Manipur in turmoil over new districts

Territorial integrity is an emotive issue for the Meiteis and Kukis, particularly in the face of Naga nationalism.

The north eastern border state of Manipur has become the latest battle ground between the BJP and the Congress to promote their political interests. Despite an economic blockade in Manipur for over two months, the BJP regime at the Centre has not intervened and allowed the issue to fester in the backdrop of the state elections scheduled for March. The BJP since mid-2016 made significant inroads into the Meitei-dominated valley districts of the state which the Congress has ruled for over 14 years.

However, last month the BJP state legislative assembly leader Khumukcham Joykishan resigned in protest against the Centre’s apathy to end the economic blockade and joined the ruling Congress. The situation in the state has deteriorated to the extent that post-demonetisation, the price hike in essential commodities from baby foods to building materials, has traumatised the common man and led to a counter-blockade by some Manipuri groups.  

The United Naga Council (UNC) on November 1, 2016 imposed an economic blockade to protest against Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh’s decision to accord Jiribam and Sadar Hills the status of full-fledged districts. The decision to create seven new districts triggered turmoil in the region, resulting in a prolonged blockade for over a month across the state.

The state earlier had nine districts namely Imphal West, Imphal East, Bishnupur, Thoubal, Ukhrul, Senapati, Temenglong, Churachandpur and Chandel. These nine districts will further fragment into 16 districts which include Kangpokpi, Tengnou­pal, Pherzawl, Noney, Kamjong, Jiribam and Kakching.

The UNC contends that Sadar Hills is the “ancestral homeland” of the Nagas where “mig­rant” Kukis are now in a majority. As original inhabitants of the area, the Nagas enjoy an em­otional attachment to these lands, unlike the Kukis who are migrants and this has resulted in a hostile relationship between them.

The Naga perception is that such a move to add seven districts would weaken their ‘nativity’ which is linked to the territory. As a result, the decision to re-distribute territory within the state has heightened the ethnic tensions between the Nagas, and Kukis and Meities of Manipur. 

Ibobi Singh accuses the UNC of being supported by the notorious Naga insurgent group NSCN-IM to restrict the state administration’s access into its Naga inhabited districts through a blockade and a series of ambushes against security forces. The UNC has blocked the two national highways – No. 2 and No. 37 – which are the only lifelines for landlocked Manipur. The highways pass through Na­ga inhibited districts of the state. 

The mounting differences which manifested in clashes between the Manipuri (Tangkhul) Nagas and the Meiteis over territorial integrity appears intractable. Earlier, the state experienced ethnic cleansing in 1992, 1993 and 1997 when clashes occurred between Kukis and Nagas, and Meitei-Hindus against Meitei-Muslims and Kuki against Paitei.

In 2001, Manipur suffered riots, when the BJP-led A B Vajpayee regime extended the ceasefire with the NSCN-IM “beyond Nagaland”. The lack of sensitivity led to the 2001 ethnic tensions between different groups in Manipur. The problem arises because New Delhi is unaware of the state’s domestic politics and ignorant of their margin of manoeuvre.

To add fuel to the fire, on August 4, 2015 when the Centre signed a “Peace Accord”, with NSCN–IM, the people protested in Manipur and also in all the neighbouring states. The NSCN-IM strives to spread “Nagalim” across Manipur, Assam and Arunachal within the Indian borders. The Naga claims for “Nagalim”, also spans across Sagaing, Myanmar, where they aspire to establish a Naga territory based on their cultural roots and tradition.

Emotive issue

Territorial integrity is an emotive issue for the Meiteis and Kukis, particularly with the Nagas attempting to dismember the state in the pursuit of Naga nationalism. The dominant grie­vance is that the Manipur gover­nment has not consulted those Naga residents in these districts about the move to politically realign the district geography. The state comprises five hill districts and four valley districts; the Meities inhabit the lower regions of the valley while Naga and Kuki tribes live in the hills.

Today, the political polarisation appears to be directed towards the BJP losing support in Manipur’s upcoming elections, since the peace accord points towards the Centre’s tacit support for the Naga cause.   Clearly, the political balance in the state has therefore tilted against the BJP -- which is now seen as pro-Naga -- to its political rival the Congress.  This may prove to be a serious setback to the BJP’s efforts to make inroads into Manipur.

Ironically, the BJP seeks to ignore the Meitei vote-bank in Manipur which is exclusively Hindu, to support the Nagas in a Christian dominated north eastern region. The on-going blockade and counter-blockade has the potential to trigger ethnic cleansing. The struggle for power between the two national parties has enabled the NSCN (IM) to exploit the situation. It is high time the Centre transcended electoral politics and intervened in the crisis on humanitarian grounds.

(Singh is an Assistant Professor and Praveen a Research scholar, Department of International Studies and History at Christ University, Bengaluru)

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