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Challenges ahead for new Manipur govt

 Editorial |  2017-03-20 15:50:13.0  |  New Delhi

Challenges ahead for new Manipur govt

Following the end of a crippling 139-day economic blockade early on Monday, Bharatiya Janata Party's choice for Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh (an ex-Congressman) won the floor test in the state Assembly. With the support of legislators from the National People's Party, Naga People's Front and Lok Janshakti Party, among others, the BJP-led coalition ended up with 33 MLAs on its side in the 60-seat House. Quite evidently, the new government has started with a bang, aided of course by the Centre. On March 19, the United Naga Council—an umbrella organisation of Naga civil society groups—finally relented to lift the blockade after a "successful tripartite meeting" with the new BJP government in the state and the Centre. The latest agreement came following "unconditional release of the arrested UNC leaders". Biren Singh hailed the announcement to lift the blockade as the "first step to usher in an era of peace and stability as promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi". During a public rally before the Assembly elections, the Prime Minister accused the previous Congress government of doing little to end the blockade first imposed by the United Naga Council. "No blockade will be allowed once the BJP comes to power," he had said.

Moments after assuming office last week, the newly minted Chief Minister, too, said that his government's first order of business would be to hold talks with the UNC and end the blockade. During the embargo, ordinary citizens had suffered from acute shortages and rising costs of essential supplies, made worse by demonetisation and the ensuing cash crunch. For the uninitiated, the UNC announced a blockade on November 1 last year along two arterial highways leading to the Manipur Valley to protest against the bifurcation of Naga-dominated areas into seven new districts by the previous Ibobi Singh government. For the time being, the people of Manipur can breathe easy. Nonetheless, there are questions over the timing of this deal, and whether the new BJP government can indeed prevent future blockades.  

Many among the previous Congress dispensation have accused the BJP of "involvement in the blockade". During the run-up to the elections, former Chief Minister Ibobi Singh had blamed the Centre for "not taking action" to help restore order in the state. Singh believes that the Centre, which is in the midst of peace talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), could have leaned on the former militant group to pressurise the UNC into calling off the blockade. The insinuation here is that the Modi government deliberately did little to end the blockade, thereby making it a poll issue against the Congress government. Was it political expediency on the BJP's part? Did the Centre deliberately derail any effort to bring succour to the people of Manipur earlier just so that it could use the blockade to discredit the Congress government? One could make the case against the BJP, but it's not as if the previous Congress government was above such behaviour. Before the Assembly elections, it was the Ibobi government which announced the bifurcation of Naga-dominated hill districts. Naga groups claimed the move was aimed at damaging the integrity of Naga ancestral lands. Supporters of the Congress government's move, meanwhile, point out that this controversial notification sought to facilitate better administration of far-flung areas from the district headquarters. Nonetheless, allegations of gerrymandering against the Chief Minister were evident. It was a desperate measure to bring a section of the hill populace, particularly the Kuki community, on their side. Reports suggest that the Congress was struggling to maintain its hold in the hill districts after the NSCN (I-M) had unofficially directed the Naga people to vote for the Naga People's Front (NPF) in the Assembly elections. The widespread perception was that Ibobi Singh's government was beholden to Meitei voters in the valley while ignoring the concerns of the hill populace, especially the Nagas. As a consequence, the Nagas grew increasingly alienated. Despite holding on its Meitei vote base in many seats, some among the community, including the new Chief Minister, were tired of the Congress government's misgovernance, corruption and inability to maintain law and order. With three consecutive terms in office, former Chief Minister Ibobi Singh also faced massive anti-incumbency.    

Anyway, after the meeting between Naga groups, the Centre and the new BJP government in the state, UNC general secretary S Milan said: "The Manipur government acknowledged that creation of the new districts was against past deals with us and assured there would be further dialogues to address our concerns." Does that mean the decision creating the new districts will be revoked? For the time being, there is no rollback, since the decision to carve out seven new districts has many stakeholders, including the hill-residing Kukis and Meitei-dominated Valley populace. For the moment, the Naga peace process could keep the likes of the UNC and NPF onside. If talks do indeed derail, what are the guarantees that future blockades will not happen? What if the BJP government accedes to Naga demands? Will that alienate the Meiteis and Kukis? Can the BJP government ensure harmony among various tribal communities? With the Centre on its side, Biren Singh government can count on its support, but will that count for anything in a deeply divided state? Manipur is under a cloud of ethnic polarisation. Decades of identity politics have ravaged the politics of the state played among competing tribes. The existing political parties have furthered these divides. In the past decade, however, these rivalries have narrowed down to people of the hills, inhabited by many tribes, led by the Thangkhul Nagas, versus the citizens of Imphal Valley, dominated by the Meiteis. The Congress did intensify this polarisation for electoral gain. However, at the heart of these ethnic tensions is control over land. "Land is intrinsically tied to the nationhood idea for many of the ethnic tribes, and control over that land and, by extension, their identity has become a point of contention for many of these groups in Manipur," says a recent column in Mint by Hamsini Hariharan and Priyadarshini Ravichandran. "Entrenched interests within the state and outside interests have intensified existing tensions by calling for a stricter definition of who can be a resident, calling for control of outsider entry into the state, and greater autonomy for the hill district." 
"The Manipur government acknowledged that creation of the new districts was against past deals with us and assured there would be further dialogues to address our concerns." Does that mean the decision creating the new districts will be revoked? For the time being, there is no rollback, since the decision to carve out seven new districts has many stakeholders, including the hill-residing Kukis and Meitei-dominated Valley populace. For the moment, the Naga peace process could keep the likes of the UNC and NPF onside. If talks do indeed derail, what are the guarantees that future blockades will not happen? What if the BJP government accedes to Naga demands? Will that alienate the Meiteis and Kukis? Can the BJP government ensure harmony among various tribal communities? With the Centre on its side, Biren Singh government can count on its support, but will that count for anything in a deeply divided state? Manipur is under a cloud of ethnic polarisation. Decades of identity politics have ravaged the politics of the state played among competing tribes. The existing political parties have furthered these divides. In the past decade, however, these rivalries have narrowed down to people of the hills, inhabited by many tribes, led by the Thangkhul Nagas, versus the citizens of Imphal Valley, dominated by the Meiteis. The Congress did intensify this polarisation for electoral gain. However, at the heart of these ethnic tensions is control over land. "Land is intrinsically tied to the nationhood idea for many of the ethnic tribes, and control over that land and, by extension, their identity has become a point of contention for many of these groups in Manipur," says a recent column in Mint by Hamsini Hariharan and Priyadarshini Ravichandran. "Entrenched interests within the state and outside interests have intensified existing tensions by calling for a stricter definition of who can be a resident, calling for control of outsider entry into the state, and greater autonomy for the hill district." 

In the past decade, however, these rivalries have narrowed down to people of the hills, inhabited by many tribes, led by the Thangkhul Nagas, versus the citizens of Imphal Valley, dominated by the Meiteis. The Congress did intensify this polarisation for electoral gain. However, at the heart of these ethnic tensions is control over land. "Land is intrinsically tied to the nationhood idea for many of the ethnic tribes, and control over that land and, by extension, their identity has become a point of contention for many of these groups in Manipur," says a recent column in Mint by Hamsini Hariharan and Priyadarshini Ravichandran. "Entrenched interests within the state and outside interests have intensified existing tensions by calling for a stricter definition of who can be a resident, calling for control of outsider entry into the state, and greater autonomy for the hill district." 

 Beyond bridging with ethnic divisions, how will the BJP government deal with public discontentment against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act? In a state with very weak state institutions, particularly the police, the new administration has its task cut out.

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