Whether the blockade stays, goesor resumesand whether CM Okram Ibobi Singh stays or goes, Manipur's future is bleak unless initiatives are soon taken
Don’t be fooled by claims of rapprochement in Manipur, of politicians coming together for the welfare of citizens as this northeastern gateway state looks to general elections to its assembly over 4 and 8 March. India’s messiest state alongside Jammu & Kashmir, Manipur is caught in a deadly, debilitating game with people’s lives and for which nearly every political party, and nearly every rebel group, which work overwhelmingly along ethnic lines, are liable. Some more than others.
Manipur began its latest state of siege on 1 November, as the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex tribal body of Nagas in Manipur, enforced a blockade protesting the state government’s impinging on Naga homelands with its territorial policies. It effectively choked two major highways—lifelines really—one that runs north-to-south from neighbouring Nagaland through to Imphal valley and beyond; the other west-to-east from Silchar in neighbouring Assam into the valley.
Naga tribes control most of the hilly northern and western districts the highways navigate.
In the wake of central paramilitary forces escorting a few convoys of trucks carrying fuel and other supplies after several months of central government stall, in the fourth week of January an Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster ferried a few fuel tankers from Guwahati to Imphal, Manipur’s capital. It was an extravagant gesture by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of India that has been content to let Manipur’s Congress government stew in its own rancid juice, repeatedly claiming with technical correctness that law-and-order is a ‘state subject’. But the fact also is that, it has for nearly three years had its eyes on ending the government of incumbent chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, a three-term run of error and terror.
The blockade continues as I write this. The blockade may have ended as you read—spurred by a tripartite meeting in New Delhi on Monday between central, state and UNC representatives. But beyond bringing relief to two-thirds of the state’s population starved of essential supplies, it will have meant little. Either way, Manipur remains utterly divided.
The majority non-tribal Meitei community, to which Ibobi belongs, is about 60% of the population, and lives mainly in Imphal valley, about a tenth of the territory of Manipur. The valley is surrounded by hills, a ninth of Manipur, where mainly Naga, Kuki and Zomi tribes live. Nagas have rebel-led animus with other tribes.
UNC has for some years pushed for a break from the administrative control of Imphal, accusing Ibobi’s government of favouring Meiteis. In 2015, Manipur’s government introduced a bill restricting the entry of outsiders into Manipur, and amendments restricting residency and commerce. It was seen as discriminatory by all tribes. Riots erupted in southern Churachandpur district, a Zomi stronghold. Several protesters were killed by police (as a protest, bodies lie unclaimed in the morgue).
The bills lapsed, unsigned by the President. I have been told by insiders of a nudge by security mandarins and BJP leaders.
UNC has become more aggressive since August 2015, when the government of India announced a ‘framework agreement’ for peace with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M)—a practically empty document of show, and meaningless in the overall Naga peace process.
Government officials in New Delhi and Imphal have for long maintained that UNC is a front for I-M, the largest Naga rebel group which, on account of ethnic ties in Manipur for a great number of its personnel and officials, is pushing for territory it can officially control. But now, UNC and I-M are somewhat on the side of the angels in New Delhi—as it were. With no give from Imphal, UNC enforced a blockade.
Ibobi, ever keen on an opportunity to recover ground—and reverse public perception even among Meiteis that his administration is ineffective and corrupt beyond redemption—hit back on 25 November. Police arrested the president and information secretary of UNC.
On 9 December, Ibobi announced formation of seven new districts adding to the existing nine. Of these, four were earlier a part of the Naga-majority districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel. As I have written earlier, in effect, it administratively cauterized non-Naga areas from a Naga push.
And Ibobi had some of his pro-Meitei, majoritarian halo back, leveraging the greatly emotive issue that ceding territory is to the Meitei. Whether the blockade stays, goes—or resumes—and whether Ibobi stays or goes, Manipur’s future is bleak unless initiatives are soon taken. More on that next week.
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, runs on Thursdays.