Imphal: In the fast-enveloping dusk, ill-omened by the light rain and the menacing cloud cover high up in the hills, the people getting off the bus seem like apparitions.

There are other ghostly silhouettes too in the scene—heavily armed security forces, tense and watchful. The bus is stuck in the middle of nowhere, caught in a landslide that has shut National Highway (NH) 53, the long, winding, hazardous, alternative route into Manipur in India’s north-east.

The bus passengers can’t avoid wading through the knee-deep mud that’s been carried down by the landslide. A thin mountain stream allows them to wash their feet, and then they settle down to wait.

Bare essentials: For Dr K.H. Palin (left), chairman and managing director of Imphal’s Shija Hospital, the fear of running out of life-saving medicines and oxygen is a very real one. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

By Monday, it appeared the Union government had gathered the resolve to force an end to the blockade, having decided to send 16 companies of paramilitary forces to Manipur and six to Nagaland. The forces will be mobilized on Tuesday, according to a Union home ministry official who did not want to be named. The chief secretaries of both Nagaland and Manipur have also been summoned to Delhi to meet Union home secretary G.K. Pillai on Wednesday.

Truck and bus drivers in Manipur have said, though, that they won’t take NH39 even if the blockade is lifted, unless they are given a commitment from the Nagaland government and police that steps are taken to stop the extortion by militant groups that takes place along the highway in Nagaland.

Back on the road that’s been rendered impassable, the gathering murk signals that this is going to be a long night. Even if the road is cleared, the earliest they can hope to reach Imphal is by daybreak.

The people on the bus are a mixed bunch, belonging to both the Naga and Meitei ethnic communities that are engaged in a politically charged, violence-ridden conflict. The trigger for this current confrontation is twofold: elections to the autonomous district council (ADC) in Manipur’s hilly tribal districts and a ban on a proposed visit by Naga separatist leader T. Muivah to his birthplace in the state.

Click here to view a slideshow of images of life in Manipur behind the blockade

Incensed by the Manipur government’s persistence over holding the ADC polls and blocking Muivah’s entry, Naga organizations have retaliated by blocking NH39, which runs through Nagaland and is Manipur’s economic lifeline.

Since 12 April, when the blockade began, Manipur has been crippled by shortages—prices of commodities such as petroleum and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) have doubled and tripled (Rs140 for a litre of petrol in the black market, Rs1,500 for a rarely available LPG cylinder); the stock of oxygen and life-saving medicines at hospitals is at an all-time low; public transport is sparse and expensive when it runs. It is nearly impossible to travel out of the state by road because of the blockade. Two months on, Manipur is an island without too many lifelines.

NH53, the alternative, is a longer, hazardous route that runs from Silchar in Assam and bypasses Nagaland, but runs through the trouble-prone Naga-dominated hill districts of Manipur. Plus, there’s the constant risk of landslides.

Workers try to shovel the rubble furiously off the road. In the fading light, the Hindi-speaking workers, belonging to the larger community of migrants recently warned by the Manipur-based outlawed Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) to quit the state by 31 May or face the secessionist outfit’s ire, work as fast as they can.

A long line of trucks has formed behind the bus. “Jaldi, jaldi," the supervisor shouts at the workers. The darkness, not far away now, carries expected and unexpected dangers in these parts.

The convoy of around 250 trucks laden with desperately needed supplies and escorted by a mobile security entourage is the Manipur government’s third attempt at replenishing the depleting stocks. As of 8 June, Manipur had diesel, kerosene, LPG and petrol reserves enough for about a week for its population of approximately 2.3 million, according to Yumkham Erabot Singh, state minister for consumer affairs, food and public distribution.

The landslide zone in Tamenglong district, around 95km from Imphal and the Meitei-dominated valley, is reached by passing through hostile Naga-dominated territory where the blockade has strong support. In None and Awangkhul, posters offer a “welcome home to peace negotiator" Muivah and make a pitch for Nagalim, a greater Nagaland proposed to be formed from various parts of other states in its neighbourhood.

There are other disturbing reminders of the Naga-Meitei rift, such as the charred carcass of a Manipur-registered cement truck, burnt recently by suspected Naga blockade-enforcers. Tamenglong is among four of Manipur’s nine districts that Muivah, as the leader and founder of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), wants to be carved out to form his dream Naga state of Nagalim, along with Naga-dominated areas in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar.

According to trade sources, since the blockade began, Manipur has been spending around Rs42 lakh extra on each convoy of 300 trucks that carry 20 tonnes of load as they traverse NH53. The extra cost and the scarcity of goods have added to a sharp increase in the prices of essentials.

This divide, and the accompanying fear of ethnic clashes breaking out ever since the announcement of the blockade, is the reason why 12-year-old Vidya Rani is enjoying early summer vacations from the Chil Chil Asian Mission School in Kanglatongbi, located in the Naga-dominated Senapati district. Rani’s Meitei parents didn’t have much choice but to withdraw her from school.

“Most Meitei kids had already left by then, fearing clashes, and the school announced early vacations," says her mother, Sanahanbi Pechimayum, who runs a grocery store in Keithelmanbi, a small Meitei village that lies on the district border, which also marks the division between areas dominated by people of the two communities in conflict.

Under the circumstances, people stick with their own kind in this border area, fearful of what may happen to them on the other side, giving an otherwise innocuous checkpost a greater, sinister significance.

“Are you Meitei?" The question is from D.M. Julia, a resident of Tamenglong and a passenger on the stranded bus. The question is unnerving, the answer is in the negative, emboldening Julia to reveal her ethnicity.

“I’m Naga," she says with evident pride, as more trucks join the long line behind the landslide. Isn’t she affected by the blockade though?

“No, we are not," Julia asserts. “Most reports of people being affected are exaggerated by the Meiteis." She admits to paying Rs200 for a bus ticket that in the pre-blockade days cost Rs120.

Chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh worsened ties between the communities when he announced the ADC elections in Manipur’s hill districts, “ignoring demands of the tribal people of the hills who wanted more power according to the Sixth Schedule and rectification of the Third Amendment to the Manipur (Hill Area) District Council Act 2008," says Valley Rose, the Tangkhul Naga editor of the Imphal-based Tanghkul-English bilingual newspaper, Aja Daily.

According to a statement issued by the Kohima-based Coordination Committee of Naga Civil Society, there are legitimate concerns over the controversial Third Amendment.

“In the 2008 amendment, they even took away the word ‘autonomous’ from the Act and subsequent clauses diluted the powers of the tribals rather than increasing them. Tribals wanted rectification, but the elections were forced on us," says Rose. “Nagas feel cheated."

The Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) and the All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur (ANSAM) then enforced a blockade on Manipur by cutting off vehicular traffic on NH39 from 12 April, even as phase-wise ADC elections took place after well over two decades in the hill districts.

The blockade intensified when the Manipur government stopped Muivah from entering the state for his intended visit to Somdal village in Ukhrul district, where he was born. The visit, slated to take place on 2-9 May, was scrapped after violent clashes between the Nagas and Manipur state forces, which resulted in the death of two agitators at Mao Gate.

The Manipur administration is convinced there was a divisive agenda behind the proposed visit by the leader of the NSCN-IM, a Naga separatist organization that’s currently party to a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government.

“We don’t know how the Union home ministry scheduled Muivah’s visit without consulting the state government. Muivah’s long-standing demand has been to disintegrate Manipur to form Nagalim, which we can’t allow at any cost," says Nongthombam Biren, a state minister and the spokesperson of the Congress-led government. “We will continue to stop him from entering Manipur, even if it requires armed confrontation."

He says the state’s stock of rice and sugar will not last beyond 10 and five days, respectively. “The Centre should take steps to lift the blockade. We won’t compromise this time, and if Delhi can’t be concerned, we will take steps," he adds, without elaborating.

That Manipur is sitting on a powder keg of emotions is apparent from the vitriolic editorials appearing in some of the Imphal-based newspapers, most of which had to cut down the number of pages because of a shortage of newsprint as a result of the blockade.

At the quaint Meitei village of Khumbong on NH53, Jiran Taorem, the soft-spoken teacher of the local Divine Light School, throws open the doors to a storeroom—over a dozen 50kg sacks of rice are piled inside. The otherwise mild-mannered Taorem was part of a mob that looted a passing truck assuming its load of rice was meant for supply to the adjoining Naga-dominated hill districts.

“I was angered enough by the Naga-enforced blockade and took part in a counter-blockade in our area," he says. “Later, railway authorities came and took away most of the loot; the truck’s consignment was meant for the railways," he laughs.

The walls of the United Committee, Manipur (UCM) office are festooned with framed photographs of 18 agitators killed by security forces on 18 June 2001, during a protest by the Meiteis against a ceasefire agreement between the Indian government and the NSCN-IM “without territorial limits". This resistance has meant that in Manipur at least, NSCN-IM cadres didn’t get a free run across the hilly tracts of the state. Still, they are known for imposing taxes and extortion in the hilly areas of Manipur and especially along the national highways. The NSCN-Khaplang is also active in pockets.

The UCM pledges to resist Muivah and his plans for a Greater Nagaland.

“Muivah never gave up his Nagalim agenda, but this time we will fight. If our territorial integrity is compromised, we will ask for Manipur to secede from India," says UCM president Yumnamcha Dilipkumar. “The state government, too, has not done enough to lift the blockade on NH39 and even on the alternative NH53; they have not been able to provide security to trucks."

Others contend that the Muivah issue is a diversionary tactic by the government.

“The anti-Muivah campaign can’t solve Manipur’s problems," says Nimaichand Luwang, president of the opposition Manipur People’s Party, currently on a fast-unto-death to demand the lifting of the blockade. “The real issue is of the farcical ADC elections, where many Congress candidates contested unopposed and some booths recorded no turnout. The government has also not been able to provide security inside the state to trucks on the alternate NH53 route."

This longer road is the one that minister Yumkham Erabot Singh took when he led a convoy of 306 trucks loaded with supplies to Imphal on 22 May, relying “on my 10 house guards after the state government failed to provide security for the convoy". Having entered Imphal to a hero’s welcome, Singh has been hailed in the media and slammed as a rebel by people within his own government.

His Imphal home is humming with activity as the minister gives an audience to a deputation of people who have braved the blockade. Basking in his role as the people’s hero, the minister raises the issues on everyone’s minds.

“The law and order situation has worsened. Only a meagre amount of rice has been airlifted. Manipur has 30,000 state forces, and together with paramilitary personnel, the figure is 64,000, which is among the highest security personnel-civilian ratios in the country. Yet, the government had failed on two occasions to provide security to convoys carrying essentials," Singh says.

After previous violent incidents involving stone throwing and the torching of loaded trucks in and around blockade-enforcing, Naga-dominated areas along NH53, the road is lined by fully armed personnel belonging to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the India Reserve Battalion (IRB) and Manipur police commandos ahead of the arrival of the third convoy.

Altogether 14 loaded trucks have been torched or damaged over the two months, says Lokeshore Singh of the truck owners’ body.

The convoy, which the passenger bus has become part of, is already two days behind schedule due to bad road conditions and weak bridges along NH53, which is in large stretches unworthy for such a sudden heavy flow of traffic.

The increase in the price of commodities is pinching everybody. At the sprawling Ima Market in Imphal, run by Manipuri women, vegetables come at a 50-70% premium over pre-blockade rates; fruits such as apples and mangoes have seen per kilo mark-ups of 30% and 300%, respectively.

With June being the cultivation season, farmer Y. Mani of Moidangpok village in Imphal East district has to spend Rs90 for a litre of diesel to run his automated ploughing machine, doubling his expenses, all of which are being passed on to the end-consumer.

In his hospital bed at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Imphal, 66-year-old A.K. Kulachandra looks dazed. Needing to undergo an operation for gall stones, Kulachandra was among the 700 patients turned away by the 1,075-bed hospital during the early days of the blockade because of a shortage of essentials.

Kulachandra had to be given painkiller injections for over a month before he was allotted a bed and a new operation date at the central government-run hospital.

While Y. Mohan Singh, the medical superintendent at RIMS, considers the blockade a “barbaric crime against humanity", K.H. Palin, chairman and managing director of the 170-bed specialty Shija Hospital, shudders remembering the day when the stock of oxygen was to run out.

“I was very nervous, but thankfully the truck carrying oxygen reached via the Mizoram route after travelling for nine days. Now, with our existing stock, if an ethnic flare-up occurs, we won’t have enough to treat the injured," says Palin, who has temporarily closed down a 160-bed nurses’ hostel to save resources. An oxygen and solar power plant are also planned as part of self-sufficiency measures at Shija Hospital.

Meanwhile, like many others of her Tangkhul Naga community, Valley Rose has started using charcoal instead of LPG in her kitchen.

As the much-expected third convoy of trucks catches up with the bus, the thickly forested hills are lit by their headlights. The road workers hurriedly finish their job, but as the bus tries to force its way through the slush, its wheels get stuck and the vehicle totters precariously inches from a precipice, forcing the road workers to return to the job.

There is nothing more that can be done tonight, someone shouts, calling a halt to the frantic digging. It’s going to be another long night on the road for the people embroiled in the blockade of Manipur—the Meiteis, the Nagas, the Kukis, the security personnel, the migrant road workers and the drivers of trucks carrying essential goods, all of whom start helplessly milling around the stranded bus.

It takes a landslide to put Manipur’s plight into sharp relief.

Conflict gives rise to state’s blockade

The reason for the blockade is the conflict is between the Meiteis and the Nagas in Manipur. The blockade of National Highway 39 passing through Nagaland before entering Manipur was started on 12 April by Naga organizations after the Manipur government announced that it will go ahead with the autonomous district council elections in the state’s tribal hill districts.

Organizations representing Nagas in the state protested the elections, saying their demands had not been met and that their youth leaders were stopped from entering Manipur.

The blockade intensified after T. Muivah, the leader of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), was stopped by the Manipur government from visiting his birthplace in Somdal village of Ukhrul district, Manipur.

The state government’s reasoning was that the visit would serve Muivah’s cause—a Greater Nagaland that would lead to the break-up of Manipur. Clashes at the Manipur-Nagaland border led to the death of two Naga agitators.

Sahil Makkar contributed to this story.