Under siege, on edge
By Pradip Phanjoubam
(This article was first published in the Indian Express in their December 18 issue)
The Union government has finally woken up to the dangerous situation in Manipur and sent 4,000 Central paramilitary troops to control the ethnic tensions which have been building 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 the United Naga Council (UNC) over the anticipated creation of two new administrative districts, 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.
Since Sunday’s violence, curfew has been imposed in the two Imphal districts, both of which have mixed populations. In Imphal West, it is a night curfew and in the outlying Imphal East, it is an indefinite 24-hour curfew. As a precautionary measure, the government has also suspended mobile internet services to prevent the spread of inflammatory rumours.
The UNC blockade began nearly a month-and-a-half ago on November 1, but Sunday’s incident still took everyone by surprise, even though many commentators have been predicting such a cataclysm if the UNC blockade continued and common folk’s livelihood was constantly under pressure 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 (Selected Area Development and Administrative Region) subdivision full-fledged district status, acceding to the long-standing demands of the residents of this sub-division, predominantly Kukis, but also Nepalis. SADAR Hills is located in the 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 from north to south and, 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, thus more suitable for wet rice agriculture. For reasons that have partly to do with the Nagas’ love for the higher mountains and partly due to the politics of colonial times, these foothills are generally inhabited by Kukis and aligned tribes.
The mutual ethnic cleansing campaigns between the Kukis and Nagas in the mid-1990s following a quit notice served to Kukis in the hills — on that occasion by the UNC as well — have also ensured the concentration of Kukis in the region adjoining the valley. After those deadly clashes, which left over a thousand dead and many more displaced, SADAR Hills virtually became a district with its headquarters at Kangpokpi as Kukis found it difficult 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 enjoy the pleasure of their landlords. They also see the Manipur government’s move as an attempt to fracture this Naga homeland — often referred to as Nagalim — echoing the vocabulary of the underground Naga group, the NSCN(IM), in peace talks with the Government of India since 1997.
Together with SADAR Hills, Jiribam, another tiny enclave on the Assam border adjacent to Silchar in the Barak Valley, was to be given district status. Since it is predominantly inhabited by non-Scheduled Tribe populations of Meiteis and Bengalis, Jiribam was till recently attached to the non-reserved Imphal East district 220 km 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 with regard 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 the Kut festival 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, a traditional festival when married women come home for a feast with their siblings at their parental home.
In the meantime, those demanding the SADAR Hills district also began threatening a blockade. This pressure group too has resorted to blockades in the past and there was no assurance they would not have done so again had the government’s decision not been in their favour. In its wisdom, or the lack of it, after more than a month of the UNC blockade at midnight on December 8, the government decided to go ahead to let the matter go in the latter group’s favour, creating not just the 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. In response, counter-blockades began to be organised in the valley areas too.
These protests soon acquired the character of loose cannons hitting the wrong targets, and the damages have been immense. Instead of the government, those who ended up suffering 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 began acquiring a communal hue too.
The valley is especially embittered. It had little stake in the politics in the hill districts, except for the fact that the UNC’s insistence on consolidation and the 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 a 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 that blockades embitter entire populations. The message is, I can throttle you to death if I please, and there is nothing you can do but submit. Unfortunately, the message is now felt mostly in the valley. Counter-blockades, therefore, sprang up in the valley that carry the same message, and reciprocal embitterment.
In the non-Naga districts of Churachandpur, Thoubal and Imphal East, which too have been split, the government’s move was welcomed. 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.
The writer is editor, ‘Imphal Free Press’ and author of ‘The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers’.