For the last 45 days, NH2 (earlier the infamous Highway 39) connecting Manipur to Nagaland has been blocked by protesting United Naga Council (UNC) members backed by the surrendered NSCN (IM) — the Naga armed organisation with which the Indian government signed a peace agreement in 2015.
This highway, a lifeline for Manipur, has been one of the most troubled roads: it is routinely cut off by tribal groups to press for various demands, holding hostage an entire state’s population. Though there are two more roads to Manipur via south Assam, they do not serve much purpose given the logistical difficulties.
While governments in the state and Centre and civil society groups have been trying to resolve the impasse for years, a new highway announced by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Road, Transport and Highway (MORTH) this month, through Tamenglong district, might just be the answer to the problem.
But just how did this highway get sanctioned?
The story goes back to 1994 when a young Indian army captain D P K Pillay was tasked to search, locate and capture militants who were reportedly planning to blow up a vital bridge. After four days of relentless search, their hideout was identified in the village, Longdipabram.
In the three-hour long bloody encounter, one militant was killed; two were apprehended and platoon commander Pillay was shot with bursts of AK-47 — he was injured with a bullet in his chest, three on his forearm, a grenade blast had hurt his feet and his spine was hit with a rifle butt.
Grievously injured, Pillay was waiting for the evacuation helicopter when he noticed two young children lying wounded, perhaps caught in the crossfire. Pillay made sure the children were airlifted first and then ensured that his men would not resort to retributive violence, which used to be the norm those days. Pillay survived and in 1995 he was conferred the peacetime gallantry award, the Shaurya Chakra.
In 2010, Pillay established contact with the village to find out what happened to the children who were injured. The villagers, who had no idea that had Pillay survived, invited him to Longdipabram. It is then that I travelled with him to the village. The reunion was overwhelming. At the village grounds where the residents organised a homecoming of sorts, Pillay met the children, the mother of the children, the village headman and, in a dramatic moment, even the militant who had fired at him. The two men embraced each other, in what is probably one of the most telling moments in the narrative of counter insurgency.
This story of a soldier’s journey that I reported in 2010 is being wildly shared over the last one week following the government’s announcement of the construction of a new road: the result of a soldier’s promise to the people he feels indebted to and a people who are forever grateful to him for saving their lives.
Since the 2010 emotional return to a place where he almost lost his life, Pillay has been moving mountains to provide whatever he can for the villagers; livelihood programmes, agro based projects, a truck for transportation of the produce, waiting shed, sewing machines, water schemes and vocational training. But connectivity was the biggest bottleneck for developing the village.
In 2012, Pillay managed to get the government to lay a foundation stone for a 23-km black top road to the village where the encounter took place. For various reasons, the road could not be constructed.
In October 2016, the Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, however, sanctioned a 100-km National Highway connecting Tamenglong to Peren in Nagaland via Longdipabram. This alternate highway will not only change lives in Tamenglong but will impact the entire state.
In a region, where the uniformed men are seen with suspicion, Pillay’s story of courage and his tireless efforts at changing people’s lives challenges the stereotype of an ‘occupation army’. (Ironically he has been waiting for a promotion for the last several years.)