By Debabrata Roy Laifungbam
A dear friend asked me today to write a couple of random words about the present “economic blockade” situation in Manipur. But what I wrote turned out a mouthful, and a position.
There is nothing new about the concept or imposition of an “economic blockade” in world history. It is a military weapon used for political ends. A blockade is an effort to cut off food, supplies, war material or communications from a particular area by force, either in part or totally. The Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip has been continuing since 2001, receiving the world’s attention as a continuing crisis. A blockade is defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as “an act of war”. Countries have blockaded each other during wars and during peaceful times. The US blockade of Cuba is an example of the use of economic blockade during peaceful times. Tens of thousands of Biafrans starved to death during the war of independence through the policy of the Nigerian generals supported by the British government. Economic blockades aim for the ultimate starvation of a population. The policy of starvation was most effectively used by the British government during World War I against Germany, and this policy was pursued
whether or not it was legal. It was one of the forgotten war atrocities of the twentieth century.
The effects of a prolonged application of a starvation policy on a population are deep and long lasting. If the blockade is effectively carried out, and this is a difficult exercise because there will always be “blockade runners”, the impact will slowly emerge in the form of slow starvation. Essential commodities, most commonly food, will become increasingly scarce and black markets will thrive. A legitimate economic activity such as trade in essential commodities becomes criminalized. Salaries paid to employees based on the price of essential commodities in the national markets transform into a cynical farce. What modicum of civility and moral ground could be sustained by the civilians under such an atrocity? I ponder upon these aspects of a society gradually bereft of any decency, and what such a prolonged imposition of a policy of starvation and deprivation would mean for the young.
The question of vulnerability will then arise. Children and women, the old and differently abled will be affected first. The frightening question is that the young who suffered from an externally imposed distant starvation policy always remembers. The memory of starvation and deprivation does not get erased; it persists into adulthood…into our future!
A prolonged use of starvation policy for political ends will leave a profound scar in the psyche of our young generations. There are the possible indirect and much more damaging effects to consider. In Manipur, it is the young and youth who are asking the real questions…questions that neither the government of Manipur nor the belligerents can answer to their satisfaction. In Germany, the 1915-1919 British policy of starvation has been said to have led to the rise of Nazism, and also engendered a deep ethno-hatred among the German youth. The miseries and suffering from deprivation and hunger in the early, formative years help account to some degree for the enthusiasm of German youth for Nazism later on.
How does one view the almost continuous “blockade” in Manipur enforced by certain organisations? This unacceptable and inhuman situation has been imposed in Manipur annually for some years now, like a yearly feast to the some despairing saint. The so called “economic blockade” in Manipur is used by certain belligerent groups to impose their political agendas on a larger collective…in this case, both their own claimed constituency and a State as a proxy, but specifically targeting certain ethnics. On the surface of it, the organisations all belong to the same people of Manipur, however way they would like to define themselves as a matter of contingency. The “blockade”, unlike international blockades, is confined to the National Highways. There is the question of the legality and morality of such an action as a form of peaceful democratic action or protest.
In the larger picture, the national highways have historically also been a target for robbery, mugging, extortion, call it what one may. Highway robbery is a well recognised crime that targets travelers using the public roads. The romance of the “highwayman” is etched in human history by song and poetry. The subject has been the very stuff of literature. A highwayman was a thief and brigand who preyed on travelers; he was an outlaw or bandit. Generally the term “highway robbery” refers to a payment you have no choice but to make there and then (i.e. no bargaining, just a total handover of all that you have). The punishment for robbery with violence was by hanging in the Elizabethan era; as it was considered a capital crime.
The public national highways to Manipur have been, for decades, the focus of targeted robbery in many forms. The highways run through many villages and lands inhabited by peoples of different ethnicity. There have been innumerable incidents of violence and fatalities on these roads. Policing of these highways is most inadequate, and travelers have long taken to these insecure roads in fear. Traffic of people and goods on these important roads are frequently disrupted by organisations and groups. These disruptions became a way of life for all of us. It is in this criminal context too that the use of blockades, often violently imposed, must be considered. Highway robbery or extortion has long been tolerated in our region; there has been no attempt to treat this as a capital crime and to deal with it effectively. Violent disruptions of the highways became a normalized activity with no effective policing. Enter the ethnic identity politics in Manipur and the region, and we have the scenario.
Is the “economic blockade” a correct term to use in the context of the situation in Manipur? To me, it is neither a blockade, nor a siege, nor an economic sanction. It is a “closure”, much like the weapon used by the Israeli government against the civilians of the Gaza Strip. The “closure” of the narrow Imphal Plateau (or Imphal Valley) of Manipur imposed by certain ethnically based organisations is illegal in every respect because it seeks to impose collective punishment on civilians for acts they did not commit and for political circumstances beyond their control. It, the closure, is in violation of international law as well as Indian laws. The closure inflicts harm to the civilian population and civilian institutions by blocking the passage of goods necessary for health, well-being, and economic life. The closure infringes on the right to freedom of movement and thereby violates other rights for which freedom of movement is a precondition, such as the right to health, to education, to family life, and to access economic opportunities.
The terminology used to describe the closure of the Imphal Plateau area of Manipur should be examined carefully. The present closure since August is not the first. Certain ethnic organisations based in some outlying districts are able to superimpose their agenda and writ by “cabinet” decisions to severely restrict the passage of people and goods into and out of Imphal Plateau because of their continued unlawful control over the land crossings used by the people inhabiting the valley. The majority of the inhabitants of the valley are ethnic Meitei, though there are numbers of other ethnicities and communities too including Rongmei, Tangkhul, Kuki or Thadou, Kom, Nepali, Bihari, Punjabi, Marwari, Pangal (or Mohammedans) and so forth. The maintenance of such a control over the land crossings of the people of Imphal Plateau also determines certain clear obligations to the residents under international law and the laws of India, obligations that are violated by the imposition of severe restrictions to the freedom of movement. The restrictions imposed on freedom of movement in and out of Imphal Plateau constitute a closure aimed at civilians undertaken for purposes of collective punishment – and therefore illegal. Such “cabinet” decisions by organisations that claim to represent larger multi-ethnic collectives should be widely condemned by national and international humanitarian and human rights organisations.
The stated purpose of the closure – as well as the circumstances in which it is imposed – indicate that it is designed to apply pressure on Imphal Plateau’s civilian population in order to influence the behaviour of recalcitrant government – effectively penalizing civilian protected persons for the actions of the state seen as opposing the interests or aspirations of certain groups. A “siege” is commonly defined as the act of surrounding a particular area in order to induce surrender. Throughout history, as far back as the Old Testament, the goal of siege has been capitulation. During the Nuremberg Trials, the International Military Tribunal stated that, in war, it is only lawful to lay siege to enemy territory when the goal is to cause the territory’s surrender. The restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Imphal Valley are not a siege because they do not have a concrete military objective of inducing capitulation or surrender.
A blockade is similar to a siege, in that it is intended to deprive a military adversary of needed supplies in a time of conflict. “Supplies” in this case are narrowly defined to include only “supplies needed to conduct hostilities”. A blockade, like a siege, must also have the goal of compelling surrender, including by preventing the adversarial force from receiving weapons that will enhance its combat ability. The present actions in Manipur cannot be considered a blockade. First, as described above, the goal is not for Imphal to surrender to some military power. Second, the restriction is on a variety of goods, not weapons, and has even limited the quantity and kind of humanitarian goods it will permit to enter Imphal Plateau or Valley, the belligerents arguing that they need not permit the passage of even humanitarian goods beyond an undefined “humanitarian minimum”. This is not a limited action blocking military supplies until a conflict ends. It is a deliberate decision to restrict the supply of a broad range of civilian goods, most of which have absolutely no military use or potential for military use. No, it is not a blockade.
The present situation is not a “sanction” or part of an “economic warfare”. A sanction is commonly understood as a group of nations coming together and agreeing to withhold trade or impose other restrictive economic measures on a state or state-like entity in order to achieve a defined goal. Today, only the UN Security Council or a multi-country regional organisation can legitimately impose a sanction. The belligerent organisations are effectively trying to prevent other States of India or another country from “trading” with the Imphal Valley. This illegally forces every State in India to be bound by the restrictions that the belligerent organisations have unilaterally imposed on the Imphal Valley. The key to their ability to prevent others from trading with the Imphal Valley is their unharnessed illegitimate control over the land crossings of the civilians of the Imphal Valley.
In other words, the belligerent organisations are behaving as if they are “occupying” parts of the territory of Manipur, more specifically the Imphal Plateau or Valley. Like how the Israel is illegally and forcibly occupying Palestinian homelands.
The decisions for closure however seek to directly link it to political grievances against a government and peaceful democratic protest. However, this is merely eye-wash. If I had to call a spade a spade, then the closure is linked to the underlying unresolved issue of territorial sovereignty. To put it more bluntly, it is an open tournament for land and territory. This is an old issue that has not been satisfactorily or honourably resolved. The contest has multiple players and overlapping entitlements. The two major belligerent groups involved have non-state armed entities that represent their interests which have entered into protracted political negotiations with the government of India after executing a cessation of armed confrontation. Frustrations build up. And the pressure points give in. New decompression points need to be created otherwise the groups will implode under external pressures. Alternate arrangements are, after all, only arrangements that will involve everyone concerned to re-arrange themselves. The Manipur closure must be defined also within the on-going situation of armed conflicts within the State of Manipur, within which the conditions of ceasefires, suspension of operations, and unending talks all lie. Finally, who really calls the shots? Who really ultimately benefits from this concerted mayhem?
Civilians must not be used as pawns to achieve military or political goals. The seeds of hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia have been sown in Manipur. When the seeds burst and flourish, every one of us with a conscience will be buried, shrouded in our self-emasculation and shame. In Manipur, living on the hill or valley or whatever, we are all Neros, fiddling away our chances, and our future.