Choking problem

Print edition : February 03, 2017

United Naga Council supporters scuffle with the police as they picket government offices in Senapati, some 50 km north of Imphal, on January 3 in protest against the Manipur government's decision to create seven new districts. Photo: AFP

Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju (left) in a meeting with Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh (centre) in Imphal on December 23, 2016, to discuss the situation following the economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council. Photo: PTI

Both the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP think the burning issue of the creation of new districts in Manipur will be a game changer in the forthcoming election.

THE stage is set for Assembly elections in Manipur, to be held in two phases, on March 4 and 8, even as the State is reeling under a blockade with its two lifelines—National Highways 2 and 37—under siege. The United Naga Council (UNC) has enforced the “economic blockade” to protest against the Manipur government’s decision to create seven new districts. The UNC has decided to continue with the blockade during and beyond the elections and has decided to intensify the picketing of government offices and the “ban” on the construction of national projects in Naga areas.

The people of Manipur have been grappling with a severe shortage of essential commodities since the blockade began on November 1, 2016. The prices of essential commodities have escalated. And there seems to be no immediate end to the crisis even though a convoy of trucks carrying essential commodities, escorted by Central forces, to the State capital Imphal has eased the supply position. However, both New Delhi and Imphal seem to have ignored the lessons from the bouts of economic blockade imposed in the past and there are no visible efforts to resolve the crisis other than providing escort to trucks carrying goods. Violence broke out in different parts of the State during that blockade and counter-blockade.

Matters came to a boil this time on December 8, 2016, with the Congress government led by Okram Ibobi Singh issuing a gazette notification on the creation of seven new districts—Kangpokpi, Jiribam, Noney, Tengnoupal, Pherzawl, Kamjong and Kakching. Of the undivided nine districts, the four hill districts of Senapati, Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Chandel are Naga dominated. Churachandpur has a dominant population of Kuki and other tribes, while the Meiteis dominate the undivided four valley districts.

The State government has divided all the five hill districts and the two valley districts of Imphal East and Thoubal. The oval-sized valley of Manipur is surrounded by hills. The two lifelines pass through the hill areas of the State, which explains how the blockade affects supplies to the valley.

The State government, on December 20, also created 322 posts in different categories in the Revenue Department to man the new districts.

The UNC oppose the creation of the new districts alleging that the “Government of Manipur failed to uphold and honour, in letter and spirit, the four MoUs signed between the government and [the] Naga people in 1981, 1992, 1996, and 1998 and [the] written assurance given by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2011 that in [the] creation of new district[s] in Manipur, Naga people would be consulted”.

The UNC has demanded a rollback of the decision to create new districts and the unconditional release of two of its leaders who were arrested, president Gaidon Kamei and information secretary S.K. Stephen. It also wants President’s Rule to be imposed in Manipur. “Nagas can no longer live under suppressive, oppressive and hegemonic political system of the communal government of Manipur and urge the Government of India to finalise the Indo-Naga Framework Agreement at the earliest based on the unique history of the Nagas and its situation,” UNC general secretary Milian Shimray told Frontline.

Tough stance

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh ruled out any rollback of the decision to create new districts. He also spelt out the government’s position on holding talks with the UNC—that it would do so only if the organisation lifted the blockade and gave an assurance that it would not be repeated. The Chief Minister alleged that the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) was behind the blockade and urged the Centre to intervene and restrain the NSCN(IM).

He also made it clear that the creation of new districts was within the purview of the State government and no one could dictate terms to it in this regard.

The UNC general secretary, however, refuted Ibobi’s allegation and insisted that the NSCN(IM) should not be dragged into the issue of blockade as “ours is a well-established position on land since 1981 when NSCN(IM) was not even formed”.

The UNC leader alleged that the prevailing situation was created by the Ibobi government and urged the organisations appealing to the UNC to lift the blockade to ask the government why it had not consulted the Naga people before the creation of the new districts. Announcing the decision to intensify the blockade even during and beyond the Assembly elections, the Naga leader said: “Assembly elections will come after every five years but our Naga ancestral land should be protected and safeguarded at all costs. This is our priority. Naga ancestral homeland is non-negotiable.”

The UNC’s hardened position is a pointer to the fact that the blockade and the resultant shortage of essential commodities will turn the State into a battleground for territory-linked identity assertions in this election. The State has always been held hostage by two competing identity movements, one for safeguarding the territorial integrity of Manipur and the other for the “integration of Naga-inhabited areas”.

BJP on a sticky wicket

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds the Ibobi government responsible for the present crisis. It alleged that Ibobi had a “political objective” behind the creation of the new districts. However, the BJP has found itself on a sticky wicket as the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre headed by Narendra Modi has been engaged in peace talks with the NSCN(IM). The Modi government signed a framework agreement with the NSCN(IM), the details of which have not been divulged, triggering suspicion and apprehension among the people of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam over the deal. The NSCN(IM)’s map of “Nagalim” includes the Naga-inhabited areas of the three States besides Nagaland. The framework agreement was signed on August 3, 2015, after 80 rounds of peace talks over the past 19 years since the two sides signed a truce in 1997.

The BJP has been trying to tell the people that the incumbent Congress government has remained indifferent to people’s sufferings while “it invited the trouble” by declaring the new districts with an eye on the election. The State BJP unit issued an appeal to the UNC to lift the blockade in view of the extreme scarcity of essential commodities faced by all sections of people in the State. BJP spokesman and former Congress Minister N. Biren hoped that the UNC would consider its appeal.

The opposition party also offered to extend all possible assistance in initiating a dialogue vis-a-vis the UNC’s demand. He said that a delegation of the State unit of the party had called on Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and urged him to divulge the details of the framework agreement signed between the NSCN (IM) and the Government of India and also to “restrict all such agreements and ceasefire pacts within the territories of Nagaland”.

The NSCN(IM), on the other hand, alleged that “the creation of new districts out of Naga territory without their consent is a deliberate act to suppress the right of the Nagas”. It also flayed the Centre for sending Central forces to Manipur to deal with the situation emerging from the blockade. “We are serious and committed for the peaceful solution. The issue is pure and simple between the two different entities, the Nagas and GoI [Government of India]. However, the GoI seems to have lost its statesmanship in dealing with the issue at hand. The existing problem in Manipur is simply, so to say, created by the CM Ibobi Singh out of his sheer desperation. At his behest, the GoI is sending additional Central forces against the Nagas all the more. This clearly shows the nexus between CM Ibobi and the GoI. Where is the sincerity of the GoI to solve the Indo-Naga problem?” the Naga rebel group said in a statement and asserted that “Nagas will never accept any imposition upon them whether today or tomorrow”.

While the UNC and organisations associated with it have opposed the creation of new districts, the organisations of the majority Meiteis, the Kukis and other tribes have welcomed the decision as they had been demanding it for administrative convenience. The ruling Congress, desperate to win the mandate to rule the State for a fourth consecutive term, hopes that the creation of the new districts will be a game changer and will check the BJP’s advance in the State. Besides, the intensification of the blockade can only be expected to push to centre stage the issue of protecting Manipur’s territorial integrity.

For the BJP’s spin doctors, articulating the party’s position to balance the issues of Naga integration and safeguarding Manipur’s territorial integrity in order to convince majority voters in the valley districts dominated by Meiteis and the hill districts dominated by Nagas, Kukis and other tribes appears to be a tough challenge. All eyes are now on the Election Commission to see how it will deal with the prevailing situation and ensure smooth elections and tension-free electioneering.

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