With Assembly elections around the corner in Manipur, the Centre has decided to intervene and mediate between the Congress-led State government and the United Naga Council (UNC) in the hope of ending the economic blockade that has gone on for more than 95 days. On Monday, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh indicated that the Naga group would lift its crippling blockade, while his government unconditionally releases two UNC members it had jailed. For the people of Manipur, this is welcome news, especially since the Naga protests coincided with the Centre's ill-advised currency exchange measure. As a result of the blockade, ordinary citizens have suffered from acute shortages and rising costs of essential supplies, made worse by demonetisation and the ensuing cash crunch. Severe disruptions in the supply line caused by the blockade, for example, resulted in a massive spike in prices of oil and cooking gas. As the embargo comes to an end, normal service should resume, if only momentarily. Some political commentators argue that this positive outcome ahead of Assembly polls slated for later this month is, in fact, a symptom of a growing divide.
Manipur is under a cloud of deep 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. There are serious allegations against the Congress government, which banks on votes from the Valley, of intensifying this polarisation for electoral gain. In 2015, the Singh government acquiesced to Meitei demands in the Valley by passing three controversial bills, which for all intents and purposes established an inner permit line regime over the entire state. Reports indicate that the hill tribes were not even consulted, resulting in violent protests among the hill populace. Many of the hill tribes, especially the Thangkul Nagas, believed that the new legislation would facilitate encroachment of hill territory by people from the densely populated valley, denying them their historical rights to ancestral land.
On November 1, 2016, the UNC announced a blockade on two arterial highways leading to the Manipur Valley in opposition the creation of seven new districts by the State government. With Assembly elections on the horizon, the incumbent government gave way to long-pending demands for a new Kuki-majority district to be carved out of the larger and once Naga-dominated Senapati hill district. Commentators argue that a similar motive is in motion to break up other old Naga-dominated hill districts such as Ukhrul, Tamenglong, and Chandel. Naga groups claimed the move was aimed at damaging the integrity of Naga ancestral lands. Supporters of the government's recent move, meanwhile, point out that the latest notification seeks to facilitate better administration of far-flung areas from the district headquarters. Nonetheless, allegations of gerrymandering against the Chief Minister are evident. Many observers have pinned the decision as a desperate measure to bring a section of the hill populace on-side. Reports suggest that the Congress is struggling to maintain its hold in the hills after the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) group unofficially directed the Naga people to vote for the Naga People's Front (NPF) in the upcoming elections. Once again, the decision to carve out seven new districts was made without any consultations with Naga populace residing in the hills. In response to the UNC's actions, the Meiteis imposed a counter-blockade, preventing vehicles from moving to Naga-dominated districts, similar to 2011.
The widespread perception now is that Singh's government is beholden to Valley voters while ignoring the concerns of the hill populace, especially the Nagas. Apart from gaining a share of the Kuki vote, the Congress government is perceived to have forsaken the hills and consolidate its Meitei vote base. As a consequence, the Nagas have grown increasingly alienated. The Bharatiya Janata Party and other rival parties have sought to take advantage of this alienation and make further electoral inroads into Naga-dominated areas. The BJP government at the Centre is also in the midst of critical peace talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). Although the lifting of the blockade is an encouraging step forward, the upcoming Assembly elections may only accentuate the ethnic divide, which has been co-opted by political parties for their benefit. In other words, the signs are that things will not get any better for Manipuris. This dynamic, meanwhile, is playing out in the backdrop of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gives the army and paramilitary forces immunity from prosecution. The Apex Court has heavily criticised the act for facilitating human rights abuses. Irom Sharmila, the human rights activist who fasted unsuccessfully for 16 years to repeal the AFSPA, will take on the Chief Minister in his constituency as an independent candidate.
Why should Manipur matter to the rest of India? Long-time observers argue that the State should be central to the NDA government's 'Act East' policy, which seeks to enhance trade ties with South-East Asian economies. Manipur shares a 355 km-long border with Myanmar. Following bilateral talks last August, both India and Myanmar signed key agreements to facilitate the construction of a trilateral highway connecting India, Myanmar, and Thailand, and improvements on the Kalewa-Yargi section. The trilateral highway will connect Moreh, located in the Chandel district of Manipur, to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. Unfortunately, the State is beset with incompetent governance institutions, poor infrastructure and slow economic growth, allied with ethnic tensions and a strained relationship with the Indian Union. The State is also a conduit for illegal arms and narcotics originating from the Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand border. Will these elections bring about the necessary reform in the State? It seems unlikely since the parties are keen on accentuating tribal rivalries.