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End the blockade soon

The economic blockade in Manipur will enter its 75th day on Saturday, leaving vast swathes of the state in complete paralysis. What’s worse, there seems to be no end in sight. Ethnic Naga groups, who have blocked two major highways entering into the state, have demanded tripartite talks with the Centre and Congress-led state government. Unfortunately, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh seems to in no mood to negotiate a deal that would end the blockade. Earlier this week, Union Minister of State of Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju asked the United Naga Council (UNC) and Manipur government to hammer out a solution. With the Centre seemingly helpless in initiating any dialogue process, matters have taken a violent turn yet again. Suspected militants fired at a convoy of trucks heading for Imphal from Jiri town this evening, leaving one person dead. The convoy was carrying essential commodities despite the three-month-long economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) on the lifeline of the state.

On November 1, the UNC called for a blockade on two arterial highways leading to the Manipur Valley in opposition the creation of seven new districts by the Congress-led government. With Assembly elections on the horizon, the incumbent government led by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh 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. Supporters of the government’s recent move point out that the latest notification seeks to facilitate better administration of far-flung areas from the district headquarters. Nonetheless, allegations of gerrymandering against Chief Minister Singh are evident. Many observers have pinned the decision as a desperate measure to bring a significant 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. For the uninitiated, the NSCN (I-M) is in peace talks with the Centre to end the decades-long Naga insurgency. The supply of fuel and other essential commodities has been largely cut off, leading to a massive spike in prices and destruction of economic activity. Beyond rising prices and a shortage of critical commodities like fuel, vegetables and cooking gas, livelihoods have been severely affected. Construction work has come to a halt, and small shopkeepers are struggling to make ends meet with scarce supplies. Even if the warring parties manage to lift the blockade, the cash crunch caused by demonetisation has ensured that nobody has the money to buy them, especially at such inflated prices. 

In response to the UNC’s actions, residents of the Valley belonging to the Meitei community imposed a counter-blockade, preventing vehicles from moving to Naga-dominated districts, similar to 2011. Matters had earlier come to a head on December 18 when Meitei mobs torched vehicles headed to Ukhrul. The town of Ukhrul is located in Tangkhul Naga-dominated district. Post December 18, however, the counter blockade has eased slightly. Sections of the hill and the Meitei-dominated Valley populace have welcomed the Congress government’s decision. The Nagas, however, are furious and allege those areas where they hold a majority have been broken up without any consultation. This is a clear violation of the commitments made by both the Centre and the State government, they argue.  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, who are researchers with The Takshashila Institution, a think-tank dedicated to strategic affairs. “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.” Any disturbance of the fragile peace barely held together with agreements centred on territory-related concerns result in rising ethnic tensions. A dialogue that involves all the key stakeholders — the State government, groups that support redistricting, the UNC and the Centre—should be initiated at the soonest possible time to the end the misery.
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