Civil Disobedience Increases in Northeast India

IMPHAL (Manipur) – As turmoil rages in India’s troubled northeastern state of Manipur, with most government offices shutting down Monday, and employees boycotting work to support a public rebellion against a federal law giving the army unlimited powers, experts fear the unrest could fuel insurgency in the region.

Manipur’s additional police chief C. Peter admits functioning in most government offices is disrupted, with little or no attendance of employees. Remarks a police official, "In many areas we have reports of protesters preventing officegoers from leaving their homes for duty."

Monday’s protest is part of an ongoing campaign launched by 32 rights groups and women organizations demanding withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act enforced in the state since 1980. The Act gives security forces exclusive powers to arrest anybody without a warrant, although rights groups accuse the armed forces of committing excesses on civilians in the name of curbing insurgency.

The response is indeed overwhelming, with an estimated 80 percent of the 90,000 government employees abstaining from their work, says rights leader, Jagat Thoudam.

Manipur’s public transport associations have also joined the indefinite "civil disobedience movement" that began Monday.

"All public transport, including buses and three-wheelers, remained off the road, while many shops and other businesses downed their shutters to express their solidarity with us," says S. Tompok, a leader of one of the agitating groups.

More than a thousand protesters took to the streets in the western Churachandpur district in Manipur Monday. Warns women rights leader Taruna Devi, "There would be more protests, and we are ready to shed blood until New Delhi agrees to concede to our demands."

Since July 14, many parts of Manipur have remained under curfew with police firing rubber bullets and bursting teargas canisters to disperse violent mobs protesting the Act.

The immediate provocation for the violence and protests was the July 11 alleged killing in custody of a 32-year-old woman, Thangjam Manorama, by paramilitary soldiers in Manipur’s capital Imphal.

India’s federal home minister Shivraj Patil told journalists in New Delhi that the law was "required in Manipur till normalcy returns."

The home minister’s statement has further angered the agitators.

Thunders rights leader Jagat Thoudam, "There would be more trouble in Manipur with New Delhi failing to respect the sentiments of the locals."

With New Delhi rejecting the demand for the Act’s withdrawal and pressure groups bent on intensifying the uprising, observers fear the movement will be hijacked by some of the rebel armies active in the state.

Manipur is one of the states worst-hit by militancy in the northeast, with at least 19 outlawed rebel armies operating with demands ranging from secession to greater autonomy and the right to self-determination.

More than 10,000 people have lost their lives to insurgency in Manipur during the past two decades.

Says irate women’s rights campaigner M. Devi, "By refusing to concede to popular demands, New Delhi is pushing Manipur to a point of no return. People in the long run would be forced to raise demands for secession from India."

As she adds, "New Delhi is not even prepared to listen to our woes, then what is the point in Manipur being a part of India?"

Manipur’s main opposition political parties have publicly announced their support to popular demands for the Act’s withdrawal, with three former chief ministers courting arrest and displaying placards reading, "We are with the people."

Experts are concerned that as the protests turn violent, and public anger against the federal government’s attitude gains steam, it could further boost insurgency in the region.

Cautions Imphal political analyst Pradip Phanjoubam, "Growing sense of alienation would only breed insurgency, and that is not a good sign."

Agrees analyst Wasbir Hussain, "The fact that thousands of people are taking to the streets demanding withdrawal of a legislation which was imposed to curb militancy is in itself a major victory for the rebels."

But he warns that the growing anti-Indian sentiments brewing in Manipur could trigger an escalation of the already volatile insurgency in the region in the days ahead.

Experts add that the Act has failed to yield desired results despite being enforced in 1980, with insurgency continuing to thrive in Manipur and more than 10,000 people killed since the past two decades.

Remarks Hussain, "Incidents like custody deaths have made the people revolt against the Indian government’s legislation."

Manipur rights groups are planning to take up the issue with the London-based Amnesty International and also raise the matter in other platforms worldwide.

Although militant groups in Manipur have not joined the protests as yet, observers are worried they could now launch attacks on federal troops taking advantage of the volatile situation.

The rebels are very influential in the region. From ordering students to wear traditional sarongs to calling for a ban on Indian movies, their writ runs over much in Manipur.