Manipur's Small Steps Towards Peace, Normalcy Start With Safe Highways

Two key highways in violence-hit Manipur connecting the state capital Imphal with Mao on the north and Churachandpur on the south have been opened to commuters and commercial traffic under heavy security cover.

Manipur's Small Steps Towards Peace, Normalcy Start With Safe Highways

Two key highways in violence-hit Manipur connecting the state capital Imphal with Mao on the north and Churachandpur on the south have been opened to commuters and commercial traffic under heavy security cover.

The two highways - the lifelines of the state bordering Myanmar - pass through both hill and valley areas that saw ethnic clashes between the hill-majority Kuki tribes and the valley-majority Meiteis in the past few months.

The move to fully secure the highways during the Christmas season is being seen as a big step towards restoring peace in the state where over 180 people have died and thousands have been internally displaced since violence began on May 3.

Local reports say the buses that went towards Mao did not have many passengers, while the vehicles that went to Churachandpur were mostly empty. Visuals of the highways show a handful of two-wheelers and cars running, with security foot patrols supported by armoured SUVs on the flanks.

Sources told NDTV it was expected that in the initial days, many people would not turn up, especially after Kuki civil society groups opposed the move to open the highways. What is inexplicable is the shutdown of the districts by pressure groups when the authorities have ensured safe commute, sources said, adding they have come across hundreds of people who fled their burning homes and want to return to rebuild their lives.

A senior police officer who is posted in Bishnupur district, between Imphal and Churachandpur, told NDTV on Friday there are many common people in all the communities who want to see normalcy, who have been threatened into silence and prevented by groups from restarting commercial activity during festivals.

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The Kuki group Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF) has called for sealing the entire Churachandpur district, 65 km from Imphal, which would block the state government from posting more forces and opening the routes, citing concerns over possible disruption during the Christmas season.

Another Kuki group has said it will continue its "economic blockade" of the Kangpokpi stretch, 45 km from Imphal, though several vehicles ran today amid heavy security.

The Kuki groups' move to shut down the districts stem from their allegations that the Manipur Police functioned with bias in how they operated amid the violence. The Manipur government's attempt to send police personnel in the hill districts where the Kuki tribes are settled had also faced strong resistance, especially in the border town Moreh near Myanmar, Churachandpur, and Kangpokpi.

"No group can stop people from going or leaving any district unless enforced by the law. We will look into this," the police officer told NDTV on Friday, requesting anonymity.

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The ITLF's call to seal Churachandpur and stop the government from allowing free movement on the highways has added to tensions on the ground just days before Christmas. Manipur has already seen a "dark Diwali" and the gloomiest Ningol Chakouba, which the Meitei community celebrates after Diwali, and is similar to Bhai Dooj except that in Manipur it is the brothers who welcome their sisters from their matrimonial homes for a grand feast.

The Supreme Court on November 29 specifically pointed out the role of some civil society groups in keeping tensions in Manipur simmering, during a hearing on burying bodies kept in morgues. Ordering the petitioners to bury the dead respectfully in designated sites instead of government land, the Supreme Court had said the petition appeared like an "idea only to keep the pot boiling."

The extra security forces deployed for highway security are led by Indian Police Service (IPS) officers Nishit Kumar Ujjwal and K Kabib.