A border town called Moreh

A hundred and ten kilometres away from Manipur's capital of Imphal, on the border between India and Myanmar, stands Moreh. The road to the border town cuts through wide, windy fields of the Imphal valley, climbing up into the moist clouds that shroud the hills of Manipur's Chandel district only to descend into the oppressively hot plains of Moreh.

Residents of Moreh will tell you that the town may be small but it is cosmopolitan, more than even Imphal. Manipuri Meiteis, Kuki tribals, Tamils, Punjabis and even Burmese nationals with their trademark sarongs and conical cane hats walk the streets with their wares. And unlike Imphal, which shuts at six in the evening, Moreh stays awake till late night. Liquor vends dot the main road that passes through the town. The beer brands that line the glass cases in an otherwise dry state testify to this plurality—Burmese beer, the cheap Dali from China, and German and Dutch beer.

Moreh is not only at the heart of thriving trade but also the main transit point of drug trafficking in Manipur. Customs officials in the town say drugs are often brought in from the Burmese side with consignments of clothes and food. "We do carry out random checks and so does the Assam Rifles, but it is not physically possible to check everything,'' says a senior customs official in Moreh. And with a border that is completely open, drugs such as cannabis, mandrake and other drugs have a free thoroughfare.

The market in Moreh

The land in Moreh levels off as it approaches the Myanmar border to enter the mud-caked informal international trading market of Namphalong on the Burmese side. The Indo-Myanmar Friendship Gate is the route that traders with push carts and others with sacks on their heads take from Moreh and back.

The entry from Moreh to Namphalong, the market that's a few steps into the Burmese border, is free. This jostling market has small shops stacked with cheap Chinese electronic goods and toys, Burmese crafts, and clothes and shoes from Thailand and Vietnam. On the main market street, Burmese women, with sandalwood paste smeared across their faces to cope with the scorching sun and humidity, sell vegetables and Burmese snacks—pineapples on sticks and roasted meat. Made-in-China motorbikes and cycles from the '70s line the parking area. Bihari and Burmese labourers quickly collect sacks of goods and carry them over to the Indian side, to Moreh.

Though trade with Myanmar is on the decline—with Chinese goods infiltrating and dominating the Myanmar markets—Moreh is abuzz with activity and expectation. "Many traders have left over the past five years. We first arrived around 15 years ago when the Central government announced trade with Myanmar. Before that, only an illegal barter system existed between the two countries. We thought it would be a good business opportunity,'' says 53-year-old Satish Kumar from Vikaspuri, Delhi, a wholesaler who now lives in Moreh.

The only business that remains unaffected by the Chinese influx is that of importing Burmese teak. Moreh is lined with shops importing teak from across the border. Ahmed Ali is one such importer. "This is one of the biggest businesses here. We have wholesalers coming from Imphal and even from other states who buy teak furniture from Moreh and then supply it to the rest of the country,'' says Ali. Burmese teak furniture sells cheap—Rs 10,000 each for a double bed and a carved cupboard, Rs 12,000 for a sofa set.

Traders in Moreh hope that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Myanmar in May and recent elections in that country will boost trade. The anticipation has been fuelled by the state government acquiring over 45 acres near the Namphalong international market to build a customs office and a land port. The ICP, as it is known, will house banks, currency exchange counters, immigration, customs offices and India's own state-of-the-art international market.

Border fencing is also underway. Manipur's first railway line, which is to enter Imphal by 2013, will lead to Moreh, cutting through the border to eventually make its way to Mandalay. The Border Roads Organisation, which has already built a highway from Imphal to Kalewa in Myanmar, will now build 70 bridges and upgrade roads in the neighbouring country to provide smooth passage for traders and tourists.

Moreh's status as a trading hub with immense potential has pushed up property prices. Manipuri superstar RK Kaiku is among the many who are looking for business prospects in the small town. He plans to build a resort here. "This is the right time to come to Moreh. We expect a lot of development and therefore a lot more tourists to come into the area. The infrastructure right now is appalling and the hotels are in a shambles. This is the time to build a resort that people would want to come to,'' he says.

The first settlers

People have always been coming to Moreh—and laying claims to the town for decades. This has often led to bitter clashes and stark divides among the different communities that inhabit the town—the Manipuri Meiteis, the tribal Kukis and the 'outsiders' (from Punjab, Bengal, Orissa, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh) who settled here in the 60s. The 2011 Census puts Moreh's population at 16,000. The Meitei Council in the city disputes this figure, saying the population is at least 35,000. The tribals, specifically the Kukis, say their population in the town is 20,000.

In the '60s and '70s, as Moreh grew in prominence as a trading hub, the Manipuri Hindu community or the Meiteis and the dominant Kuki tribe of the area both claimed they were the original inhabitants of the town.

"We were the first to settle in Moreh, as far back as 1949. There were nine Meitei families then and just one tribal family. It was only after the 1960s, when trade started, that more and more tribals started coming to the city. Tamils and Punjabis also came around the same time from Myanmar," says Meitei Council general secretary N Inaocha Meitei.

Till 1991, Moreh was mini India, says Inaocha. A substantial 'outsider' population lived among the Meiteis and the Kukis. "We used to call them all Tamils because we simply didn't know the difference. We were familiar with the Tamils because they were dominant among the outsiders,'' says Inaocha.

But that changed. As a trading town, Moreh soon became a highly prized bone of contention.

The Tangkhul Naga tribesmen started arriving in Moreh after 1988. In 1991, after splitting from NSCN-K, the newly-formed underground Naga group, NSCN-IM, which is dominated by the Tangkhuls, arrived in Moreh. Once the NSCN-IM got into Moreh, trying to control smuggling, extortion and drugs in the area, disparate Kuki groups got together. The Kuki Students' Organisation ruled that the town would be closed on Sundays. The Meiteis opposed them. Thus started a cycle of stand-offs and sporadic violence between the Nagas, Kukis and Meiteis. Moreh thus became the cradle of Kuki militancy. The town is home to top Kuki militant leaders, their houses ringed by high walls topped with barbed wire.

This was the time that the multicultural fabric of the town started disintegrating. The outsiders started moving back to their states or relocated to Imphal. There are five Punjabi families left in the town. A large dilapidated gurdwara stands empty and desolate. The scars remain—Moreh now has Meitei colonies, a separate mini Kuki town and a Naga settlement.

The Tamil Sangam

At the height of its reputation as one of the most important trading centres in Asia, the Burmese city of Rangoon attracted crowds of traders and workforce from across the continent. It was at this time that the British East India Company took with them labourers and businessmen—from Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Orissa and Punjab—to this affluent and thriving port city strategically located between India and China. The British later withdrew but the Indians stayed on. They set up businesses and became the drivers of the country's economy.

But after the junta took over in the early 1960s, the Indian diaspora had to leave Myanmar. Some like Mohammad Eusoof Sarlan reached Moreh. On January 9, 1966, Sarlan left Burma on a ship with about 2,000 refugees, reached Madras, but soon realised that they were unwelcome. He headed back to Burma. Months later, Sarlan reached Saigon river, where he and a handful of other Tamilians were captured by the junta and sent to jail. They were later deported to India and walked across the border into Moreh. Sarlan decided to stay on. Sarlan, now 66, is among the first settlers of Moreh.

The first five Tamil families were later joined by other Tamils trying to cross over from Myanmar, along with Bengalis, Punjabis and Nepalese. Gradually, by the '80s, the Tamil population grew to 3,000 families, becoming the third most dominant population after the Kuki tribals and the Meitei Hindus.

"We were the first ones to start businesses here as well as trade with Burma,'' says Sarlan.

The non-Manipuri population, in particular the Tamils, control the Indo-Burmese trade till this day. They run the Moreh Chamber of Commerce and hold all key positions. But the population has dwindled since the peak of 3,000 families in the eighties. There are a total of 400 families now, though the community is still the third largest in Moreh.

In the 1990s, the hills of Chandel and Moreh valley witnessed violent clashes. The 'outsiders'—Bengalis, Punjabis, Nepalese and Tamils—started leaving.

A grid of lanes and timber and cement houses right in the centre of Moreh form the Tamil Sangam. It's a quaint confluence of cultures. Little eateries serve hot dosas, sambar vada and idli. The Tamil women have adopted the Manipuri sarong and shirt but wear jasmine flowers in their hair and ash smears on the foreheads. The area has two temples, a masjid and a church. Architects, craftsmen and labourers had been flown in from Chennai to build the brightly hued Sri Angalaparameshwari temple in Moreh—the second largest temple complex in the Northeast after Guwahati's Balaji temple, says K Balasubramanium, general secretary, Moreh Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and also a leader of the Tamil community.

The town also has a Tamil Youth Club that organises cultural events and where girls are trained in Bharatnatyam and Karakattam. March-April is when Moreh holds its biggest festival—the "fire walking festival" held at the Angalaparameshwari temple, says Balasubramanium. "The Burmese come over from across the border to see it. All the other communities here participate in the festival, including the Manipuris, who take shots at walking over fire,'' he says. "This is a mini Tamil Nadu in Moreh's melting pot,'' says Balasubramanium.

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