The state of Manipur has been hit by over two months of indefinite economic blockade on the national highways 2 and 37 – Imphal-Dimapur and Imphal-Jiribam – which are the two lifelines that connect the state with other parts of India.
The blockade, which is imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex civil organisation of the Nagas in Manipur, initially started on November 1 last year in opposition to the proposed creation or elevation of the Sadar Hills and Jiribam sub-divisions into full-fledged districts.
The UNC objected to the government’s plan saying that it should be done only after consulting all stakeholders, including the Nagas. The UNC argued that the creation of Sadar Hills and Jiribam districts would bifurcate the ancestral lands of the Nagas.
However, giving administrative convenience as the reason, the Manipur state government created seven new districts – Jiribam, Kangpokpi (in place of Sadar Hills), Tengoupal, Pherzawl, Kakching, Noney and Kamjong – on December 8.
The economic blockade has engendered not only inconveniences but also immense hardships to the people of Manipur. For example, essential items such as petrol has been sold around Rs 200-300 per litre and cooking gas at Rs 2,000-3,000 per cylinder. The people’s hardship has been compounded by the fallout of demonetization.
In retaliation to the UNC blockade, the valley people (the Meiteis in Imphal area) imposed counter blockade on essential supplies going out of the state capital to the hill regions, particularly the Naga areas of Ukhrul, Chandel, Tamenglong, and Senapati district headquarters.
The counter blockade turned violent on December 18 when the valley protesters attacked hundreds of Nagas travelling to their villages for Christmas, setting 22 vehicles aflame. In a tit-for-tit action on the next day, suspected UNC volunteers set ablaze a passenger bus and a Tata Sumo.
The Nagas’ opposition to the creation of the new districts has also led to the death of three police personnel in separate attacks carried out by suspected members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland/Nagalim-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) in Tengnoupal district in Manipur on December 15.
The Indian courts, including the Supreme Court, have made it clear that the blockade of highway is illegal. Following a ruling by the Manipur High Court, the Manipur government arrested the UNC President Gaidon Kamei and its Information Secretary Stephen Lamkang on November 25.
The UNC initially demanded the immediate release of its arrested leaders and holding of talks with the state government in Senapati district headquarters. However, the state Chief Minister Okram Ibobi insisted that such talks can be held in Imphal or Delhi only after the economic blockade is lifted.
Meanwhile, the UNC leaders after meeting the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on December 20 urged the central government to impose President’s rule in Manipur, alleging that the state government has failed on all fronts with the deterioration of law and order. The UNC also alleged that the creation of new districts was a ploy by the Chief Minister for electoral gains. On the other hand, Ibobi called the UNC as the “mouthpiece and frontal organisation of the NSCN-IM.’’
As the simmering tension continues, the state and central governments have engaged in blame game rhetoric. The state Chief Minister Okram Ibobi criticized the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “not intervening and taking action in time’’ to restore order in the state as well as for not prevailing the UNC to call off the economic blockade.
On the other hand, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, who arrived in Manipur on December 23, criticized the Congress government in the state for politicizing the issue of economic blockade ahead of the state assembly election in March.
Rijiju criticized the state government of mishandling the situation and said the maintenance of law and order is a state subject and the Ibobi government has failed to do that. He also said that the central government was ready to provide assistance had it been asked for.
The state government’s argument is that the center is responsible for the security of national highways. More importantly, since the central government is in political dialogue with the NSCN-IM, it has the power and leverage to stop them from meddling in the affairs of the Manipur government and from using the UNC to advance its political agenda.
While some central leaders would like to argue that the entire fiasco is a result of the creation of new districts, the Manipur state government’s argument is that the creation of new districts was purely administrative matter and falls within a state list or subject.
Ibobi also claimed on December 21 that despite several requests for additional paramilitary forces to maintain law and order in the state, the central government sent only 10 battalions, which he said was not adequate to control the simmering tension in the state.
Another criticism of Manipur government toward the central government is that though the center maintains that the ceasefire with NSCN-IM is applicable only in Nagaland, the group operates with impunity in Manipur in violation of the ceasefire ground rules. Rijiju has reportedly said that the central government has no idea about the presence of NSCN-IM in Manipur.
While the blame game goes on between the state and central government or between the Meiteis and the Nagas, it is the entire people of Manipur, regardless of ethnicity, who suffer. The timing could not have been worse since the entire fiasco develops during the festive Christmas and New Year season, especially for the Christian community of the state.
The urgent need of the hour is to end the indefinite economic blockade as well as the counter blockade and allow the dialogue process to begin. If both the state and central governments claim that they do not work for political mileage in view of the upcoming election, they should sincerely cooperate to work to address the socio-economic woes of the people.
More importantly, the entire unfortunate development should not be communalized under any circumstances. Otherwise, it could unnecessarily lead to criminalization of politics and communal violence that had cost hundreds of innocent lives in the past.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.
Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD
Executive Director, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS)
Jindal School of International Affairs
O.P. Jindal Global University