Monday, 2 January 2017

Swimming against the tide -- life and times of Tamils in Manipur


The past several weeks have been really harsh on all of us here in TN with demonetisation, demise of former CM Jayalalithaa, and Cyclone Vardah thrashing us in consecutive waves even as we cope with the new realities and struggle to move on. But all these troubles faced by 78-odd million citizens of TN amount to very little when compared with that faced by the hundreds of Tamil families stuck in the landlocked state of Manipur. 


Situated in the scenic Kabaw valley bordering Myanmar right on Asian Highway 1 and dubbed as the gateway to the SE, is the tiny trading town of Moreh. Bright sunshine, lush green vegetation interspersed with tall teakwood trees, small-framed men and slender women with well-defined noses and cheeks smeared with thanakha, a tree-bark paste -- the local equivalent of sunscreen lotion -- welcome visitors to the border town.

Although Moreh spans across merely three-square kilometres, this piece of land is home to virtually all the major communities found in the country, including Tamils, Punjabis, Bengalis and Nepalis, not to mention the Meiteis, Kukis and several other hill tribes who have settled here in phases over the past several decades.

Until a few years ago, more than 3000 Tamil families lived in Moreh and the community was among the most influential and prominent. The Moreh Tamil Sangam, the cultural and social organization here that has been active since the mid-1960s when the town was little more than a handful of shops and teakwood cabins, is the oldest association here and continues to run free schools besides engaging in other charity work.

With decades of insurgency and economic slowdown continuing to strangle the north-east, the Tamil population in Moreh has dwindled to a mere 400 families, most of whom have migrated from Myanmar in the 1960’s after General Ne Win came to power and order expulsion of all non-indigenous people from their country.  These 400 odd Tamil families that remain in Moreh have been put to untold misery of late due to an economic blockade that has been going on now for over 50 days now with no end in sight.

According to Khaja Mohideen, media coordinator of the Moreh Tamil Sangam, the economic blockade has completely choked the lives of all residents of Moreh including the Tamil families. “The prices have risen so much that it is impossible to purchase even essential commodities. A kilogram of salt costs Rs. 50/- while a litre of petrol now costs around Rs. 350/-. We have been paying more than Rs. 3000/- for an LPG cylinder. While the huge surge in prices is a concern, what is more worrying is that there is a huge shortage of goods even if one is willing to pay the price,” Khaja says.

A lifelong resident of Moreh, Khaja lives with his wife and children close to the international border that India shares with Myanmar and runs a retail shop selling utensils and other household items.

Not just Khaja but a vast majority of the Tamils settled in Moreh are businessmen. The economic blockade has been especially harsh on the Tamil population who are unable to export or import goods as the only two major highways leading to Imphal and then Moreh have been blocked by the United Naga Council, who have been protesting against the state government’s proposal to create seven new districts in the state.  Over the past few weeks alone, at least 50 private vehicles transporting goods from outside the state to Imphal have been torched bringing goods movement to a complete halt.

Khaja says that with the two arterial roadways blocked, they are unable to bring their goods from Dimapur in Nagaland, which is the closest railway station, by road. “Goods worth several lakh rupees are stuck in Dimapur while we are struggling for want of essentials,” he says.

The most recent economic blockade and resulting violence, however, is not the first occasion when the state of Manipur has been on the boil. The people of Manipur, especially the Tamil community in Moreh, are used to all this.  “When people talk about the suffering of Tamils, only our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka are remembered whereas we have been going through so much trouble since the 1960’s and have weathered all the storms that came our way,” Khaja says.

Among the earliest settlers in Moreh, the first Tamil families that moved here arrived from different parts of Myanmar during the 60’s. Their ancestors had been living in the country formerly known as Burma for generations and had migrated to the SE Asian country mostly during the early 1800s when Myanmar also came under the combined British administration. The first group of migrants were primarily government servants who were posted in the country and worked for the British. They were soon followed by the businessmen from central and southern TN who set up business establishments and prospered until the 1960s when they were expelled from the country. Upon returning to India, most of these Burmese Tamils found it hard to cope with the changed business environment in TN and decided to settle down close to the Myanmar border in Moreh. With help from friends and relatives who still lived in Myanmar, they set up shops in the border town and made a life for themselves. Over the years, cross-border trade – both legal and clandestine – thrived in Moreh and its Tamil settlers began to prosper.
Sree Angala Parameswari temple

But, life has never been easy in their adopted land. As the Tamil and other businessmen from different parts of India began to prosper and control much of the trade along the Indo-Myanmar border, they faced stiff resistance from the indigenous tribes including the Nagas, Kukis and dozens of other communities who had always been warring with each other and were less prosperous.  Violent clashes have broken out between the Tamils and the Nagas, Tamils and Kukis in which several people were injured, homes were razed to the ground and businesses were destroyed. When the situation continued to remain unsafe, a majority of the settlers shifted out of Moreh and settled down in their hometowns in TN.

Presently, only 400 families remain in Moreh and continue to run their businesses despite the unstable environment. The economically strong Tamil community has also built a huge TN-style shrine called the Sri Angala Parameswari Temple, the second largest south Indian temple in the entire North East region.  The temple, which spreads across approximately five acres of land sits right on the international border and was being renovated when this writer last visited Moreh in 2015.

Secretary of the Tamil Sangam, Subramani who is also a lifelong resident of the border town then said that the Sangam was insistent on building a solid, massive structure as after a few decades, the temple might be the only remaining monument to prove that a vibrant Tamil community once lived and thrived in Moreh. With the latest imbroglio posing yet another challenge to the Tamil populace in Moreh, Subramani’s prediction might turn out to be true sooner than he had anticiipated.

But, despite the odds Khaja remains defiant and hopeful. “We are used to all this and will survive. We have seen and overcome so much that this is nothing in comparison,” he said.

Until the economic blockade is revoked, Khaja and his friends in Moreh depend on the open, porous border with Myanmar for their survival. “We can move freely between the two countries and will get our essentials from our neighbouring country till this is all over,” he says.

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