It was on July 8 that the world of the Sapam family shattered completely. On the southern side of Imphal river, amid a line of neat houses with wide courtyards, lies the Sapam household. Here, 48-year-old Romesh Singh Sapam and his wife Sapam Ongbi R K Babita sit in funereal clothes — he in a white dhoti and shawl, she in a peach phanek (sarong) and white chadar. “Robin Hood has always been one of my favourite characters, a hero. So when my older son was born, I knew what I wanted to call him. I wanted him to become as famous as Robin Hood,’’ says Sapam.
Seventeen-year-old Robinhood Sapam has become famous — but at the greatest price to his family. On July 8, he was hit by an exploding teargas shell on his left cheek. He was among the hundreds of class XI and XII children from schools across the Valley who had taken to the streets, joining protesters who were demanding the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) in the state. He was rushed to a polyclinic nearby and was declared brought dead.
For about a week before July 8, Imphal Valley had been simmering — the protesters had been demanding the withdrawal of the Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill passed by the Assembly in March, and its replacement with an ILP Bill, which, they hoped, would deter migrants from entering the state. With the atmosphere already charged, Robin’s death whipped up sentiments to a dangerous high. Men, women and children took to the streets, shouting slogans and pelting stones. The authorities reacted with a curfew, a lockdown from which the capital city hasn’t yet recovered.
For close to a month now, Imphal has worn a weary, empty look. The week-long total curfew that began on July 8 gave way to a partial curfew and to the existing night curfew from 8 pm to 5 am. But the days have been marked by bandhs and agitations, announced abruptly by various groups. Some of these are highly localised protests, so when one part of the city is open, another could be paralysed. Word of impending bandhs usually spreads fast, through a local network of traders, residents and colony guards, and so, everyone simply sits and waits out the bandh.
For days and nights, the boom of tear gas shells and the even louder stun bombs have pierced the Imphal air. Shops open tentatively in the morning, only to be hurriedly shut down as protesters spill on to the streets outside. With tempers running high, nobody takes chances. Women representing the Meira Paibis, or the mothers of Manipur, have to only walk down the streets for panic-stricken shopkeepers to hurriedly down their shutters. On Wednesday, protesters announced a 36-hr general strike, entirely shutting down the capital.
In Manipur, there are bandhs and blockades almost every month, sometimes several in a week. No issue is too insignificant for a bandh — autonomy for Nagas, regularisation of ad hoc teachers, tribal issues, implementation of mid-day meals, and now, ILP.
In August 2011, Manipur was cut off for 92 days when Kukis seeking a separate district blocked the two national highways that led to the state, NH 39 and 53. There have been many other blockades, such as when NSCN(IM) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah attempted to visit his village in Ukhrul in 2010; when a Meitei official, Thingnam Kishen, was abducted and killed in 2009, allegedly by the NSCN(IM); over the rape and killing of Manorama in 2004; and when Momoko, a Meitei actress, was molested during a performance in a hill district, allegedly by a functionary of the NSCN(IM).
Residents say the ongoing ILP protests and the bandhs have been among the most intense, comparable to these “big ones” of the past. And so, like always, they knew what had to be done — stock up, scrimp and save, everything from food to medicines.
A day after Robinhood died, Joanna Maram, 46, had to shut her boarding school, the D. Regina English High School, in Chingmeiron, a colony in the capital. But the boarders are still here, unable to leave for their homes. “When we heard about the curfew, we had to run to the market to quickly stock up on food. But our supplies have been running out, especially in the hostel we run. There are some 25 boarders and a warden there and they need to be fed. We’ve been rationing the food. First, we cut down on eggs, then chicken and fish. There wasn’t even enough vegetables and whatever little we got was near rotten,’’ she says.
Health services have been hit too. A senior official in one of Imphal’s biggest hospitals says doctors and nurses have frequently been harassed by protesters. “It’s been very difficult for them to report to work. There are fewer patients too. Only the urgent cases are brought here. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to these bandhs,” he says. But there have been surprises too: “We have received a couple of cases of surgery from people who seem to have decided to make good use of this forced holiday,’’ he says.
Since protesters see the ILP as the most effective way “to keep out migrants”, it’s not easy being one in Imphal. There are about four lakh Mayangs (outsiders) in Imphal.
In the colony of Telepati in Imphal East, a Bihari family had to flee after their home was allegedly stoned and ransacked on Tuesday. Neighbours say the woman of the household had visited a tea shop and had apparently been derisive about the ILP movement. “We believe she said the Mayangs (outsiders) run most businesses and that Manipuris buy from these shops,’’ says a colony resident who doesn’t want to be named. Word spread. The neighbourhood supporters of the movement got to know of the woman’s remarks, the neighbours say, and all hell broke loose. A police van sped into the colony and rescued the family. Unable to lay their hands on the family, the mob allegedly proceeded to ransack their house. The family has not returned.
Their neighbours, all Mayangs, are too scared to talk about the incident. “Hum to andar the, hume to kuch nahi pata (We were inside, we don’t know anything). When they started setting fire to the house, we shut ourselves in,’’ says a young girl before being called in by her worried father, the door slamming behind them.
Non-Manipuri businessmen are already counting their losses. Mukesh Sharma, who owns a transportation business in Imphal’s bustling Thangal Bazaar area, says he has lost business worth crores. “There have been instances of protesters entering colonies and pelting stones at homes without any provocation. A week ago, a few push carts were set ablaze. Even though this is a high-security area, the police haven’t been able to do anything about these attacks. The government seems either uninterested or ineffective. We haven’t been able to step out of the bazaar area even for work. We haven’t been able to offload the goods that have arrived and many of these are perishable,’’ says Sharma.
Businesses of local Manipuris too have been hit. With shops having to remain closed, few have been able to sell their wares. And when they open, they shut just as soon because they run out of goods. Essential commodities such as bread, milk, eggs and other perishable goods have either not been available or intermittently so.
Big businesses have suffered too. Dhabali, who runs the Classic chain of hotels in Imphal, says the losses have been big. “Only 20 of 70 rooms in our Classic Hotel are occupied and 7 of 20 in Imphal Hotel. We have had to shut down our Classic Grande (Imphal’s only four-star hotel) because of zero occupancy in our 170 rooms. These are hotels that are usually all occupied round the year. Our revenue has been hit by 70 per cent just in the last one month,’’ he says.
Security analysts in Manipur told The Sunday Express that according to intelligence inputs, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), a banned militant group, was behind the ILP agitation. According to one of the analysts, in a July 21 communication by UNLF chairman Kh. Pambei to another senior leader of the outfit, he expressed concern that the protests were waning. Pambei had apparently suggested that action must be taken to “intensify public outrage”.
Outside the Sapam home, a makeshift office of the Robinhood Joint Action Committee (JAC), a voluntary group that’s rallying behind the family, has been set up. A volunteer nails a sign that says ‘Office’ onto a wooden beam. Sitting on a plastic chair, JAC member MB Singh says they will continue their agitation till ILP is implemented.
“We will finish our two-day general strike in the evening today and then have a meeting to chalk out the future course of action. Nothing less than the ILP will do for us. This government is irresponsible, useless, doesn’t care about its people. Our deadline to implement ILP is August 15. But we will continue our agitation nevertheless. If there is any let up, the government won’t take the demand seriously. It may take a month of agitation, even a year… we are prepared,’’ says Singh.
Grounded in Manipur
Protesters led by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS) have been demanding the introduction of a Bill in the Assembly to implement the Inner Line Permit (ILP), a special permit for outsiders entering the state, on the lines on what’s in place in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. Earlier, to placate the protesters, the Manipur government introduced the Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers’ Bill, which made it mandatory for non-Manipuris to register themselves with the government. But it didn’t cut much ice with the protesters and was withdrawn on July 15. CM Okram Ibobi Singh promised to introduce the ILP Bill within three months – which once again didn’t satisfy the hardliners.
‘Checking’ migrant population and prohibiting non-Manipuris from acquiring land in the area form the core of the JCILP protests. The protesters claim that foreigners from Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar have been entering the state freely, settling down and buying property in the Valley. They are also opposed to the proposed rail link to Manipur, which, they fear, would increase influx of migrants. In fact, they wanted an amendment to the Manipur Land Revenue and Reforms Act, 1960, to restrict the transfer or sale of land to non-residents — on the lines of the Himachal Pradesh Tenancy and Land Reforms Act, 1972. But this was not incorporated in the Bill.
On July 8, 17-year-old student and pro-ILP protester Sapam Robinhood was killed as police used teargas to disperse the protesters. Following the incident, protests against the state government escalated. The government has ordered a judicial probe into Robinhood’s death, but the protests continue.
Before the Anglo-Manipur war of 1891, non-Manipuris needed permission from the cabinet of the independent kingdom of Manipur to enter and exit the territories of the King. The British introduced the ILP to protect their commercial interests, particularly in oil and tea, which remained in force until 1950. Later, the Commissioner of Assam, in whose jurisdiction Manipur fell, revoked it in the areas that went on to become, in 1972, the state of Manipur. The first demand for restoration of the ILP was made in Parliament in 1980.
Sources in the Manipur government say the onus for bringing in the ILP lies completely with the Centre. Since Article (19)(1) (d) & (e) in the Constitution allows freedom of movement within the Indian state, only a constitutional amendment, which falls under the Centre’s purview, can restrict entry of non-Manipuris. They also suspect that protests are not just about an ILP, and are, in fact, being fuelled by defeated political candidates to destabilise the present government.