The moot question here is, did the geographical features and terrain of Manipur played any decisive role in the continued existence of Manipur as a separate political entity. One prominent geographical feature of Manipur is its landlockedness. Not only it is landlocked, it is being walled by mighty and formidable hill ranges on all sides, presenting themselves as a natural defensive barrier against invading forces. Any invading army had to trudge up and down these hill ranges to reach Manipur valley. This gave ample time to Manipuri soldiers for re-grouping and reinforcement to defend the kingdom or launch counter-strike and annihilate the invading army. In short, any invasion on Manipur was never swift and as such, they always lacked any element of surprise because of the chain of hill ranges. Even during World War II where armed forces were highly mechanised, the Japanese forces had to traverse a tortuous journey in their mission to drive out British forces from Manipur and take control of its strategic location. Equally crippled by the rugged and mountainous terrain, the British enjoyed air support which the Japanese forces had none. Air support proved decisive and Japan suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Imphal.
Following the merger of Manipur into the Indian Union a few years after the Battle of Imphal, the mountain ranges which once acted as formidable barriers to invading forces transformed itself into a sort of prison walls. In the absence of wars or military clashes though the same cannot be ruled out completely in view of the strategic importance of the location of Manipur, it is crucial to re-analyse the geographical features of Manipur with regard to trade and commerce. Little did the people of Manipur and neighbouring countries felt the impedance caused by the mountainous terrain when trade was carried on horse-backs. The need for proper and standard roads was felt very little. This may be attributed to self-sufficiency of the then Manipur and minimal cross-border trade. But with the advent of carts and ultimately motor vehicles and subsequent expansion of cross-border trade, standard roads assumed vital importance.
Being a landlocked country, road connectivity was the only viable means of transport and communication with the outside world in the absence of access to sea routes. In the post-Merger era, importance of road connectivity rose corresponding to the degree of dependence of Manipuri people on goods imported from India. Before Manipur’s controversial merger with India, Manipur had road connectivity to the North through Imphal-Kohima-Dimapur road, to the South-East through Imphal -Tamu road and to the West through Imphal-Jiribam-Silchar road. Yes, these routes exist till today. But over the last 60 years, these routes have been put to disuse except Imphal-Dimapur road which has been made the only serviceable road. Virtually, Imphal-Dimapur road serves as the only ‘umbilical cord’ (strictly in terms of supplying foods and other goods) between India and Manipur and interestingly this ‘umbilical cord’ is always under threat from highway blockaders. The inference is that following the Merger, Manipur has been pushed at the mercy of the transit state, Nagaland.
For Nagaland and some people inhabiting alongside Imphal-Dimapur road, the highway is a goose laying golden eggs. All kinds of tariffs and taxes, both legal and illegal are being exacted from vehicles travelling to and from Manipur along the highway. The end result is abnormal and artificial escalation in prices of goods imported to Manipur and lowering of prices of goods exported from Manipur. Unfortunately, too frequent blockades, repeated harassments to drivers and passengers, killings and robbery in addition to the routine illegal taxes have been slowly strangulating this golden egg laying goose. Now the decision of the people of Manipur, particularly transporters to take Imphal-Jiribam highway which is in shambles and unfit by any yardstick, in place of the relatively much better Imphal-Dimapur route is a bold and challenging voice to all those elements who have been making a goldmine out of NH -39 in the most crooked manner. The message is loud and clear: “We are ready to negotiate the landslides, tortuous bendings, creaky bridges and whatever odds on NH-53 but we can no longer tolerate the persistent humiliation along NH-39”.
What is surprising and indigestible is the failure on the part of political leaders of Manipur to understand the vulnerability of a landlocked hinterland state. It is agonising to read that our political leaders could never sense the risk of putting the entire population totally dependent on the single highway, that is NH-39 which has evolved into a ghost highway characterised by rampant lootings, arson, harassment to drivers, passengers and round the year blockade. It is bewildering that our political leaders could never really understand the vulnerability of being landlocked hinterland state until the infamous 52 days’ blockade of 2005. The Government of Manipur fell to its earlier dormancy soon after the blockade was lifted only to wake up five years later, exactly in June this year. This is the political wisdom and commitment of the State Government ? In the face of such extreme offensive strategy of prolonged economic blockade, the vulnerability of Manipur is such that it often results in serious humanitarian crisis as is being witnessed today. This is basically a consequence of relying wholly on the unreliable NH-39 while completely ignoring all other routes. Naturally, transit states enjoy the leverage to extract economic and military incentives from the dependent landlocked states. Transit states often use the transit routes of landlocked states to exert pressure for political gain. This was exactly what the Nagaland Government and the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) did in the wake of Manipur Government’s ban on entry of NSCN-IM General Secretary Thuingaleng Muivah’s visit to Manipur.
Already, Manipur vehicles passing through Nagaland have been paying huge amounts of money as tariffs and taxes, both legal and illegal without fail, the latter accounting for the lion’s share. This time, the NSF gambled the unfailing huge income with the political agenda of Naga integration. Now that the transporters have opted to stay away from Imphal-Dimapur route and that Manipur did not buckled down to the highway politics of NSF and other Naga frontal organisations is another matter. Here, it is pertinent to interrogate New Delhi’s sustained policy of keeping Manipur remote and isolated. The assumption that Manipur constitutes a buffer state or more precisely a neo-colony of India is hardened by New Delhi’s insidious policy of keeping Manipur remote as far as possible. The limited and unreliable connectivity Manipur has with the rest of India and the world through NH-39 barring air service is enough for movement of Indian armed forces. New Delhi does not care economic security of Manipur. That is why, New Delhi could not see any reason to open up and develop viable alternative routes to Manipur. The indication is glaringly clear. The existing road(s) can serve the purpose for movement of troops. There is no urgency to develop other routes.
With movement and interaction between Manipur and Myanmar, the only direct foreign neighbour, restricted to the border town of Tamu just across Moreh, and transportation to and from other Indian states limited to NH-39 which is under virtual control of the advocates of Naga lebensraum, New Delhi is literally keeping Manipur in a state of political confinement. The paradox being played by New Delhi over Manipur is that it is deadly opposed to entry of foreign nationals into Manipur while simultaneously encouraging exodus of Indian nationals to the remote state in the name of freedom of movement. Whereas the people of Manipur has been demanding implementation of the Inner Line Permit System, New Delhi has been adamantly imposing the unwanted Protected Area Permit System in Manipur.
With all foreign nationals barred from entering Manipur while connectivity to other Indian states has been limited to the blockade prone NH-39, Manipur is virtually under siege. Though located in the heart of Asiatic continent, exactly at the tri-junction of the Indian sub-continent, South Asia and South East Asia, Manipur remains most remote in the entire continent, both politically and economically. This is a gift of New Delhi to Manipur and an offshoot of the Merger Agreement. Now that the unreliability of New Delhi has been proven time and again, the onus of doing away with the artificial remoteness of Manipur lies solely with its people. It’s high time as many routes as possible are opened to the outside world to overcome the vulnerability of Manipur to highway blockades and also for economic development of this landlocked state. Let’s start with NH-53 in right earnest.
This article was posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, July 4, 2010