Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Manipur’s old patterns of violence reignited

As the state prepares for assembly elections, its complex and contested social fabric has once again become a battleground

There are a handful of certainties in India’s political life. Somewhere near the top of the list is this: The north-eastern states, critical to India’s security and economic linkages, will be underserved in terms of both governance and public focus.

Case in point: the highway blockade by the Nagas and the counter-blockade by the Meiteis in Manipur, on since November. Now, the Centre has sent in as many as 4,000 paramilitary troops to quell the violence, even as the call for President’s rule in the state grows louder.

The situation is spiralling out of control. Certainly, Manipur is no stranger to such blockades and ethnic feuds between Nagas and the Meiteis have a long and bloody history. But the ongoing crisis must be seen against the backdrop of a new political scenario wherein new players are seeking to expand their areas of influence while old warhorses struggle to hold on to their positions. In the consequent churn of events, the state’s complex and contested social fabric has once again been converted into a battleground.

The immediate cause for the crisis at hand is the formation of seven new districts in the state—Jiribam, Kangpokpi, Kakching, Tengnoupal, Kamjong, Pherzawl and Noney (which are being carved out of the existing districts of Imphal East, Churachandpur, Senapati, Thoubal, Chandel, Ukhrul and Tamenglong). Of these, Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel are Naga-majority hill districts which have now been separated from their non-Naga populations, ostensibly to weaken the Naga vote in the forthcoming assembly election. This move also feeds directly into the old Naga demand for a Nagalim, or a greater Nagaland which incorporates the aforementioned Naga-majority hill districts of Manipur as well as parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Myanmar into the present-day state of Nagaland.

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The current opposition to the district reorganization move is being led by the United Naga Council (UNC), which enjoys the support of the primary Naga insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN (I-M), and claims to represent Manipuri Nagas. Since early November, the UNC has been blockading national highways 2 and 37—an old tactic—that run through Manipur and serve as lifelines of the landlocked state. The blockade has as always imposed enormous hardship on the people of Manipur—who are facing shortages of food, fuel, medicines, gas and other essential supplies—but failed to achieve its political goals.

How the government in New Delhi responds from here on should be watched closely. On the one hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has actively sought to feature the North-East as a priority item on the national agenda. His government has sanctioned large infrastructure development projects for the region, appointed a high-profile minister of state for the North-East, and, importantly, signed a peace agreement with the NSCN (I-M) last year. Now, his government faces a major challenge in resolving or at least bringing under control the current crisis.

On the other hand, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking to make inroads in the region. It scripted a stellar electoral victory in Assam and now has its eyes set on Manipur, where it is considered to be a growing power. Already, in January, the party won 62 of the 278 municipal councils, while in June it secured 10 seats in the Imphal municipal corporation election. The BJP has also raised its tally in the Manipur assembly after former Congress and Trinamool Congress leaders joined its ranks.

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Some commentators have alleged that the central government has taken a hands-off approach to the crisis, allowing chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh’s incumbent Congress government to come across as ineffective and incapable. These are largely unsubstantiated allegations—but there is no doubt that the BJP will have to strike a fine balancing act, carefully calibrating its strategies towards the Naga and Meitei communities. Already, there are reports of dissent within the party’s Manipur cadre over the Centre’s handling of the issue.

As for the Congress, Singh faces a strong anti-incumbency wave as he prepares to seek a fourth term but he has practically no opponents within the party. The loss of his MLAs will, no doubt, hurt his campaign but, with the contentious district reorganization effort, he has made it clear that he will put up a fight. Officially, this is being done for administrative efficiency. But the very fact that Singh chose to pick up the issue right before the polls indicates that it is part of his electoral strategy to secure the Meitei vote.

He had done something similar in 2010 when he prevented the general secretary of NSCN (I-M) from entering the state and visiting his home town. This enraged the Nagas but won Singh the support of the Meiteis who, though frustrated with the rampant corruption of his government, see him as a buffer against Naga aggression. In 2011, during a similar blockade that continued for more than 100 days, Singh played up the victim card and went on to win the 2012 poll, but it remains to be seen if this will be enough to win him the election in 2017.

But here is the real question: How, if at all, will these reconfigurations of old patterns of political power affect Manipur’s parallel patterns of unrest and violence?

How do you think the current crisis in Manipur will play out in the run up to the 2017 assembly election? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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