The outrage over the tragic Ukhrul incident in which two young men died in police firing on Sunday was understandably expected not to vanish overnight. Sure enough, the United Naga Council, UNC, at whose rally the fatal fracas erupted, has called a blockade of all State and National highways which pass through Naga areas, although under the different name of ban on vehicular traffic. And as has become wont of habitual blockade callers in the State, this one too is going to be indefinite. Manipur must once again brace up for another spell of lean times, in particular of commodities not available in the State, the most prominently visible of which will once again become evident sooner than later, is gasoline. Thankfully, the most essential of essential commodities, that of rice, is grown everywhere in the State, most abundantly in the valley. The blockade therefore will translate into extreme inconveniences for the larger public, but little or no starvation. Had the latter been the case, the eruption of anger and the violence which it would probably have come with, is frightening to imagine. But it is a foregone conclusion that once again nerves will be under severe test, and if schools and colleges, hospitals and dispensaries, begin to shut because the transport systems have dripped dry of fuel, that would be when the danger of nerves snapping become the threat.
It was criminal for the trigger happy Manipur police to use live bullets in crowd control, and the outrage over the death of the two young men is perfectly legitimate, and as the outpour of condemnations is testimony, this outrage is universal. This anger would even have seen a highway blockade or bandh as justified, and probably everybody in the State, regardless of community or religion would have wholeheartedly supported it. Bandhs and blockades happen all the time in Manipur as its people so well know. But when this blockade is indefinite, it acquires a different visage. In international law, this is an act of war, and here too, in the worst case scenario, it can cause civil wars. Let the blockade protest therefore be conditional and time bound, and rest assured, the blockade callers will have the solidarity of everybody in the state.
In a way, these are litmus tests for those who still stubbornly cling on to past ideas of sovereignty. These are times of cooperation and interdependence and not one of isolation and segregation. Centuries ago, when the population was small, and needs, aspirations and expectations of the people were limited, Manipur’s then economy was adequate to meet these collective dreams and therefore it could afford to live in splendid isolation as it did for most of the time then. Today, this is hardly the condition. A month of blockade can shake up the entire state and put it on the boil as we have seen so many times in the past one decade or so. The definition of sovereignty too has metamorphosed in the meantime. National boundaries continue to become ever the more soft, and in some cases have virtually disappeared, as in the case of many European countries under a single visa regime. The only times these boundaries actually and tangibly show up are in the sporting arenas, and in the case of Europe, football fields. It is time therefore for not just Manipur, but the entire Northeast region to reimagine itself, and in the process, make the necessary efforts to reinvent itself too. Time and tide wait for no man, and the region cannot afford to miss the bus. A crucial decision on this can make or mar its collective future for generations, or maybe forever too. Histories of societies which have crumbled or survived, literature on which is not altogether scarce today, should be the lessons and examples, as it were, for its people to take the cue for their own crucial decisions for the future.
In the meantime, let the Manipur government gather itself and do everything in the cause of justice. Institute a judicial enquiry into the incident. Besides eye witness reports, there are also plenty of video footages available, as is evident on social media and local TV channels. Use these among others to reconstruct what happened and let no guilty person be spared retribution under the law. Let it also explain why it felt it was necessary to clamp prohibitory orders in Ukhrul under CrPC Section 144 for so long, a move which was so sorely resented by the general population of Ukhrul. Was this order on the suggestion of the local administration which knows the ground situation best, or was it superimposed from Imphal. Had this ban order been relaxed on the faithful day and the UNC rally allowed unhindered, as in other Naga majority districts, perhaps the tragedy could have been avoided.
On a lighter note, to draw the most optimistic conclusion, let everybody bring out their bicycles and make them road worthy in preparation for the days ahead without gasoline. This mode of transport will ensure daily physical exercise, save environmental pollution and more immediately, ease the traffic congestion on our roads. Alas, would it not have been such a boon at these trying times to have had a cooking gas bottling plant somewhere near, as was once the plan.
Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam