Is Manipur already a failed state? The main highway that leads to its capital Imphal has been blocked by groups of Naga agitators for nearly two months. As a retaliatory measure, some Imphal Valley-based Meitei (the majority community) organisations launched a counter-blockade, disrupting traffic to the Naga areas. Dozens of vehicles have been torched on the outskirts of Imphal. Petrol, sold in “black”, costs Rs 200 a litre. Rebels of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), despite the ongoing peace talks with New Delhi, have been stepping up violence, killing four policemen and injuring a dozen others in recent weeks. Besides, these rebels have decamped with 20 weapons from two paramilitary posts after overrunning them with rocket-propelled lethod bombs. In such a hopeless situation, the frequency of bandhs, roadblocks and insurgent violence gives rise to the question whether this part of the Northeast has a future. This time, the trigger appears to be the result of Machiavellian politics fuelled by possible electoral compulsions and ever-widening ethnic faultlines. In fact, this is election time in Manipur, a state of 2.7 million people, and the Congress government of chief minister Ibobi Singh, like any other ruling entity, is trying out all sorts of ideas to return to power.
One such step was its decision in October to elevate Sadar Hills and Jiribam subdivisions into full-fledged districts. This angered the Nagas, particularly the United Naga Council (UNC), that is Manipur’s apex Naga body, which said the decision should have been taken after due consultations with tribal organisations in the hill areas of the state. The Ibobi Singh government ignored the UNC opposition, saying the move was initiated for “administrative convenience”. The UNC responded by calling an indefinite economic blockade from November 1. The movement of essential items to the Valley came to a halt because the highways facing the blockade connected the state with the rest of India. Prices soared and normal life was hit. The situation worsened when on November 25 the authorities arrested two top leaders of the UNC for violent protests. The Congress government added fuel to the fire on December 9 with the announcement of five new districts being created — Tengnoupal, Pherzawl, Noney, Kamjong and Kakching.
The decision to bifurcate seven of Manipur’s nine districts to create seven new districts worsened matters. In fact, five of the seven bifurcated districts are located in the hills and several of them are dominated by Nagas. The Naga groups say the Ibobi Singh government came up with the move to bifurcate the hill districts to create new districts without consulting them. Some see it as an attempt to divide the Naga people by merging their ancestral lands with non-Naga areas. What we are actually witnessing in Manipur is a turf war of sorts. The hill areas stretch over 20,098 sq km, where the population in last count (2011) was 10.93 lakhs. In contrast, the Imphal Valley comprises just 2,239 sq km, and the 2011 population in this stretch was put at 16.28 lakhs.
So it is natural to some extent for Nagas to harbour doubts on whether there is any attempt by anyone to usurp territory from the hills or merge some territory with non-Naga areas. While the state government failed miserably to restore order, the BJP-led government at the Centre has remained a mute witness. The BJP, hoping to win control of Manipur this time, could even be smirking at the fate of the state’s Congress government over mounting trouble at this critical pre-poll juncture. True, law and order is a state subject, but the Centre is not expected to do nothing other than just “watch the fun”. New Delhi’s responsibility does not end in rushing 4,000 additional paramilitary troopers. After all, the fact remains that insurgent groups like NSCN-IM have already started fishing in troubled waters by targeting the symbols of governmental authority. It is possible that as a retaliatory move, Meitei insurgents too could join the ongoing turf war. Who, after all, can forget the crisis in 2001 when the Centre’s decision to extend the government-NSCN(IM) truce to areas outside Nagaland by including Manipur in its jurisdiction led to unprecedented protests by Meiteis.
The decision to extend the ceasefire led to around 50,000 Meiteis taking to the streets in Imphal on June 18, 2001, with rampaging mob burning down the Manipur Legislative Assembly building and a dozen other government offices. Eighteen protesters were killed in police firing. Finally on July 24, 2001, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced that the ceasefire would once again be restricted only to the state of Nagaland, as has been the case ever since the NSCN-IM truce first came into force on August 1, 1997. That had eased the situation in the Imphal Valley. The Meitei protest was triggered by fears that extension of the ceasefire could well be the first step before parts of Manipur are sliced and merged into Nagaland as part of a possible deal with the NSCN-IM. Therefore, it would be naive to think that the ruling Congress in Manipur would not be aware of the sentiments of the state’s majority community ahead of the Assembly polls. Now, whether or not the move to bifurcate the Naga-dominated districts to create newer ones is part of a design to alter the demographic balance in those areas, as feared by the Nagas, will remain in the realm of speculation for quite some time. If, however, there is no serious initiative by the Centre to defuse the current crisis, the situation in Manipur could well snowball, and become unmanageable.