Rising to the occasion
By Yambem Laba
Chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh has literally pulled the rug from under the feet of the Manipur-based United Naga Council. UNC has imposed an economic blockade of two national highways from 1 November as a mark of protest over the proposal to create the Kuki-dominated Sadar Hills out of Senapati district — a stronghold of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) and the UNC.
On the night of 8 December, Singh, however, announced the creation of seven new districts including Sadar Hills, which has been renamed Kangpokpi district. The others were Kamjong in Ukhrul, Tengnoupal (Chandel), Noney (Tamenglong), Pherzawl (Churachandpur) and Kakching in Thoubal Districts and Jiribam from Imphal East. The names of the deputy commissioners and superintendents of police of the new districts were also announced.
With this single master-stroke, Singh has been able to silence the voices of dissent emanating from the Nagas of Ukhrul, Chandeland and Tamenglong while also appeasing the Meiteis of Kakching and Jiribam. While Jiribam had been vocal and active over the conversion of their area as a district, not much was heard over the creation of Tengnoupal, Noney, Pherzawl and Kamjong although occasional press notes have been making their appearance once in a while. Now the UNC finds itself in a catch-22 situation with its president Gaidon Kamei and information secretary S K Stephen already in custody after being arrested by Tadubi police on a separate set of charges relating to crimes committed during the ongoing economic blockade.
The Manipur High Court had earlier come down heavily on the state government for not doing enough to break the blockade and decreed that adequate security forces be used to enable the passage of hundreds of goods-laden trucks stranded at the Nagaland-Manipur border and at Jiribam on the Assam border.
Singh rose to the occasion and first directed the district magistrate of Senapati district to impose prohibitory orders and a curfew along NH 39. Then he mobilised all the forces at his disposal and sent them to Mao, equipped with two excavators to remove obstacles and two ambulance vans with doctors, paramedic staff and medicines. Earlier, the chief minister had written to Union home minister, Rajnath Singh stating that the UNC is the frontal organisation of the NSCN (I-M) that is holding talks with the Centre, and therefore it should intervene and give necessary directives to call off the blockade. The Centre’s response was ambiguous.
But for the Nagas, the blockade has been an annual feature and this apparently is the season. This time Singh had initially avoided confronting the Nagas along NH 39, choosing the Imphal-Jiribam via Silchar route instead. But the UNC activists had taken excavators and dug up the road to prevent that but Singh sent yet another team to Jiribam and escorted several trucks to Imphal.
When asked, UNC chief Kamei told the media that he would consult his people first before taking a decision on whether or not to call off the blockade. He was also served with a 72-hour deadline by the United Committee Manipur, the other apex body, comprising mostly Meiteis of the valley. The All Manipur Christian Organisation also requested the UNC to call off the blockade keeping in mind the fact that people were suffering and Christmas festivities were round the corner. The Nagas have often used the national highways that pass through their areas to highlight their demands and grievances, thereby causing a scarcity of essential items in the Imphal valley. In the meantime queues for petrol and before ATMs are lengthening, although prices of essential goods have come down in the grey market with petrol now selling at Rs 150 a litre.
Singh’s master-stroke may ensure the re-election of Congress legislators in the assembly elections due early next year. If the NSCN (I-M) opposes the bifurcation of Chandel and Tamenglong districts, they are bound to lose the support of the people there, and if they welcome it, they would be praising their sworn enemy, Singh. Silence would be golden for both the NSCN (I-M) and the UNC at the moment. For Singh, it was perfect timing — he must have waited for people to feel the brunt of the blockade first and then offer a panacea, both in terms of a show of strength and political decisiveness.
In this scenario, the valley population has all but forgotten the burning issue of the Inner Line Permit system that had paralysed the state administration for months. And agitators in Churachandpur are also quiet for the time being with nine bodies still lying in the morgue — they were killed in last year’s clashes over three bills the state assembly had passed. And so, for Singh and company, the blockade and Narendra Modi’s demonetisation have come as godsends.
On the other hand, the Joint Naga Civil Societies in Delhi issued an ultimatum to the state government to roll back the creation of the new districts by stating that Tengnoupal will become another Kuki district and that the Meiteis will start encroaching upon Kamjong. In a near xenophobic stand, the Delhi Nagas asked the Centre to impose President’s Rule in Manipur and roll back the decision.
The NSCN (I-M) has also retracted from Hebron stating that the move to create the new districts will jeopardise the ongoing peace talks with the Government of India, which is now in its 19th year. In a press statement issued on 12 December, the NSCN (I-M) has questioned the sincerity of the Centre by saying that it is in cahoots with the Government of Manipur. It also said that it stood by the UNC on the indefinite economic blockade. It took a pot-shot at Singh by saying said that they have taken a serious note of his attempts to communalise the vote banks of the Nagas on one side, and Meiteis and Kukis on the other. And, finally, it said that the seven new districts are not acceptable to the Naga people. All of Singh’s decisions run in opposition to their ethnic cleansing pogrom, which the NSCN (I-M) had initiated around 1992 — it killed more than 1,000 Kukis in an attempt to clear grounds for a greater Nagalim.
The Union home minister said in a statement that “the Centre was fully committed to the maintenance of law and order and that it considers blockades anywhere in India as a gross violation of law and a crime against humanity”. That said, the BJP’s central leadership has almost dug its own grave in the forthcoming polls in Manipur. This happened when Union human resource development minister Prakash Jadavekar, who is in charge of the forthcoming elections, told a public meeting on 11 December that with the creation of seven new districts, the state government is following a divide-and-rule policy. This is exactly what the UNC/NSCN (I-M) and other Naga groups have been saying and Jadavekar suddenly appeared as their main spokesman from New Delhi. This has not been taken too kindly by the valley people and that will be reflected in the polls next year.
The writer is the Imphal-based special correspondent of The Statesman. This article is reproduced with permission of the author