Sometime in 2015, a clandestine agreement took place for the creation of Sadar Hills district in Manipur. Hectic preparations were then on secretly for the inauguration of the district on 1 November 2016. The new district is considered a befitting gift on Kut day, a festival of the Kuki tribes who have long been grieving and protesting against three Bills, often dubbed as anti–tribal, passed by the Manipur Legislative Assembly on 31 August 2015, and the death of nine persons in the stir that followed in Churachandpur district.
But Chief Minister Ibobi Singh never came to inaugurate the district, though the plaque which was made ready for the inauguration, revealed later, had the CM’s name and that of Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam. The immediate backlash of the district creation decision was indefinite economic blockade along the only two lifelines to the state — National Highways 2 (Imphal-Dimapur Road) and 37 (Imphal-Jiribam Road) — called by United Naga Council (UNC). Creation of the district has been on the discussion table since 1980 but never seen the light of day as it is vehemently opposed by the Naga tribes, citing ownership of the area as Nagas’ ancestral land.
In the midnight of 7 December when the whole of Manipur has gone to sleep, Ibobi delivered his political ‘masterstroke’ and stirred a hornet’s nest in the fag end of his third term in office. His government created not one but seven districts — Jiribam (taken out of Imphal East district), Kangpokpi (carved out of Senapati), Tengnoupal (from Chandel), Pherzawl (from Churachandpur), Noney (from Tamenglong), Kamjong (from Ukhrul) and Kakching (from Thoubal) making a total of 16 from the earlier nine districts in the small state. Also the controversial Sadar Hills name was dropped and renamed it as Kangpokpi district. The move enraged the UNC more and appeals to roll back the blockade on humanitarian grounds fall on deaf ears. At least three major festivities, Ninggol Chakkouba (where married women came to their parental homes for feasts at the invitation of their brothers), Christmas and New Year were hit as people’s buying power was restrained by the economic blockade and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation move. Sample these: A cooking gas cylinder is sold in the market for not less than Rs 3000 and a litre of petrol costs Rs 200 in the black market. Even prices of locally produced vegetables and food stocks are increased on the sly by unscrupulous traders.
Then a blame game begins between ruling Congress and opposition BJP. The Congress and the government said the districts were created solely for better administrative purposes and not on communal lines. They claimed the BJP in connivance with UNC is harassing the people of Manipur. This claim stems from the fact that BJP-led Union government is holding peace talks with the armed outfit NSCN(I-M). It is considered by many that UNC has close links with the NSCN(I-M) which has an agenda of creating a bigger or bigger Nagaland, often termed by the outfit as Nagalim, by taking off huge chunks of land from Manipur. That UNC works as a front for NSCN(I-M) gained more credence as the outfit too is against creation of districts carved out of “Nagas’ ancestral land” and the conduct two back to back ambushes on Ibobi’s road opening patrol personnel along Imphal-Moreh road where the CM is scheduled to inaugurate the new Tengnoupal district on 15 December. Weapons were also seized from police and IRB personnel from a remote police station in Tamenglong district. Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam contended, “There is a suspicious indication that the blockade supporters and the BJP are hands in glove. A strict instruction by the Union government to the NSCN(I-M) could have stopped the economic blockade.”
Further, the state government said national highways and their security are under the control of the Centre and any hindrance on movement along them should be its sole priority. On its part, the government has arrested two key UNC functionaries — president Gaidon Kamei and information secretary Stephen Sankhui. From time to time, detailing of state forces to provide security to trucks for their movement along the highways is also done. Additionally, communication has been made to UNC for talks to end the standoff, the government and the Congress party said but added that no response came. Gaikhangam went on record saying that talks can be held in the state capital Imphal and if UNC has reservations, the venue can be shifted to New Delhi but not in Senapati town, where the organisation has its headquarters. Earlier, talks with the Union home affairs ministry and UNC failed to thaw any ice. On being questioned why the state government is not a party to it, Chief Minister Ibobi and his deputy Gaikhangam clarified that no official invitation came from the Centre but was asked to take part at the eleventh hour. “New Delhi is not a place where we can go or send representatives at a short notice as it is quite far,” the chief minister had said.
On the other hand, BJP’s offensive lines are that law and order is a state subject and the Centre cannot bulldoze its way to clear the blockade. It maintained that Central security forces are sent to Manipur to help provide security to the trucks and maintain the law. In fact, the security of the trucks is totally taken over the Central forces. Even though national highways are under the purview of the Centre, it doesn’t mean that when one’s home is under fire, it cannot only cry for help from outside but should also work to put out the fire, the party said. It also questioned as to why UNC has not been declared unlawful for its inhuman and illegal act. In contrast to what Congress has claimed, the state BJP unit said its members are routinely visited New Delhi to meet Union government and party leaders including Home Minister Rajnath Singh to press for action.
Questions and counter-questions have been raised by both parties over what transpired between the Union home minister and the state government. While BJP said the chief minister had not suggested to the Union home minister a concrete plan to end the blockade, Ibobi had said more than 40-minute talks had been made between them and he had specifically asked the Centre to put an end to the blockade. The war of words over the blockade has become the main political theme for the upcoming state elections slated for 4 and 8 March. While many in the valley root for Ibobi and his party after the creation of the districts despite resulting in the blockade, still several are wary of his way of governance mainly for the lack of transparency and corruption. Moreover, Congress is unlikely to do well in Naga-dominated constituencies. Still it is hoping for seats from the new Kamjong district, a Naga predominant place. For BJP, it doesn’t have many poll planks but to ride on the “Modi wave” and his policies. Several voters believe that BJP has not done much stop the blockade. Despite having only two MLAs in the 10th Manipur Assembly, of whom one defected to Congress recently, it hopes to cash in on the strong anti-incumbency wave which has become stronger over the 15-year period of Ibobi’s government. Party leaders think its prospects are brighter after three Congress MLAs quit their posts and joined them. Other political parties except for Nagaland-based NPF, which bagged five seats from Ukhrul district but quit after NSCN(I-M)’s diktat, are not expected to make significant marks in this election because most voters are polarised by the economic blockade.
In the meantime, the people, particularly living the valley area of the landlocked state, are reeling under intense shortage of essential commodities and skyrocketing of prices. Before the festivities in November and December last year, they had taken out several processions holding placards inscribed with appeals to UNC to lift the blockade. Many civil society organisations and church leaders have also urged the UNC to stop harassment of the masses and opt for other democratic forms of protests while airing its grievances with the government. At the same time, people living in the valley, who had suffered from similar and numerous blockades in the past, started counter economic blockades in which goods-laden vehicles bound for the hills are checked and stopped. The scene turned far uglier than just preventing transport of goods. Even passenger vehicles, which were earlier plying without any interference, were targeted. When some vehicles are burned along the highways by the economic blockade supporters, residents along the Imphal-Ukhrul road on 18 December stopped and burnt 20 passenger vehicles trying to go past valley protesters from another route. The passengers are mainly tribal residents of Imphal and those returning from outside the state to their homes in Ukhrul to celebrate Christmas and New Year. Soon after, the government scuttled mobile phone internet and a curfew was imposed for more than a week. Inbound passengers remained stranded for long at various places like Dimapur and Jiribam after the travel agencies were reportedly asked by the police to stop their service for safety reasons. Now, normalcy has slowly returned but the UNC has enforced stronger steps instead of relaxing the nearly two-and-half-month blockade. It has made clear that none of its protest measures would stop unless the state government rolls back its decision to create the seven districts. The organisation said Ibobi’s regime has failed to keep its promise to consult the Naga people before district creation and has not honoured the memoranda the government signed in this regard. However, the government is unlikely to go back on its stand as footwork for the new districts has already been done. District commissioners, superintendent of police have been appointed with the construction of new office. Inauguration of all newly created seven districts has also been completed.
Despite mess the state is now in, many people still have hope of an amicable way out. A new organisation named Goodwill Mission for Peaceful Co-existence (GMPC) has been formed comprising various community members residing in the state. So far, the group has met the chief minister as well as UNC leaders. According to Ningthouja Lancha, convener of GMPC, they have suggested to both sides to have tripartite talks by roping in the Union government. Lancha said GMPC has requested all stakeholders not find faults with each other but have unconditional talks before the situation further deteriorates. He also said a response is awaited from the Centre for the talks. Only time will tell on how the impasse ends.