Economic Blockade in Manipur: Why it Matters?
By Dr. Kamei Aphun
The present economic blockade launched by the United Naga Council (UNC) in Manipur since the first of November 2016 has received wide attention in the media. However, many writings were concentrated only on the ill effects of the blockade and missed out largely on complex historical inter-group relationship in Manipur and the series of incident that flared up in the State on communal lines and violence.
The recent incident of 18th December, 2016 where 22 Naga vehicles were burnt down by a Meitei mob of Khurai, Imphal is the incident worth analyzing. The incident gave a glimpse to the outside world, the oppressive situation that the Nagas were placed in their struggle against injustice and discrimination under the present Government of Manipur for a long time. The incident happened when around 650 Nagas were travelling in about 54 vehicles in a police convoy being escorted to their hill district for Christmas celebration as Meiteis in Khurai and Seijang has kept them in a state of siege by burning every single Naga vehicle leaving the valley as a counter economic blockade. However, what is disappointing to see is that the Manipur police (which has 75 percent plus of its force from Meitei community) stood as mute spectators when those vehicles were burned down one after another and pushed down the river banks by the rampaging mob. The next day, many local media downplayed their reports with some papers not even having pictorial of the burning incident and presented inaccurate and one sided story. But what ultimately led the Modi government (in the Centre) to bring in Central Paramilitary forces to guard the Naga pockets in the Imphal valley is a serious question to ask and discuss.
The genesis of the present imbroglio between Nagas and the Government of Manipur started when the Chief Minister Ibobi wanted to carve out 2 new districts from Naga ancestral lands citing 'administrative convenience' just barely two months before the Manipur Assembly elections scheduled for early February 2017. The new districts of Sadar Hills and Jiribam were about to be bifurcated from Naga districts of Senapati and Tamenglong districts and respectively become Kuki and Meitei dominated districts. The plan for new districts creation was not known to the public till the inaugural stone prepared clandestinely by Chief Minister Ibobi to declare on the Kuki tribe KUT festival on 1st November 2016 was leaked in social media.
The Nagas under the United Naga Council (UNC) strongly protested against the plan of districts creation asserting that the main stakeholder Nagas have to be consulted. Due to this, the Government of Manipur quickly dropped the inauguration plan which made the Kuki tribe cry foul of betrayal of confidential promise by Chief Minister Ibobi and his cabinet ministers.
The United Naga Council then demanded that the Chief Minister to give written assurance that new district will not be created from Naga areas without due consultation and consent of stakeholders. Following four Memorandums of Understanding were signed earlier between the Government of Manipur and the Naga people (in 1981, 1992, 1996 and 1998), a written assurance was given by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India on the 24th November 2011 that new districts would not be created in Naga areas without the consent of the Naga people. In response to the Central Government concern over the imbroglio in Manipur, Chief Minister Ibobi wrote to Home Minister Rajnath in November 11 stating that “no issues/decisions will be taken on any matter which affects the interest of any community without consulting all the stakeholders concerned.” However such written assurance was not communicated to the United Naga Council who ultimately launched Economic Blockade as the last resort, after 48 hours notice given to the State Government to clarify its position on the creation of districts in Manipur.
The Government of Manipur, instead of responding to UNC, boycotted a tripartite talk arranged by the Central Government at Delhi on the 15th November 2016. They then, arrested the UNC President and Publicity Secretary on the 25th November 2016 to crush the protest by force. On midnight of December 8, it announced creation of 7 new districts for ‘administrative convenience’ as a direct affront to the Nagas protest under UNC. The creation of new districts is an unconstitutional act as it violates Article 371C of the Indian Constitution which clearly safeguards the Manipur tribal areas through the Hills Area Committee (HAC) which is to be consulted on all matters involving tribal interests. To protest this betrayal by the State Government, a Naga MLA serving as Vice President of HAC has not only resigned from the post but also resigned from the Congress primary membership. This series of arbitrary acts of the State Government is seen by many as the main cause for the present crisis in Manipur.
It should be noted that Chief Minister Ibobi has been in power continuously for 15 years and is facing strong anti-incumbency factor as BJP has made major gains in Municipality and Autonomous Council elections. Moreover, the present Government has been severely criticized for three bills passed in the State Assembly on 31st August 2015 against the interests of the Hill tribals of Manipur and the Inner Line Permit System which attempted to drive away all non Manipur residents from the State etc.
So what one sees clearly is that Economic Blockade is just a symptom of a much older and broader problem. The State Government has provoked this response for political gains just like in 2011. The economic blockade could have been forstalled, had Government of Manipur understood the concerns and grievances of the Nagas. Meanwhile, the valley based Civil Organizations are appealing only to the UNC to lift the economic blockade without appealing to the Government of Manipur which is only addressing the symptom and not the root problem. Therefore, it is best for the Central Government to initiate tripartite talks with the Manipur State government and the Nagas to restore normalcy and end the economic blockade that is affecting all people living in Manipur, and definitely not the Valley people alone.
(The writer is from Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University)