Manipur, the crucial northeastern state, has been on the boil since December 9. The Congress Government headed by Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh took the fateful decision to create seven new districts out of seven existing districts, all of which have a sizeable Naga population. Now the state has sixteen districts.
The rumour that the state government was toying with the idea of creating new districts was in the air for quite some time and the Nagas had started yet another economic blockade of the state since November 1, blocking both the national highways – one between Imphal and Dimapur via Kohima and the other between Imphal and Silchar in Assam via Jiribam. Manipur was thus completely cut off from the rest of the country
The move of the Congress Government to create new districts was a calculated one. It betrayed the fear of the ruling party to lose the forthcoming State Assembly polls early next year to the BJP which has already captured Assam and is making steady inroads in Manipur. Ibobi’s ploy was aimed at winning over the numerically significant Meitei population of the Imphal Valley and the Kukis, a major tribe, in the hills of Manipur.
The BJP which is running a coalition government with the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) in neighbouring Nagaland saw through Ibobi’s design. It immediately announced that it would not ally with the NPF in Manipur but would support the numerically larger Meiteis of the valley because Meitei votes will be decisive in two-thirds of the sixty seats in the Assembly.
The two-month-long economic blockade which was ‘suspended’ by the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) of Manipur just on the eve of Christmas, had already pushed the state into acute scarcity of everything – from fuel to foodstuffs to medicines. Petrol was selling at two hundred rupees a litre. This was nothing new because similar blockade by the Nagas many times in the past had brought about similar crisis situations. In fact, to stop this once for all, the state government decided to create the new districts with the objective of dividing and weakening the Nagas.
In the violence that followed the coming up of the new districts, many police personnel were killed and injured, dozens of passenger cars and goods trucks were burnt, hand grenades were burst aplenty, and the State Government shut down mobile phone services in some troubled districts, ostensibly to prevent the spread of rumours. Curfew had to be imposed in Imphal. The situation became so grave that the Army chief had to airdash to Imphal on December 24 to take stock of the security situation. Several companies of paramilitary forces were dispatched.
The course of developments during the past few weeks has made manifest what was latent for a long, long time: that there is a three-way division among the major groups of the State’s population: the Meiteis of the Valley, the Kukis of the hills and the Nagas, also of the hills. At the moment the Meiteis and the Kukis are united against the Nagas, but the unity is skin-deep.
The Kukis remain firm on their demand for a separate Kuki State, something the Meiteis are as opposed to as Nagalim. The Nagas have been demanding integration of all Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur, and Arunachal into a single State to be called Nagalim. The Manipuri Nagas themselves are divided into seven sub-tribes: Chiru, Kharam, Llangmai, Mao, Morem, Maring, and Tangkhul. The last are the largest in number.
What is rather intriguing is that the recent acts of violence are believed to have been committed by the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN, which entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Centre many years ago. The ceasefire has held in Nagaland, but in Manipur, it is, of course, not working.
The electoral rivalry between the Congress and the BJP has made the situation rather fragile in Manipur. Both the major parties are vying with each other to woo the Meiteis as their support is crucial for winning the polls. If the BJP does not support the NPF, it may strain its relationship with the party in Nagaland where it is running a coalition government with the NPF. There are nineteen Assembly constituencies in the hills of Manipur. The NPF is quite likely to win some of them. As every seat is crucial, antagonising the Nagas may prove costly to the BJP. Siding with the Kukis will not be easy either. It will immediately alienate the party from the Valley Meiteis.
The suspension of the blockade by the Nagas has given Manipur a fragile peace. The Nagas will insist that the Ibobi Government revoke the creation of the new districts. It will not be possible for Ibobi to concede this demand. In that case, there is the possibility of Nagas resorting to economic blockade again. Should that happen, it may create a situation in which holding of elections may be jeopardised.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)