar by three national highways (NH-39, NH-53 and NH-150). The Mao-Imphal section of NH-39 is the state's major link route to the outside world. Several hundred trucks ply this route daily bringing essential commodities such as food grains, petrol, diesel, cooking gas, etc. from other parts of the country. A large number of passenger buses and other vehicles too ply on this highway. Along with it, the Imphal-Moreh section of NH-39 is also widely used by the business community to shop at the key town of Moreh on the Indo-Myanmar border. With no rail links, a blockade of these highways has been the most common and effective method for agitators to bring pressure to bear on the state government.
Along with the innumerable bandhs and blockages, another factor which compounds the problem is the so-called "taxes" levied by insurgent groups. Several militant groups, particularly the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isaac-Muivah (NSCN-IM), impose different rates of 'illegal tax' on commercial vehicles plying these routes, depending on the value of the consignments being carried. For example, on the Mao-Imphal section of NH-39, the NSCN-IM reportedly charges an oil tanker Rs. 3,000 per trip, Rs. 2000 for trucks carrying cooking gas cylinders, and Rs. 1,000 for those carrying cement. Apart from this, the outfit also regularly collects illegal permit fee from trucks to ply on this highway. Other militant groups too are active in their respective areas of operation.
Along with the militant menace, the frequent bandhs and blockades imposed on the inter-state highways by protestors have severely affected economic activities in the state and have led to acute shortages of essential commodities, including life-saving medicines. It is useful, in this context, to recall the 52-day-long (June 19 to August 11, 2005) blockade of the Mao-Imphal section of the NH-39 imposed by ANSAM in protest against the state government's decision to declare June 18 as 'State Integrity Day' in honour of 18 persons killed while protesting against the extension of ceasefire between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM to Manipur. To provide relief to the people, the Indian Air Force was pressed into service to airlift medicines to Manipur from Guwahati.
As is evident, such bandhs and blockades have had an adverse impact on Manipur's economy. According to a state government study, the economic impact of bandhs during 2004-05 was estimated at about Rs. 106.8 crores, while the total economic loss due to the blockades on highways was estimated at about Rs. 139.2 crores. The total loss thus was Rs. 246 crores. The same study estimated that during 2005-06 the total loss caused by bandhs and blockades was Rs. 553.23 crores. And the estimated loss for 2006-07 (till January 31, 2007) was Rs. 520.73 crores.
Besides affecting the economy, bandhs and blockades also expose the deepening divide between the hills and the plains. For instance, the introduction of the old Meitei script in schools across the state - in the wake of an agitation in Meitei areas demanding such a step - was not well received by Manipur's tribal population, which saw it as an attempt to impose the dominant Meitei language and culture on them. Similarly, when Nagas living in the hill districts of Manipur organised an agitation for affiliating schools there to the Nagaland Board of Secondary Education, Meiteis in the valley interpreted it as a step towards integrating these areas with the state of Nagaland. In this context, it is worth noting that most issues on which bandhs and blockades are organised are exclusive to one or the other groups that make up Manipur's population. The only issue that actually brought them all together was the agitation against the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
This unhealthy state of affairs is not only a reflection of state failure but also of the increasing polarization between people living in the plains and the hills. It is imperative that the state government gears itself to meeting the aspirations of the people. This would enable it to mobilize civil society groups against the increasing number of bands and blockades as well as initiate stringent measures to curb the growing lawlessness in the state.