Retired IPS officer Prakash Singh on northeast and his PIL on blockades
Brajesh Kumar | December 21, 2011
While most of the rest of India may not care about the northeast, retired IPS officer Prakash Singh, who served long years in the region first as DGP of Assam and then as DG of BSF, feels strongly for it. The recurring blockades in Manipur coupled with the state and central governments’ apathy in dealing with it irked him so much that he filed a PIL in the supreme court alleging that “the state government of Manipur was not enforcing the law of the land and the central government was acting a mute spectator to intransigent groups taking law into their own hands." While the latest, 110-day blockade was lifted early December, Singh feels his PIL is relevant as the next blockade would come sooner than later. In an interview with Governance Now, Singh reveals his connection with the regions and ways to tackle the situation.
The Manipur blockade was lifted prior to the visit of prime minister Manmohan Singh to the state this month. Do you think your PIL in the supreme court on the issue remains relevant?
I am very reliably told that the United Naga Council (UNC) can re-impose the blockade any time because they would want a firm assurance that the Senapati district would not be truncated. And let me tell you the blockade was lifted as a small gesture to the prime minister. So, yes, the petition is still relevant because (a) it can be still be re-imposed; and (b) even if it is not re-imposed, why should we have such blockades that economically strangulate a state, especially Meiteis living in the valley? Year after year we have been witnessing this phenomenon. So the state government and the government of India should give assurance to the highest court of the land that they would perform their constitutional duty and that they would not permit the recurrence of this kind of mischief by certain interested groups.
What was the trigger behind the PIL?
I was amazed that this kind of thing is going on and no one was concerned. No one was willing to take any action. And then I kept reading in papers that the mainland Indian is indifferent to the problems of the northeast. So if nobody was taking the lead I thought I should do my bit. And with my knowledge of the region I thought I could do something about it. I have served long years in the northeast. I have served four years in Nagaland, less than a year in Assam as state DGP and then as DG BSF I was looking at all these frontal areas. So I am quite familiar with the problems of the northeast.
What is the crux of your PIL?
Well, the central plea in the PIL is that the supreme court should do something about the indifference of the state and the central government towards the situation in Manipur. The state government did not perform its mandated duty in clearing the blockade because there were afraid of UNC and the central government remained a mute spectator.
As I said earlier while the blockade has been lifted the central issue remains. Why is Manipur subjected to such blockades year after year? Last year in 2010 the blockade lasted for 68 days, this year the blockade lasted for 110 days. This blockade of Manipur has to be distinguished from any other area, for example, blockades on Delhi-Jaipur highway or some parts of Haryana. Such blockades affect movement along certain axis only. There is certainly some disruption in movement of goods and passenger traffic, but the Manipur blockade is in a class in itself. I say class in itself because, as you know, Manipur is landlocked and once you block two highways (NH 37 and NH 53) you cut off Manipur’s link with the rest of India. When that happens you are choking and strangulating the state as all the essential commodities are transported through these two highways. And you very well know as a result the prices of these commodities shoot up: an LPG cylinder which costs about Rs 400 elsewhere costs Rs 2,000 and petrol costs about Rs 200 per litre (during blockades).
As far as the political dispute is concerned I have no comments to make – whether there should be a Kuki majority district or whether Senapati district should be kept as it is. I mean that is a different issue altogether. Let it be resolved across the table. But the freedom of movement guaranteed by the constitution to all its citizens and uninterrupted movement through the national highways cannot be interfered by any group in pursuance to its demand A or B. This freedom of movement should be ensured at all times by the state and the central government. This is exactly my plea in the petition and then it also affects the right to life and property because lives saving drugs are not there. This threatens the fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution.
So, you are saying the state and central governments have failed the people of Manipur?
The state government has certainly failed the people of the state. It is the constitutional duty of the state to protect the rights of the people. If there is a blockade you got to left it. Manipur has enough of security forces to deal with such problems. But there is absolute paralysis. You can’t decide, can’t take any decisive action. This is not how you administer a state. If you administer a state you got to take some unpalatable, harsh steps in the larger interest of the state. The centre too has been wishy-washy in dealing with this problem. They could have easily pushed the state into taking some action. But the government of India’s weakness is vis-a-vis NSCN (IM) which has been for years blackmailing it. And the government of India inexplicably, unjustifiably and pathetically, has been succumbing to their blackmail.
Earlier you filed a PIL on police reforms and now this PIL on the blockade. Do you consider PILs an effective instrument to bring about a change?
The point is, nobody is otherwise prepared to listen. You find that the normal channels of redressal are not functioning now. If you go the home ministry you find nobody is serious about it, and if you talk to state government they say god is in heaven and all is right with the world. This is the impression I got while talking to the Manipur authorities. They said there was absolutely no problem and they were getting the supply of the essential commodities through Silchar route. They painted a very rosy picture. The government of India is not concerned. Some of the officers in North Block [that is, home ministry] would find it difficult to locate Manipur on the map. Even for the media a sensational incident in the NCR is more important than something important happening in the north east. There is general sense of apathy all around. I am happy Governance Now has come out with a cover story on the issue (read Governance Now coverage on Manipur blockade in its current issue; December 16-31)
Are you optimistic about the usefulness of the PILs that you file considering that you haven’t had much of a success in the past?
Well, I am not very optimistic about it but what else could you do as a citizen? I could also like any other person concede that it’s a problem better left to be dealt with by the central and state government. But then I am sensitive to the problems of the northeast. I am appalled by the insensitivity and apathy towards the problems of the northeast. I feel extremely sad. PIL is the only instrument left: the ultimate remedy. If this also does not work what do you do? At least you will have the satisfaction of having done your bit.
How has the situation changed in Manipur over the years since you served in the region?
I was there at the peak of the insurgency in the 60s. And let me tell you Imphal used to be so peaceful. We used to go to the state for holidays. It was a beautiful piece of land where people where friendly, hospitable. You had a culture which was more akin to what you see in this part of the country. Manipur was idyllic, pastoral. Unfortunately, all that is overtaken by insurgency. Shops close early; there are cases of extortions abound and life cheap.
What is the way out? How should authorities deal with recurring blockades?
I have been out of the region for a very long time and have lost touch with the ground reality but then I am sure, watching from distance, the Manipur problem can be solved in two to three years. And Manipur could be placed among the progressive states. You see, the Meiteis are doing so well: in culture, sports. It’s a vibrant community. All that they want is fair play and justice. Somebody needs to establish the authority of the law and give good governance to the people.
But then do you think the mutually hostile ethnic groups can co-exist if the good governance is delivered?
You see, these kinds of demands arise because there is this impression in these insurgent groups that the government at the state and the centre is weak and will give in to the slightest hint of blackmail. They know that if a demand has to be acquiesced to by the government all that is needed to be done is cause a few explosions, derail a railway track, cause a blast in Imphal – do some kind of mischief and your demand will be met. This impression has to go away that you could commit mischief and go scot free. The government needs to send a message on the contrary that if you do something like this you will be dealt with heavy hand. This message has to go down to the northeast insurgent groups.
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