The Union government has finally woken up to the dangerous situation in Manipur and has sent 4000 central paramilitary troops to control ethnic tension which has been building over weeks and are now threatening to spiral out of control. It should have done this at least a month ago when as a consequence of an indefinite blockade on the lifelines of Manipur by a Naga civil organisation, United Naga Council, UNC, over the anticipated creation of two new administrative districts, and signs of retaliation from those at the receiving end of the blockade began showing.
Violence erupted in an unprecedented way last Sunday when a mob of locals in the Khurai area — an outlying Imphal East township — overpowered a small detachment of police escorting a convoy of vehicles to Ukhrul district while staging a counter-blockade. After making the passengers dismount, the mob burned the vehicles along with the passengers’ belongings. In all, 21 vehicles were destroyed. Thankfully, no humans were targeted giving hope that the bitterness of the unfolding ethnic venom is still not beyond redemption.
Ever since Sunday’s violence, curfew has been clamped in the two Imphal districts both of which have mix populations. In the capital Imphal West, it is night curfew and in the outlying Imphal East, it is indefinite 24-hour curfew. As a precautionary measure, the government has also suspended mobile internet services to prevent spread of inflammatory rumours with the potential of escalating the tension.
The UNC blockade began nearly a month and a half on November 1, but Sunday’s incident still took everyone by surprise, even though many commentators have been foreboding such a cataclysm if the UNC blockade continued and common folks were put under livelihood pressures over and above the difficulties heaped on them by demonetisation.
The UNC blockade began over the possibility that the Manipur government would bifurcate Senapati district to give its SADAR Hills subdivision (Selected Area Development and Administrative Region), a full-fledged district status, acceding to a long standing demands of the residents of this sub-division, predominantly Kukis, but also Nepalis. SADAR Hills is located in the scenic extended foothills in the north of the Imphal valley, with arms along the narrower foothills in the east and west of the valley, touching virtually every district of the state.
The mountain ranges in the Eastern Himalayas generally run north to south therefore the foothills in the Imphal valley are much wider and deeper in the north and south, than in the east and west. These foothills are flatter and better irrigated than the mountains further away, therefore more suitable for wet rice agriculture. For reasons that have partly to do with the Nagas’ love for the higher mountains and partly politics of the colonial times, these foothills are generally inhabited by Kukis and aligned tribes.
The mutual ethnic cleansing campaigns between Kukis and Nagas in the mid-1990s following a quit notice served to Kukis in the hills, on that occasion again by the UNC, have also ensured the concentration of Kukis in the region adjoining the valley.
After these deadly clashes, which left over a thousand killed and multiple more displaced, SADAR Hills virtually became a district with headquarters at Kangpokpi, as Kukis found it uneasy to negotiate official matters at Senapati.
The UNC’s objection to SADAR Hills is that it believes this land forms part of the ancestral Naga homeland and that the Kukis, who they see as migratory, can at best be their tenants, occupying the place only so long as they enjoyed the pleasure of their landlords. They also see Manipur government’s move as an attempt to fracture this Naga homeland, also often referred to as Nagalim, echoing the vocabulary of the Naga underground group NSCN(IM), now in peace talks with the Government of India since 1997.
Together with SADAR Hills, Jiribam, another tiny enclave in the Assam border adjacent to Silchar in the Barak Valley, was to be given district status. Since it is predominantly inhabited by non-Schedule Tribe populations of Meiteis and Bengalis, Jiribam was till recently attached to the non-reserved Imphal East district 220km away as a sub-division, and not to adjacent Tamenglong, a reserved district for STs for that would have created immense administrative and legal problems in regards to land ownership and enfranchisement.
The Manipur government deferred the anticipated creation of these two districts in October end, but the UNC insisted on a definite official assurance that these districts will never be created without their consent and launched its indefinite blockades from November 1, the day Kut festivals of the Kukis is celebrated. This year it was an important date for the Meiteis too for on their traditional lunar calendar, this was also Ningol Chakkouba day, an endearing traditional festival when married women came home for a feast with siblings at their parental home.
In the meantime, those demanding SADAR Hills district also began threatening a blockade. This pressure group too have resorted to blockades in the past and there is no saying they would not have done it again had the government’s decision not been in their favour.
For whatever its wisdom, or the lack of it, after more than a month of the UNC blockade, on December 8 midnight, the government decided to go ahead to let the matter go in the latter group’s favour, creating not just SADAR Hills district, but six more, splitting seven of the state’s existing nine districts in the process.
The new districts are Kangpokpi (the new name for SADAR Hills) bifurcated from Senapati district, Noney from Tamenglong, Kamjong from Ukhrul, Tengnoupal from Chandel, Pherzawl from Churachandpur, Jiribam from Imphal East and Kakching from Thoubal. Predictably, the UNC hardened its blockade stance. In response counter-blockades began to be organised in the valley areas too.
These protests soon acquired the character of loose cannons hitting wrong targets, and the resultant damages have been immense. Instead of the government, those who ended up lashed are ordinary people many of whom have little or no concern on whether there should be more districts or less in the state, so long as they can eke out their meagre earnings and daily bread. The friction invariably began acquiring a communal hue too.
The valley especially became embittered. It had little stake in the politics in the hills over the new districts, except for the fact that the UNC’s insistence on consolidation and political autonomy of Nagalim corresponded with the NSCN(IM)’s pursuit of an exclusive sovereign Naga nation carved out of neighbouring states, including a huge chunk of Manipur, and merged with Nagaland. It is ironic that the NSCN(IM) and UNC who are pursuing grand themes of “shared sovereignty” and “shared competencies” with the Government of India are averse to any idea of shared homeland with tribes and communities who also have been inhabiting the same tracts of lands as them.
What has made the current crisis dangerous is, blockades embitter entire populations. The message is, I can throttle you to death if I please, and there is nothing you can do about it but submit. Unfortunately again, the message is now felt mostly in the valley. Counter-blockades therefore sprang up in the valley and they carry the same message, and reciprocal embitterment.
In the non-Naga districts of Churachandpur, Thoubal and Imphal East which too have become two each, the government’s new move met with warm welcome. In the Naga districts too, except SADAR Hills, this was the case initially, but whatever their compulsions, they have now begun retracting their warm embrace of the new districts.
Represntational Image: Narada News
(Pradip Phanjoubam is editor Imphal Free Press and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers; a version of this article appeared also in The Indian Express today and has been published here with the author’s permission)