In dire straits

Manipur bears the brunt of prolonged road blockade. Maj-Gen G. G. Dwivedi (retd)
recalls how, five years ago, the Army launched an operation to eliminate the
militant threat, and ensured a safe passage to people travelling to the border state

IT was a bright sunny day. The lush green mountains beneath the canopy of the blue sky, and the lotus blooming in the 650-sq km Loktak Lake, would make anybody exclaim on the breathtaking scenic beauty of Manipur. Despite nature’s abundant blessings, a deep sense of despair and utter helplessness was looming large on the skyline. The patience of residents of this tiny border state was running out.

The prices of essential commodities have shot up in Manipur following the blockade of National Highway 39
The prices of essential commodities have shot up in Manipur following the blockade of National Highway 39

National Highway 39, which enters Manipur from Nagaland at Mao Gate, and runs up to Moreh (on the Myanmar border), is the lifeline for the 2.2 million people of Manipur. At will, this lifeline is often blocked by the aggrieved section of the people, either by the Nagas, astride the inter-state border, or by Manipur residents themselves, to vent out their grievances.

This time, the blockade was by the Naga Students’ Union, and it had been in place for over a month now. This led to an acute scarcity of essential commodities, particularly emergency stores like oxygen cylinders, cooking gas and vehicle fuel. The prices had shot up astronomically. A litre of petrol was selling at more than Rs 100. The shopping areas like Pauna Bazar wore a deserted look. Blackmarketeers were having a field day. There was a sense of desperation all around. Lifting of blockade appeared nowhere in sight due to a political deadlock.

An emergency meeting of the Combined Headquarters was convened by the Chief Minister to address the issue. After a great deal of deliberations, the only feasible option was to open the alternate route — NH 53. This highway links Silchar, the second biggest city in Assam, to Imphal. It is approximately 350-km-long, and an important link, as it also connects isolated Jiribam subdivision to its district headquarters at West Imphal.

It was out of a deep sense of resonance, I took the call. The task was tough from many angles. Firstly, the militants had been in control of nearly one-third of the 240-km stretch of the highway from Jiribam to Imphal for the last couple of years. Their main bases in the areas of Vangai and Kamai Hills had been well fortified, with a large number of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) strewn all over. The militants enjoyed local sympathy due to ethnic bonding. Secondly, the terrain was extremely tough, due to thick jungles. As all move was to be cross-country to avoid IEDs, as also to maintain surprise, the operation had to be over within two to three nights.

Thirdly, monsoons were fast approaching, barely six to eight weeks away. All my infantry brigades were already committed in far-flung areas, in intense counter-insurgency operations. The only formation I could tap at pinch was the artillery brigade, as its units were deployed in south Assam and Jiribam.

We got down to planning in right earnest, so as to launch the operation at the earliest. It took some hard convincing to get the plan approved. Three teams were constituted from the para field unit of the artillery brigade. Additional teams were pooled in from an infantry unit, with Engineers providing the mine-breaching parties. With the final plans in place, the operation was launched in the first week of June 2005. It was primarily a small team-based mission. While the para field unit teams were to establish the blocks, the infantry teams were to form the strike elements.

The first day of the operation went through as planned. There was some easing of tension when we broke off from the makeshift operations room in Jiribam early morning, after the nightlong suspense. However, on the second day, the events did not unfold as planned. Sudden heavy downpour came as a spoiler. The movement became extremely difficult. The blocking teams could not cover even 1 km during the whole night, due to flooding of perennial nullahs. Strike teams did manage to close on and establish a loose cordon around the target areas.

The clearing operation witnessed a few firefights. Due to IEDs, blind hot chase was suicidal. As the blocks were not in place in time, a number of militants did manage to get away. However, quite a few got washed away in the fast- flowing Barak`A0river while escaping.

Over the next few days, the 120-km stretch of the affected highway was completely sanitised, and more than 80 IEDs were neutralised without any casualties. Later, Heliborne Operation was launched to clear Bekra Bowl, a major militant stronghold (which was, in fact, known as the liberated zone), to completely eliminate the threat to NH 53.

Paramilitary forces were deployed along the sensitive stretches of the highway to provide protection. Intense road construction activity was commenced to operationalise the highway, providing livelihood to the local population.

After the monsoon, NH 53 was opened to traffic. The flow rate slowly picked up, with a monthly average of nearly 1000 vehicles. Small business ventures began to dot the highway by way of tea stalls, dhabas and vehicle repair facilities. Overnight, Jiribam transformed into a major hub for truckers.

NH 53, as an alternate link, was now deemed to be the second lifeline for Manipur. From Jiribam to Imphal, it connected different communities through one single factor — the common economic interest. It was a win-win situation. Travelling time between Imphal-Jiribam and Guwahati had been cut down considerably.

Today, once again, Manipur bears the brunt of the prolonged blockade of NH 39. As I read about emergency convoys winding their way through NH 53 to provide relief to the beleaguered region, I reminisce the course of events, some five years back, when a few hundred plucky-hearted men of the Red Shield Division staked their lives to alleviate the misery of some two million people by executing a rather bold and high-risk mission, amidst most arduous conditions.

This operation was code named Siroi Lily, the most beautiful flower, which blooms during May-June in Siroi Hills, amidst the upper reaches of Manipur, in Ukhrul district. The operation, true to its name, continues to provide hope to the brethren in the state of Manipur even today.