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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 August 2007, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
India's 'forgotten' war
By Tanya Datta
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

UNLF rebel soldiers with guns
The UNFL is one of the largest rebel groups in the north-east

More than 15 years ago, Tombi studied advertising in Delhi. These days, he is putting his communication skills to a different use in the remote Indian state of Manipur.

At a hidden destination deep within waterlogged paddy fields and lush palm trees, Tombi (not his real name) meets me as I disembark from a small canoe. He is flanked by around 20 militants in camouflage uniforms bearing AK47s and other heavy arms, including a rocket propelled gun.

Tombi is now the publicity officer for a rebel group called the United National Liberation Front, aka the UNLF.

It's one of more than 20 separatist outfits engaged in bloody conflict with the Indian army.

India's Troubled Northeast

Manipur lies in India's north-east, in an isolated area that borders Burma. The region is connected to mainland India by a narrow 22km (13.6 mile) strip of land known colloquially as the "chicken's neck", which passes along the border with China, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

The entire region is a melting pot of hundreds of tribes and ethnicities.

It is also racked by insurgency.
Map of Manipur

Within the seven north-east states, Manipur remains one of the most violent. Officials estimate more than 8,000 have died since the conflict fully broke out in the early 1980s. Other experts say that the real figure is far higher.

Rarely reported

Study any newspaper in Manipur, and it makes for grim reading. The are constant stories of brutality, bombings and murder. Yet this long-running conflict is rarely reported in the Western media. That is in part due to restrictions by the Indian Government on visiting the state.

Back at the secret location, Tombi tells me why the UNLF, one of the largest and most powerful rebel organisations, has resorted to violence.

"We are fighting for Manipur," he says. "Sovereign, independent Manipur. You see, Manipur was never part of India."

Perception of colonisation

The historical inclusion of Manipur, a distinct kingdom for nearly 2,000 years, into the Dominion of India is hotly contested.

When the British colonial rulers left India in 1947, Manipur actually regained its independence. But just two years later, it became part of India.
If our people didn't support us, how can we survive in this area?
'Tombi', publicity officer for the United National Liberation Front

Many Manipuris claim that their king was forced to sign the controversial Merger Agreement of 1949. This allegation lies at the root of many of the rebels' grievances.

Racially, Manipuri people are also far more similar to South East Asians than to mainland Indians.

Several people told me that they often faced racial discrimination from mainland Indians.

Tombi believes that the bulk of the Manipuri population support the UNLF's struggle for independence.

"If our people didn't support us, how can we survive in this area?"

Parallel governments

But there are many ordinary Manipuris who are growing tired of the rebels' influence. Several insurgent groups increasingly issue diktats and rulings on moral and social behaviour, enforced with the threat of violence.

Bollywood films are no longer screened in the state because of their allegedly "corrupting Indian influence". Schoolgirls must wear the traditional Manipuri sarong to school.
Woman in Manipur wearing traditional sarong
A woman in Manipur wears a traditional sarong

The bloodshed is made worse by bitter rivalry between certain rebel groups, many of whom represent diverse ethnic groups or political outlooks.

Extortion is also rampant in Manipur. Most professions are forced to pay the rebels regular sums of money that are locally called 'tax'.

Caught in the middle

In recent months, chemist shops across Manipur closed down en masse after a particularly high financial demand from rebels could not be met. Their desperate actions endangered the lives of many patients reliant on medicine. Days later, they were forced to re-open at gunpoint by the police.

In the state capital of Imphal, it is impossible to miss the presence of the Indian army. On almost every corner, I notice armed soldiers on patrol, military checkpoints and armoured vehicles.

They are there to counter the threat of rebel attack.

Yet many Manipuris claim that the army is making matters worse.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act

Since 1980, the Indian military has operated across the entire state under a controversial law known as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. This act gives security forces the right to arrest people and enter property without warrant. It also allows them to shoot to kill simply on suspicion of breaking the law.
Sonia, 14, who claims her leg was broken by Indian soldiers
Sonia, 14, claims her leg was broken by Indian soldiers

Condemned by Amnesty International for facilitating grave human rights abuses, including extrajudicial execution, "disappearance", rape and torture, many believe it has given rise to a widespread culture of impunity.

Sonia is 14 years old. I met her at the surgery of her local Manipuri bonesetter in a village not far from her home.

In a weak voice, she tells me that Indian soldiers had recently visited her home looking for her uncle and the people he lived with. When she denied knowledge of their whereabouts, she alleges that she was beaten up and left with her leg broken by a rifle butt.

"I was studying on the verandah with a lamp...These people came and they threw my books...After the beating, I was unconscious."

Government response

In Delhi, I ask Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar, Minister for the Development of the Northeast, whether he thinks that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is fuelling the grievances of the people?

The minister tells me that there have been aberrations by the army, a fact which he deplores.
Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Minister for the Development of the Northeast
To suggest that the aberration is the norm is to present a completely distorted picture
Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar, Minister for the Development of the North-east

"But to suggest that the aberration is the norm is to present a completely distorted picture," he says.

"Please remember that the bulk of the violence is being inflicted by these insurgents - unelected, fascist - who have converted insurgency into a livelihood."

The desire of the Indian Government to invest in the north-east is increasingly evident. All state departments, the minister tells me, must spend 10% of their budgets on the development of the region.

This reflects a growing recognition of the strategic importance of the region as a bridge for connecting the subcontinent with the East and South East Asia.

Boosting overland trade could have huge economic benefits for Manipur.

Perhaps all the more reason why, addressing the endemic violence blighting the state is essential.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents is broadcast on Thursday, 9 August 2007 at 1102 BST and repeated on Monday, 13 August 2007 at 2030 BST.

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