The Bharatiya Janata Party’s next big project in north-east India, the claiming of Manipur from the Congress, has probably flamed out.

With assembly elections due in early 2017, this state touted as the gateway to Southeast Asia is in lockdown, with curfews in its central districts, and arson and attacks fuelled by ethnic violence. President’s rule is a possibility.

Manipur is in the middle of a battle of attrition over political futures. The Congress and its three-term chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh have staked a claim for a fourth consecutive term. He has primarily done so by taking on his old foes, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group and in ceasefire with the Government of India; and its de-facto adjunct, the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Naga tribes in Manipur.

Manipur has a curious geography and ethnic mix that drives politics. The majority non-tribal Meitei community, to which Ibobi belongs, are about 60% of the population, and live mainly in Imphal valley—with its eponymous capital—about a tenth of the territory of Manipur. The valley is surrounded by hills, a ninth of Manipur, where tribes, mainly Naga, and Kuki and Zomi, live. Nagas and Kukis have a history of territorial animosity, fuelled by NSCN (I-M) in the early 1990s that led to a bloodbath. Zomis have mainly stayed neutral. UNC began to push hard about three years ago to delink from the administrative control of Imphal, accusing Ibobi’s government of pursuing policies of administration and development that favour Meiteis. Other tribes too were in agreement. Last year the Congress introduced in the assembly 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. The bills lapsed, unsigned by the President.

UNC demands have become more urgent since August 2015, when the Government of India announced a ‘framework agreement’ for peace with NSCN (I-M). It effectively had no content except strengthening positions from which to negotiate.

It is becoming increasingly clear that, in post-conflict Nagaland there’s no real future for the NSCN (I-M)—especially for its key leaders and numerous cadres who are Tangkhul Naga from the northern Ukhrul district of Manipur. This possibility has fuelled long time Meitei fears that a Naga peace deal will involve ceding of Manipur’s territory—a violently emotive issue.

In early November, UNC enforced a blockade of highways and roads that run through Naga homelands in the hills to Imphal valley—and choked it: everything from fuel to consumer goods and numerous vegetables is trucked in. Naga activists attacked some vehicles, destroyed produce. New Delhi did little except wait, and watch. BJP officials criticized Ibobi.

Ibobi struck on 25 November, when police arrested the president and information secretary of UNC. Outrage by Naga groups washed over Ibobi. He sent security forces to escort some convoys of trucks into the valley. On 9 December, Ibobi announced the formation of seven new districts adding to the existing nine. Of these, four were earlier part of the Naga-majority districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel. This removed non-Naga areas, and leveraged disquiet that even some Naga tribes and clans have towards domineering NSCN (I-M), and by extension the ‘northern’ Tangkhul. In effect, it administratively cauterized non-Naga areas from a Naga push.

Ergo: Ibobi emerged as the protector of majoritarian interests. It appears to matter little that his tenure has seen an irreparable slide in ethnic relations and Manipur’s urban and rural infrastructure. Corruption is limited only by the funds at hand, and human rights violations haven’t been as rampant since the 1980s.

Ibobi has played this game before. In 2010 he barred Thuingaleng Muivah’s entry to Manipur. NSCN (I-M)’s general secretary had wished to visit his ancestral village in Ukhrul. It led to rioting, and Naga deaths, but bought Ibobi the halo of protector. Congress won the 2012 assembly elections in a landslide. The valley accounts for 40 seats, the hills 20—Naga-dominated and not.

Over the past month Meitei neighbourhoods in the Valley have imposed counter-blockades on vehicles travelling to Naga areas. This past week enraged Meiteis torched vehicles and destroyed goods, in grim payback.

Manipur is on edge. That may matter little to Ibobi, who has the edge as long as the tension persists, and President’s rule doesn’t deter him.

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.

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