Indian state halted by strike protest over martial law

IMPHAL, India, Reuters

Life in India’s northeastern state of Manipur ground to a near standstill on Monday when a general strike called by protesters against an anti-terror law forced the closure of government offices, schools and markets.

Unrest in Manipur, known as the Land of Jewels, has been simmering for nearly a month with hundreds of people demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives sweeping powers to security forces to kill and arrest suspected rebels.

“It is a political issue and has to be dealt politically,” Manipur’s police chief, Anup Kumar Parashar, told Reuters in his heavily guarded office in Imphal, the state capital.

“But on our part we will continue to follow government orders within the legal framework.”

The armed forces say they need the act to fight separatists in a state racked by revolt. It is one of seven states in the beautiful northeast bordered by China, Nepal and Myanmar.

Once a Hindu kingdom, Manipur was a part of Myanmar. It became a princely state under British rule and joined India in 1949, when Manipuris say New Delhi forced their king to sign a merger pact.

Soldiers in armored vehicles patrolled Imphal’s deserted streets, while paramilitary troops armed with light machine guns kept a wary watch on pedestrians.

“This is not a sign that peace has returned,” said R.K. Anand, a leading local lawyer.

Authorities have ordered police to shoot any demonstrators who attack government property and soldiers took up positions behind banks of sandbags at strategic locations in the city.

“If there is a threat to the personal safety of security personnel and government property, they have orders to open fire,” a senior police officer in Imphal told Reuters.

Police had launched a crackdown on leaders of the movement against the anti-terror law and about 50 had been arrested in the past two days, he said.

Most top leaders have gone into hiding.