By Sudeep Chakravarti
Malaise de Manipur, a worrying condition of sub-continental drift, has a way of infecting things. It weakens India’s security in the North-East and attendant geopolitical imperatives, including the so-called Look East Policy. And it continues to undermine Manipur’s ethnic equity and economic development—including the promise of hydrocarbons and minerals.
Take a tiny example: Asian Highway 1. On 28 June, I attempted to travel on it from Imphal, the capital of Manipur, to Moreh, a border town 110km away at the south-eastern edge of the state and a designated hub for India’s enhanced transport, trade and tourism play with Myanmar and beyond. I didn’t get far. On that day Thadou Students’ Association, a group of the area’s dominant Kuki tribes called a 24-hour blockade of the highway in Manipur’s Chandel district, where Moreh is located. They were protesting the allegedly callous behaviour of paramilitary personnel towards six persons injured in a road accident in mid-June. An “active member” of the association had been among the injured.
A day later a so-called joint action committee of citizens called a 48-hour blockade of the same highway to protest the murder of a resident of Nungourok, a nearby village, by as yet unidentified perpetrators. And so, for 72 hours India’s key overland route to Myanmar, the conduit for thriving cross-border trade—both legitimate and grey—that feeds much of north-eastern India, remained blockaded. The police, Chandel district administration and Manipur government were either unable or unwilling to calm nerves and redress grievances.
This two-lane, poorly maintained strip is also National Highway 102 (until recently National Highway 39). Asian Highway 1 incorporates it as part of a planned seamless link between Myanmar and several other nations of South-East Asia to West Asia and Europe through north-eastern India, Bangladesh and “Mainland” India.
The highway and its hinterland have more sinister applications than micro-politics and emotions run amok. This is also a narcotic artery. In February this year, a colonel of the Indian Army and five others, including a soldier and locals, were arrested on charges of ferrying pseudoephedrine tablets of various brands valued at Rs.15-20 crore, from Imphal to Moreh. The colonel’s car sported defence ministry plates and a beacon. Two other cars in the convoy had “Army” pasted on the windshields. Police chased them down when the officer breezed past a check post flashing his credentials. One of those arrested was an Imphal-based security official with an airline.
Shipping of such drugs as couriered consignments isn’t uncommon. Pseudoephedrine, used to relieve common cold and allergies, travels from India to Myanmar. It is used to create methamphetamine stimulants, which then return to India. The interdiction of a colonel is a rarity in this regional trade that security observers and activists in the area of drug rehabilitation place at billions of rupees a year. They point to the involvement of at least a dozen rebel groups of all ethnic persuasions—Naga, Meitei, Kuki, Zomi—active in Manipur; and that of the political, bureaucratic and security establishments.
All feed off this economy of conflict. To the north and south of the Imphal-Moreh artery lie narcotic havens cradled in hilly terrain. In Ukhrul district to the north, a stronghold of Naga rebels, poppy and cannabis are grown. Poppy is a favoured crop to the south in Chandel and Churachandpur to the south-west, which like Ukhrul border Myanmar; here Kuki and Meitei rebels have sanctuary. Cannabis is largely absorbed into north-eastern India. Poppy sap is cooked into a base to manufacture heroin. It is then transported by couriers using steep mountain trails into Myanmar.
It returns as heroin, distributed using various channels, including Asian Highway 1. Here security forces live cheek by jowl with militant groups that are either actively belligerent or have suspended hostilities as part of negotiations with the government. Either way, there’s coexistence. Drugs are openly sold in Imphal.
A short walk from my hotel in the city’s North AOC area, on a stretch of Asian Highway 1 christened Indo-Myanmar road, everything from “SP” (a code for Spasmo-Proxyvon, a painkiller) to marijuana, and “No. 4” (a category of heroin) to “WY” (a mood enhancer that expands as “World is Yours”), are available. It’s near the barracks of police, paramilitaries and the army.
A modest jog away is the chief minister’s residence and the state’s administrative hub, the secretariat. I’ll be here for a while. The Thadou Students’ Association has called for a 72-hour blockade of the highway from 5 July.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s forthcoming book is Clear-Hold-Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.