On November 1, the United Naga Council (UNC) called for a blockade on two arterial highways leading to the Manipur Valley. More than 50 days have passed, and the blockade is still in force. Reports indicate that everyday life in the State has been severely affected. Ordinary citizens are suffering from acute shortages and rising costs of essential supplies, made worse by demonetisation and the ensuing cash crunch. Mobile internet services remain suspended and night curfew has been imposed in parts of the State. As the recent history of Manipur indicates, these blockades are not new. At this present juncture, the blockade has been called to oppose the creation of seven new districts by the Congress-led government. After a quick midnight meeting of the State Cabinet, the government issued a gazette notification on December 9 for the creation of these new districts. 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 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 hard to ignore. Many observers have pinned the decision as a desperate measure to bring a significant section of the hill populace on-side. News 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 insurgency. Observers have argued that rising tensions between Nagas and other ethnic communities could work to the benefit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is an ally of the NPF in Nagaland.
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. In response to the UNC’s actions, the Meiteis have imposed a counter-blockade, preventing vehicles from moving to Naga-dominated districts, similar to 2011. There have also been worrying reports of violence in both the hills and the valley. 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.” Groups like of the NSCN (I-M), which had long fought for secession from India and the creation of Greater Nagaland, or Nagalim (including present-day Nagaland, contiguous parts of Myanmar as well as Naga dominated areas of surrounding states such Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam) are representatives of such interests. At present, though, attempts at secession by the NSCN (I-M) have come to a temporary halt although other groups continue to remain active, going beyond just the Nagas. The NSCN (I-M) has shifted its goalposts from complete sovereignty to acceptance of the Constitutional framework albeit with a provision for the grant of greater autonomy to Naga populated areas outside of Nagaland. Any attempt to disturb the fragile peace barely held together with agreements centred on territory-related concerns result in rising ethnic tensions and violence. The State has sought the Centre’s assistance, and approximately 4,000 paramilitary personnel have been sent to quell the violence. There are demands for the imposition of President’s Rule in light of the deteriorating law and order situation. Despite good relations between the Centre and NSCN (I-M), there has been little movement thus far to clear the blockade on national highways. Recent history seems to indicate that blockades have the potential to heighten ethnic polarisation and threaten the fragile peace in Manipur. All stakeholders must resolve their difference through dialogue, and one hopes that the Centre can facilitate that process.
Why is it important for the Centre to ensure peace in Manipur? Because Manipur, the writers argue, should be central to the NDA government’s ‘Act East’ policy, which seeks to enhance trade ties with South-East Asian economies. As part of its plan, the Centre aims to use states on India’s eastern border to facilitate this process. To promote greater trade with South-East Asia, the Centre and allied State governments must work towards the better development of our Northeastern states, and the process begins with Manipur. Sharing a 355 km-long border with Myanmar, the authors argue that Manipur “remains India’s most economically viable border to the south-east, forms the nucleus of India’s renewed zeal to act east, and therefore requires special focus”. Following bilateral talks in late August, both India and Myanmar signed key agreements for the construction of 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa section of the 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. It was first proposed during the previous NDA regime in 2002. But construction of the trilateral highway only began in 2012. It is a real shame that this prestigious project remains incomplete. The NDA government’s new-found impetus for the project may prove to be a boon for Manipur. 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. Meanwhile, the imposition of a draconian law like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) not only alienates the local populace but also disincentivises the process of fixing a corrupt and inept state police. Without a capable police force, the maintenance of law and order falls into disarray, as often witnessed in a state like Manipur. “The roadway between Moreh in India and Tamu in Myanmar is the core of trade and connectivity to South-East Asia. India’s planned trilateral highway starts from Moreh and is designed to cross Myanmar, extending all the way to Mae Sot in Thailand,” write Hamsini Hariharan and Priyadarshini Ravichandran. “Legalising, securing, and streamlining this existing natural trade route will ensure economic connectivity remains and benefits the state.” But to achieve these goals, the Centre and the State government must work together and initiate a whole host of institutional reforms. A greater focus must also be expended on achieving viable and long-term resolutions of various disputes involving the different tribes. Changing the face of a state like Manipur is a long process, but it must begin in earnest.