The government in Manipur is caught in a bind as a blockade enforced by a Naga organisation cuts off supplies for Imphal.
THE 223-km-long abandoned National Highway No. 53 (Imphal-Silchar road) turned into a highway of hope for Manipur when a convoy of 230 trucks and tankers rolled out at the crack of dawn on July 19, exactly one month after the State's main supply line, National Highway 39 (Imphal-Dimapur road), was choked by an indefinite economic blockade imposed by the All Naga Students' Association, Manipur (ANSAM). The Okram Ibobi Singh-led Secular Progressive Front (SPF) government heaved a sigh of relief when the trucks hit the alternative lifeline, with security forces in tow, from Imphal to fetch supplies from Assam's Silchar and other places for replenishing stocks in Imphal godowns, which had depleted rapidly because of the blockade.
However, the government's hopes of tiding over the crisis were crushed when saboteurs bisected a suspension bridge along this alternative lifeline. The blockade had created an unprecedented crisis in Manipur as stocks of essential commodities depleted rapidly, leading to shortages and sky-rocketing of prices. Hundreds of trucks were stranded at the entry point at Mao gate in Nagaland on National Highway No. 39, which connects Imphal with Kohima and was the only supply line to the State until N.H. 53 was repaired, sanitised and reopened on July 19.
Rice was sold at Rs.50 a kg, about five times the normal price; an LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinder, normally priced Rs.300, was selling at Rs.600; kerosene prices shot up to Rs.32 a litre. The State government rationed the sale of petrol and diesel with no supplies coming in from outside. At least six trucks, including oil tankers, trying to defy the blockade were set ablaze. The ANSAM blockade received full steam on July 12 when the Naga Students' Federation (NSF) also announced an "indefinite economic blockade" on highways linking the Imphal valley, which remained cut off, in support of the demand for the unification of Naga-inhabited areas of the region.
The move came a day after Naga groups entrusted the apex student body of Nagaland to coordinate the agitation that has been carried out since June 22 by Naga students in Manipur's hill districts. Noting with grave concern the involvement of Nagaland-based non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the "internal affairs" of Manipur, the United Committee Manipur (UCM) demanded that any dialogue initiated to defuse the situation with ANSAM should not involve Nagaland-based NGOs such as the Naga Hoho or the NSF.
The blockade called by the Naga students' body in Manipur and backed by the NSF and other Naga NGOs of Nagaland brought to the fore the larger issue of protecting Manipur's territorial integrity. The ANSAM imposed the economic blockade in the four hill districts of Tamenglong, Chandel, Ukhrul and Senapati, cutting off the remaining five districts of the State from the rest of the country. The blockade was in protest against the Ibobi Singh government's declaration of June 18 as "State Integrity Day". The ANSAM described it as a "coercive and belligerent attitude towards a peaceful assertion of the Naga people's democratic will", which it described as "highly irresponsible and as an attempt on the part of the government to distort facts".
The `great June uprising' in Manipur was a direct fallout of the previous National Democratic Alliance government's declaration of the extension of the ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim - Isaac-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in 2001, without territorial limits and beyond Nagaland, which was seen as a prelude to conceding the rebel group's demand for integration of the Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, including the four Naga-inhabited hill districts of Manipur that account for two-thirds of the territory of the troubled State. Altogether 20 protesters lost their lives in firing by security forces. It has been a rallying point for the people in Manipur for the last four years to oppose any move by the Centre to concede to the NSCN (I-M) demand for a greater Nagalim and the merger of the four hill districts in the proposed Nagalim. While the decision to declare June 18 as "State Integrity Day" prompted ANSAM to resort to the indefinite blockade, the agitation by the Naga students' body in Manipur has come in the backdrop of NSCN (I-M) leaders' return to their bases abroad after eight months of negotiations with the Centre. The talks failed to evolve any solution to the outfit's demand for the integration of Naga-inhabited areas, owing to stiff opposition from Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
On May 27, a memorandum signed by 13 Naga Members of Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) of Manipur, including former Chief Minister Rishang Keishing who is now a Rajya Sabha member, was submitted to the Prime Minister. The letter stated: "In case of territorial integration of the Naga areas, we believe that it is our sincere question and the basic fundamental right of the Naga people to be under one political entity and live together. We therefore fully support the aspiration of the Naga people for integration." The unequivocal support of these Naga polticians of Manipur and the ANSAM-sponsored blockade have been seen as attempts by the NSCN (I-M) to exert influence through mass mobilisation in Manipur to mount pressure on New Delhi for the integration of the Naga-inhabited areas of the State.
The NSCN (I-M), however, refuted the Manipur government's claim that it was involved in the current agitation by Naga students in that State, but said it could not remain a "silent spectator" if New Delhi allowed Ibobi Singh to continue using "brute force" against unarmed Naga civilians. "Ibobi [Singh] and his people may cry against the NSCN for its involvement, but it has no hand in the on-going agitation of the Naga public led by the ANSAM. But how long can the NSCN remain a silent spectator?" said a statement issued by the outfit's information and publicity wing.
On July 13, ANSAM asked all the Naga MLAs and Ministers in Manipur to resign, declaring that "Naga identity and dignity cannot be safeguarded under the present arrangement of Manipur State under any circumstances". ANSAM, however, came out with another statement clarifying that it would not force anyone (of the Naga MLAs and Ministers) to resign their seats, but would not stop the Naga MLAs and Ministers from resigning or supporting the ongoing non-cooperation movement.
As ANSAM turned down pleas of the government for withdrawing the blockade, the Chief Minister tried to placate the Naga students' body by stating that the "State Integrity Day" had not been placed on the official list of general holidays and that no concrete decision had been made on whether it would be retained as a general holiday next year. On July 15, during a discussion on the current impasse in the Assembly, he declared that the decision was a mistake "if it has hurt anybody". By doing so, Ibobi Singh only attracted the wrath of leading NGOs of Manipur such as the All Manipur United Clubs Organisation (AMUCO), the UCM and the umbrella organisation Apunba Lup. The UCM warned that if the Ibobi Singh government rolled back its June 18 declaration, it would be inviting another June 18. Expressing grave concern over the imposition of the indefinite economic blockade on the National Highways, the AMUCO said that it was not the solution to any issue. In a statement, the AMUCO said that any differences could be resolved through people-to-people contact, but an economic blockade would only add to the woes of the people, not only in the valley area but also in the hills.
The NSCN-Khaplang faction, the rival of the NSCN (I-M), however, voiced its opposition to the ANSAM-sponsored blockade and accused the NSCN (I-M) of trying to divide Manipur as well as the Nagas.
The Ibobi Singh government now faces a daunting task of avoiding fissures between the people of the hill districts and the valley. Any tough move to clear the two highways of the ANSAM-blockade may provide an opportunity to the Naga groups to intensify their stir in support of the integration of Naga-inhabited areas. On the other hand, any backtracking on the issue of declaring June 18 as a "State Integrity Day" would be seen as yielding to the pressure from the Naga outfits at the expense of protecting the State's integrity.
On July 17, an all-party meeting chaired by the Chief Minister resolved to seek the Centre's intervention in solving the impasse created by the blockade and to appeal to ANSAM to call off the agitation in the interest of the general public. The meeting also decided to depute an all-political delegation to New Delhi to apprise Central leaders of the situation.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, however, preferred to adopt a "wait and watch" policy as it perhaps apprehends that any mishandling of the situation might jeopardise the ongoing peace process with the NSCN (I-M) and trigger another crisis.
It will be very difficult either for the Ibobi Singh government or for the UPA government at the Centre to ensure that the present impasse ends easily. Even if it succeeds in overcoming the crisis, there is little hope that ANSAM would give up its demand for integration of Naga-inhabited areas. Manipur seems poised to face a larger threat to its territorial integrity from within.