The road runs for 92 km in Manipur’s Senapati district, between and around the hills, and on an ordinary day you cover it in three hours, a bit quicker if you’re more adventurous. But for the hundreds of trucks, tankers and container lorries, even 100 days have not been enough to cover this distance.

It’s no ordinary road, this. It’s nothing less than the NH-39, the national highway, a strip of battered asphalt that connects Imphal to Dimapur and Guwahati. It’s the route through which milk, cooking gas and fuel come to the landlocked state.

This, however, is selling the NH-39 short. If you are the kind given to grand designs, the big-picture sort of person, you can call it AH-1. Asia Highway One. This 92-km stretch is part of a 20,557 km road network that originates from Tokyo and ends in Turkey. The road, parts of which are still under construction, will eventually connect one end of Asia to another. Right now, though, for more than 100 days it has not been able to connect one district of Manipur to another.

The hill people of Senapati district, chiefly the Kukis and the Nagas, have not allowed the wheels to move, forcing the people of the valley to live under an economic siege.

In Imphal, petrol costs ₹400 a litre, a LPG cylinder between ₹1,200-2,000, and milk more than ₹50 a litre. For a city of less than 2.5 lakh people, Imphal witnesses four-kiliometre long queues around the petrol pumps.

The Kukis want a separate district of Sadar Hills, an area where they have the numbers in the otherwise Naga-dominated Senapati district. It’s an old story and an older quarrel, but it has never been resolved. So, from time to time, when the bitterness wells up again, in a sense, time freezes and the world grinds to a halt.

That is what happened in August when the Kukis started an economic blockade for their demand. Three weeks later the United Naga Council (UNC) launched a counter-blockade opposing the Kuki demand and, essentially, clogged the same highway in their turn.

On November 1, the government of Manipur signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sadar Hills Districthood Demand Committee (SHDDC), agreeing, with certain caveats, to their demands for a new district. It was an understanding that didn’t amuse the UNC which has intensified its blockade since. The fight for political high ground thus continues, but in the process ordinary people have been driven to perhaps their lowest ebb in recent years.

Travelling on NH-39 is an onerous task. People from the villages flanked by the highway continue to stop the movement of vehicles, all vehicles. In Gamgiphai village in the Sadar Hills area, a team of women and some men dressed in traditional battle attire stop us. Nervous hands become tense on the lathis and catapults.

A woman shouts a warning: “Go back. Don’t you know there’s a bandh? We never let anyone cross this point.”

The press cards from a group of journalists, however, have a calming effect. Some men come forward and identify themselves as leaders of the resistance here. A loudspeaker announces our arrival to the other protestors.

Hearing Keshupar Bahadur, a Zilla Parishad member, speak is like seeing a runaway train leave passengers stranded at the station. The tall, middle-aged man says, “Our demand is not a single community issue. It is for everyone, and their progress and development.”

The MoU may have been signed, but the SHDCC has not yet abandoned the highway.

The Sadar Hills area is confined to the north of Senapati and eastern parts of Ukhrul districts. Besides Kukis, other tribes like the Meiteis, the Nagas, and the Nepalis live in this region. One of the criticisms of the SHDDC has been its perceived indifference to the sentiments of other tribes that reside in the area.

Lhingneinieng, also known as Tracy, is a school teacher. She has been part of the SHDDC since its early days. The well-built, dark complexioned woman terms the Sadar Hills demand as “constitutional”. Her attitude is an indication of the Kuki mood.

Travelling on NH-39 is an onerous task. People from the villages flanked by the highway continue to stop the movement of vehicles, all vehicles. In Gamgiphai village in the Sadar Hills area, a team of women and some men dressed in traditional battle attire stop us. Nervous hands become tense on the lathis and catapults

“The government is treating us like we have demanded a separate state. They are sending commando forces against us. Districts like Imphal were formed without a hue and cry but the government wants to keep our legitimate demands at bay,” she says.

In many ways, the conflict here is a hill-valley divide. The Meiteis, numerically the most significant, live in the valley with Imphal as its centre. The Kukis, Nagas, Nepalis and at least 35 other tribes live in the hills, and between them own most of the land in the state. And they want a greater say in managing their own affairs.

Mobitung, a village 3 km from Gamgiphai, is deserted. All the shops are closed, large boulders and rocks have been placed on the highway and two dogs keep barking to chase us off. A woman lulling her baby to sleep shouts from her courtyard: “Everybody has gone ahead to block the highway.”

At Keithalmambi , a village on the highway 8 km from Mobitung, men and women sit on the road with banners that proclaim “Grant us our demand”, “Give us Sadar Hills district” and one which demands “Our freedom”.

There are road blocks here, and so far, exceptions have been made for just a cat and a dog. Some protestors are playing with the dog, and the cat is crossing the road, unmindful of everything. The group is armed with catapults and lathis, and some of this weaponry is aimed at us—a group of journalists.

A man, not out of his 20s yet, pulls the black rubber band of the catapult back and points it at us, and asks: “Why are you intruding in our area?” Only after checking our press credentials does the grip on the catapult relax.

The genesis of the agitation for creation of Sadar Hills as a new district dates back to the meeting that took place on September 3, 1970 under the leadership of the Kuki Chiefs Zonal Council. The council met then Union home minster K C Pant in July 1971 and told him about the need for a separate district. This was followed by the council meeting the Security Commissioner on October 6, 1971 at Kholjang village, as a result of which the Nayal Commission was set up.

The commission recommended that besides creating the Sadar Hills district, for administrative convenience some pockets of land from Senapati and Ukhrul should be with the Sadar hills. The SHDDC was created in 1974 on the directives of the Kuki National Assembly. It is a history people in the Sadar Hills know well. Ask a man with a catapult on the highway, and chances are he will tell, with exact dates, the history of the movement off the top of his head.

Hoineu is alone with her brother in their house in Kangpokoi village, but she knows why her parents have left them. She tells me that her parents have gone to do their “duty”. There’s no need to tell her more. She surely knows her history.

It’s a loaded word, duty, but to all its other meanings a highway siege has now been added. Hoineu lives in a small house made of wood with aluminium roofing, with two windows and one main door. It’s a house that is too small to accommodate a family of four.

Like a lot of people her parents believe that the road to a better house, a better tomorrow, is paved with a siege of the highway. So there they go; it is their everyday duty.

According to Khupjang, a resident of Kangpokoi, the government is not taking care of the people. 

A soft-spoken man who speaks in a halting tone, he says: “There are hardly any full payments for work under the MGNREGS. I have got only eight days’ money for the full quota of work. This whole region is lagging behind and there is no administration.” He says if the new district is formed the Deputy Commissioner will be in what is now the sub-divisional headquarters. “There will be more money for development.”

The Sadar hills region is home to 1,88,00 people and is divided into three administrative blocks: Saitu, Kangpokpi and Saikul.

As part of its deal sweetener, the government announced, after the MoU with the SHDDC, that it would create three more administrative blocks in the Sadar Hills, ostensibly to provide better administration and hence, development.

Development, however, is only part of the puzzle of Sadar Hills. History and identity politics are equally important pieces of the whole. As much as the Kukis demand a better administered area, they also want to get out of what they think is a Naga stranglehold in Senapati.

The Nagas for their part don’t want to let go of an inch of Senapati district—they fear it will split their population and weaken their demand for a “Nagalim”, the long-dreamt of homeland of the Nagas, which will include the hill districts of Manipur and parts of Nagaland and Arunanchal Pradesh.

Many Naga students of the hill areas of Manipur even appear for examinations conducted by the Nagaland Board of Secondary Education.

If there is one point on which the Nagas and the Kukis see eye to eye, it is, ironically, on the highway: Here a Kuki is a Naga, a Naga is a Kuki—their actions are difficult to tell apart.

They launch blockades here, they start counter-blockades here; here they stop trucks and tankers with vegetables and fuel, shout slogans, unfurl banners and dig up the road. The story of the valley’s discomfort—and to extend it, the Meitei discomfort—is scripted on the roads that pass through the hills.

  Development, however, is only part of the puzzle of Sadar Hills. As much as the Kukis demand a better administered area, they also want to get out of what they think is a Naga stranglehold in Senapati. 

The real action is confined to a small part of the highway, an 8-km stretch between Keithalmambi and Kangpokoi. That 8 km holds the entire story of the blockade. You can see lines of trucks from Haryana, Punjab and Nagaland. At times the queue extends to two kilometres. The drivers and their helpers or “cleaners” stand outside, weary from the ordeal. They all look like they wish they were somewhere else.

Towels and undergarments soak up the sun on the windshields. Sheets cover windshields that the protestors have shattered. The drivers say they are very low on supplies and have to settle for just one good meal a day.

Every few hundred metres or so, you can see a truck burned down to the rubber, the ashes still fluttering on the road. According to the government, 27 trucks have been set on fire by the protestors since the blockade began in August. So far, 100 people have been injured and three, including two women, have been killed in clashes with the security forces.

This is not the first siege of NH-39; it just happens to be the biggest. In 2005, the All Naga Students’ Union, Manipur (ANSAM) had taken to the highways to enforce their demand for Nagalim. That siege lasted for 52 days. Again, last year, the UNC and ANSAM blocked the highways for 62 days.

This time the UNC has stayed put for 83 days, and promises not to budge till the government goes back on its word to the SHDDC—a deal that was struck after 93 days of Sadar Hill group’s blockade.

In many ways, NH-39 is the symbol of a division that has so far been impossible to bridge, and the stage for those divisions to be dramatised before a larger audience.

That the audience has been severely traumatised by all this public display seems to have occurred to neither side.

There seems to be no end in sight to the agony of ordinary Manipuris as the government is wary about any sort of initiative. Its sights are set on the Assembly polls next year, and decisive action of any kind here will surely end up antagonising one group or the other.

Of course, Okram Ibobi Singh’s government has probably not worked out how it can go to people in Imphal and other places to ask for votes when they have to pay ₹400 a litre for petrol, and ₹2,000 for gas. But that is another story.

Right now, it doesn’t look like there can be a happy ending, indeed even an end to this ordeal for Manipur. Visits by Union home minister P Chidamabaram and the BJP top brass recently have achieved little or nothing. Gridlock seems to be the road condition, and traffic on AH-1 is yet to resume.