Blockade lifted but curfew remains in Manipur feud

Leaders of the Naga tribe threatening to close off access to government offices despite calling off their three-month economic blockade of the state.

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NEW DELHI // Leaders of the Naga tribe in Manipur are still enforcing a daily curfew and threatening to close off access to government offices despite calling off their three-month economic blockade of the state.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is due to visit the north-eastern state this weekend, where the Nagas have caused severe shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies by blocking all major motorways to the capital, Imphal.

The blockades were put in place in protest against demands from the rival Kuki tribe for a new district, which they would call Sadar Hills. The Kukis had organised their own blockades for 92 days until the government agreed to grant the district at the end of October.

The Nagas say they have received assurances from the central government they will be consulted before any final decision on the new district.

"We have agreed to call off the blockades," said L Adani, president of the United Naga Council (UNC), on Tuesday. "But if the government of Manipur does not keep to its commitments, then we will act to resume the agitation."

Mr Adani said the UNC will be continuing with other forms of protest as part of their separate demands for an "alternative arrangement for the Nagas", under which they would have increased autonomy in their areas.

"There will be a curfew in place every day between noon and 1pm when no shops will be open and no vehicles can move," said Paul Leo, the vice-chairman of the UNC's committee for an alternative arrangement. "If the government does not cooperate, we will close down all government offices in Naga districts."

It now appears likely that no decision will be taken on the Sadar Hills issue that had caused so many problems for Manipur in recent months.

Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of the Imphal Free Press, says the government's strategy has been to tire out the protesters through endless delays and contradictory promises.

"The decision about the Sadar Hills will now go to a committee which will prepare a report. They will delay and procrastinate in the hope that everyone gives up out of frustration," he said.

Despite state elections looming in Manipur next year, observers say the government showed little interest in breaking the blockades because they suited their needs.

"Every government needs an issue that makes them look like a hero," said Babloo Loitangbam, of Human Rights Alert in Imphal. The government could present itself as the only choice to stand up to the restive tribes, he said. "The shortages of commodities also gave the government more control over who gets benefits."