IMPHAL (India): Promoted in official tourist brochures as the “jewel of India,” the tiny state of Manipur seems closer to an ignored family heirloom than a proudly coveted gem.

“Backwards,” “marginalised,” “isolated,” “insurgency-wracked:” the adjectives that most frequently precede any mention of Manipur for all its stunning natural beauty are overwhelmingly negative.

And for many Manipuris, the concept of being “of India” in any meaningful sense is one they find difficult to entertain.

“Why should I care about India when India does not care about me,” says Jiangam Kamei, a 22-year-old history student in the state capital Imphal.

Such expressions of alienation are common in a number of the “Seven Sisters” the group of northeastern states encircled by five other countries and connected to the rest of India by a sliver of land that arches over Bangladesh.

Their relative isolation is not just geographical, but also ethnic, linguistic, economic and political.

“We look so different to start with,” said Kshetrimayum Onil, who works for a local human rights group in Manipur and also runs a youth network called ReachOut.

“We are often mistaken for Chinese or Koreans because of our Mongol roots,” Onil said.

One of India’s smallest states with a population of just 2.7 million inhabitants, Manipur borders Myanmar and its people have always tended to look eastwards in their search for cultural links.

“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.” One striking example is the massive popularity in Manipur of Korean movies, soap operas and pop music, which have filled the vacuum caused by a separatist-led boycott of Bollywood films.

Separatist violence has been part of daily life in Manipur for decades, as it has been in most of the northeastern states that have spawned more than 100 militant groups whose demands range from autonomy to secession.

Manipur was incorporated into the Indian Union on Oct 15, 1949, two years after the country won independence from British rule.—AFP

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