Many in the violence-ridden Indian north-eastern state of Manipur say they feel isolated and neglected by the central government in New Delhi.
Separatist violence is part of the daily lives of the inhabitants of Manipur, one of the north-eastern Indian states facing a protracted Maoist insurgency.
Manipur, which borders Myanmar, was not part of India after the country won its independence from British rule in 1947, and was only incorporated into the Indian Union two years later on October 15, 1949.
The Indian government deployed a large number of security forces in Manipur with unlimited anti-insurgency powers to curb the separatist movement that reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. Many in Manipur, a state with a small population of 2.7 million, believe New Delhi is acting as a quasi-colonial power in their state.
Decades of insurgency
The Indian government is fighting a battle with many rebel groups in Manipur, most of which are formed on tribal or ethnic lines.
The insurgents demand either autonomy or independence from the Indian state, saying New Delhi is treating Manipur like a "step-mother." While the poverty ratio in most parts of India has decreased, according to the Indian federal Planning Commission, it has increased in five north-eastern states including Manipur. Separatists seem to be using the economic deprivation of the state as an ideological justification for their movement.
People in Manipur are also fed up with the ongoing battle between Indian forces and the separatists.
Murali Krishnan, DW's correspondent in New Delhi, said the Indian state has done little to bring Manipur and other north-eastern states into the mainstream.
"It's been 65 years since the independence of India, yet there are a large number of marginalized and neglected people in India's northeastern states."
Krishnan spoke of a 40-year-old woman named Irom Sharmila, who is also known as the world's longest hunger-striker. She has been protesting the unlimited powers of the Indian military in Manipur, but not even she has been able to get the government to budge on its positions.
According to Beenalakshmi Neepram, secretary general of Control Arms Foundation, an Indian NGO, Manipur lost its economic superiority after it became part of the Indian Union in 1949.
"Manipur had access to the sea through the Chittagong area before the Partition. It had trading ties with countries like Myanmar and China. But after independence, the sea route was cut and it became a captive economy."
Neepram said New Delhi must talk to the separatist leaders as well as Manipur's civil society activists to resolve the issue.
"We are not Indians"
But the Manipur issue is not just about economic injustice and New Delhi's military operation in the state.
Despite the fact that the Indian Ministry of Tourism promotes Manipur as "Jewel of India," the residents of the marginalized state feel little association with the Indian culture.
Manipur's population is an ethnic mix of Meitei, Naga, Kuki and Pangal communities, which want to preserve their own cultural autonomy.
"The Manipuri people are very proud of their culture. India must give cultural and historical recognition to the people of Manipur," said Neepram.
Some go to the extent of saying they are not Indians. "We are Meiteis. We are not Indians," said Laishram, who is a Hindu Meitei.
"We look so different to start with," human rights activist Kshetrimayum Onil told AFP. "We are often mistaken for Chinese or Koreans because of our Mongol roots," Onil said.
Identifying with Southeast Asia
"We are virtually cut off from mainland India," said Shyam Singh, a history professor in Imphal. "Culturally and socially, we identify ourselves more with the countries of Southeast Asia as they are closer to home."
Korean movies are extremely popular in Manipur, which experts believe is another example of the cultural difference of the Manipuris from the rest of India. Separatist groups have also boycotted Bollywood movies in the state, which otherwise are very popular in other parts of the country.
Author: Shamil Shams (AFP)
Editor: Sarah Berning