Manipur’s line of fire

As with so many things with Manipur and the Naga peace process, insecurities and intrigue plague this chessboard at the bleeding edge of India’s so-called Act East policy


Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh. Photo: HT
Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh. Photo: HT

Who would want to shoot at Okram Ibobi Singh, the Congress chief minister of Manipur? The answer might fill a large black book.

For now, the government of Manipur has pointed the finger at National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN(I-M), the largest Naga rebel group, and currently in peace talks with the government of India. As with so many things with Manipur and the Naga peace process, insecurities and intrigue plague this chessboard at the bleeding edge of India’s so-called Act East policy. Complicating matters is elections to Manipur’s assembly next February, which is a Congress-versus-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-versus-spoilers contest. Spoilers include smaller political parties, rebel groups and specific ethnic interests.

On 24 October morning, Ibobi and his colleagues choppered up to the district headquarter town of Ukhrul. He was to inaugurate an unfinished hospital here, a local development office and two electricity sub-stations. Shots were fired—it isn’t clear by whom—after he arrived. Two police vehicles were set on fire by protesters, two Manipur policemen injured. Ibobi left without fulfilling any agenda except that of reconfirming the enormous divide between the plains and hills of Manipur.

Ukhrul was already locked down on account of a boycott called by the Tangkhul Naga Long (TNL), the apex body of Tangkhuls for whom Ukhrul district is the tribal homeland. Tangkhuls have long complained about the majority Meitei community, to which Ibobi belongs, being biased against them, other Naga tribes, and the Kuki and Zomi people who inhabit the hill districts of Manipur—which account for 40% of the population but more than four-fifths of the area.

They accuse the government of stacking job opportunities against tribals, of skewing development projects in the interest of the plains, such as a major dam to bring water to Imphal and irrigate the surrounding valley that has submerged tribal villages. TNL had warned against Ibobi’s visit; the projects were seen as being politically motivated. The protests certainly were.

Such animosity isn’t new. For several years United Naga Council, the apex body of Naga tribes in Manipur, has boycotted Imphal and entered into negotiations with the central government for administrative independence of Naga areas in Manipur.

Last year, Churachandpur district erupted when Zomis protested a legislation they felt would question their eligibility to reside in Manipur, and own land and establishments. Several protesters were killed by police.

To be fair to Ibobi, his reign of error and terror since 2002 has been ethno-agnostic: it has also impacted the Meitei. His government and Manipur’s police have been censured by the Supreme Court for human rights violations in Imphal Valley. Manipur is impoverished. Infrastructure is in shambles. The government is so corrupt that the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports about Manipur carry a despondent tone.

Equally, anti-Ibobi and anti-Meitei narratives aren’t the only twists.

Several leaders of NSCN(I-M), including its general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, chief of its army, and a large proportion of armed cadres are Tangkhul. Nothing moves in Ukhrul, from development projects to the death of a political target, without the say-so of NSCN(I-M), a ruthless organization with a long reach, which is pushing for the integration of Naga homelands in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam with Nagaland. Both TNL and the Council are influenced by NSCN(I-M).

As in Nagaland, NSCN(I-M) imposes tax on individuals and businesses (including those for prospecting for hydrocarbons, for instance), skims off development funds for public projects, and attempts to influence electoral outcomes. Indeed, several dozen rebel groups and factions active in Manipur—Naga, Meitei, Kuki and Zomi—do exactly the same in their areas of influence.

Since a framework agreement for peace was signed between the government of India and NSCN(I-M) in August 2015, the organization has had a freer run. Major functionaries, including a key arms procurer, and cadres, have been released from custody. The central government has used it as a bulwark against other groups, especially NSCN’s Khaplang faction that ditched a ceasefire early last year. Central government forces, especially Assam Rifles, omnipresent and heavy-handed in Manipur, and with a major presence in Ukhrul, laid low during the fracas earlier this week. Local politics played out with local players and local police.

The BJP’s strategy is to aggressively stitch together a broad spectrum alliance for elections, and balance the Naga peace process at the same time. It’s an incendiary, high-stakes game. Few in Manipur will cry for Ibobi, but Manipur isn’t yet done with tears.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, will now run on Thursdays.

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