Fear shrouds election race in Manipur, India's dark jewel

By @ibtimes on

Thrown face down in an open drain by a grenade blast, Maisnam Ratan's bloodied corpse was the latest reminder of the lingering insurgency in India's isolated, far-eastern state of Manipur, which elects a state legislature on Saturday.

Manipur, which neighbours Myanmar, is called the Jewel of India for its paddy fields, lakes and green hills. But it has been plagued for decades by a low-intensity war, blamed by authorities on rebels sheltering in Myanmar as well as a stream of drugs and guns seeping through the porous border.

At night, the run-down capital, Imphal, is often lit only by candles and burning garbage because of a chronic electricity shortage. Fearful of threats by rebels who see India as a colonial power, cinemas do not show Bollywood movies and cable television blocks out programmes in Hindi, the country's most widely spoken language.

Ratan was visiting the house of a senior politician from the ruling Congress party on Sunday when the blast went off. It was a relatively small explosion, but tore open his leg and ripped chunks from a wall where long ago somebody had neatly written: We want peace and harmony.

Neither seems likely in the near future.

Manipur has the highest rates of HIV and drug addiction in the country and young people are migrating in droves.

India's policy-makers are loath to loosen the emergency shoot-to-kill powers imposed in 1958 in Manipur and other northeastern states for fear of giving oxygen to rebel movements in a region that also borders Bangladesh and China.

Perhaps for the same reason, and despite a drop-off in violence that has killed 3,000 in a decade, India has dallied on plans to turn Manipur into a serious trading corridor with Southeast Asia and Myanmar, which is shaking off decades of isolation and welcoming new investment.

Manipur has a direct road link through winding hills with the town of Tamu in Myanmar. It was along this road that Japanese forces attacked India in World War Two before being turned back in battles around Imphal.

The Myanmar army has recently launched offensives against Indian rebel camps on its territory, but several groups are still believed to shelter in the hilly terrain there.

FIRST CASUALTY

Ratan was the first casualty in the build-up to Manipur's state elections, a campaign that has been overshadowed by daily grenade blasts and gunfire as the coalition of rebels targets the ruling Congress party.

This is not going to undermine the democratic process, peoples' hearts cannot be intimidated by these kind of acts, said visibly shaken Congress candidate Irengbam Hemochandra, minutes after the attack last week. It was his home that was targeted.

Despite the brave words, Manipur's election campaign has been subdued, with only a few, heavily guarded rallies. Police in military-style uniforms armed with automatic rifles line highways and man sandbag barricades outside candidates' homes.

Congress is expected to retain office, thanks to a tradition of Manipur being ruled by the same party that runs the central government, which has a strong hand due to the massive security presence.

One politician visiting from another state, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, said she was shocked by what she saw.

It's like a battlefield, I don't like that, she told Reuters after meeting Irom Sharmila, a woman who has been on a hunger strike for more than ten years to demand an end to the emergency powers. Sharmila is in police custody and is force fed through a nasal tube.

Security forces prowl the streets of Imphal after nightfall, stopping and searching the few vehicles that venture into the gloom. But no trace has been found of two suspects seen slipping away after Sunday's blast.

Close to 30,000 reinforcements have arrived from across India to beef up security at polling stations, doubling the size of the police force in a nerve-wracking operation for Manipur's new police chief Ratnakar Baral, in charge of their welfare.

Send in local police first in civilian clothes to see that there is not any ambush and they get killed, the police chief ordered a subordinate by telephone from his office on Tuesday. They are new to Manipur's situation, he explained. They need to be educated about it and move very carefully.

He has good reason to worry. In the last state election in 2007, 16 uniformed men were killed in a grenade and gunfire attack on their truck.

'DARK FUTURE'

Manipur's security woes, its potholed roads and irregular power supply do not encourage investment in the state, fuelling unemployment that is close to 25 percent.

Last year, protesters calling for more power for the Naga tribe blocked highways into the landlocked state for nearly three months, causing fuel and food scarcity and soaring prices.

As an economist I see a very dark future. The central government has failed to invest in infrastructure, said N. Mohindro, an expert on trade in the state.

Although economic growth has been strong in recent years, the wealth is not felt on the streets and Manipur remains one of India's poorest states. Educated young people are leaving to study in India's main cities and abroad and are not returning.

We understand. Why would they come back? There is no electricity, no restaurants, no picture houses even, said one businessman in the city, whose children are all living in India's tech capital, Bangalore. He is thinking of joining them.

Many of those that stay are drawn into drugs -- Manipur is a major transit route for Golden Triangle-produced heroin, smuggled from Myanmar on its way to international markets.

My problem is my children and my wife. I don't know about Manipur's problems, said Thangchin Lian, 32, an alcoholic and sometimes heroin user from the Paite tribe who recently discovered he and his pregnant wife have HIV. Their two year-old boy is not infected.

Speaking in their neat wood and bamboo stilt house on the edge of Churanchandpur, an hour's drive from Imphal, pregnant Niangbai Lian said many of their friends were also infected but struck an optimistic note.

I love Manipur, said Lian, who is taking anti-retrovirals for her illness and hopes to join the state's large police force after her baby is born.

I was born here and there is hope for the young, as long as they struggle and work.

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)

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