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Sailing towards choppy waters

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Bubbling ethnic tensions have again risen to the surface in Manipur, ahead of the Assembly polls next years.

By Yambem Laba

Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s four year old honeymoon with the Nagas of Manipur seems to have completely come to an end. This followed the declaration by the United Naga Council (UNC) of Manipur declaring that CM Biren Singh’s Government is not welcome to bring his administration closer to the hill people. His program of “Go to the Hills and Go to the Villages” had for some time succeeded in bringing the administration to the doorsteps of the people in the hill and rural areas when every month he would place all the branches of the administration at their front yards almost and officials ranging from health personnel to revenue officials would be present. He went one step further and would rotate his Cabinet meetings in the district headquarters of the hill districts. By the looks of it, it was good. But the Nagas felt a Trojan Horse in these manouvres and the cat was finally out of the bag when he held a Cabinet Meeting in the District Head Quarters of the newly create district of Kamjong bifurcated out of Ukhrul District recently.

On January 15, 2021  Biren Singh held his Cabinet meeting at Kamjong. The UNC Naga Council reacted that hence no further Cabinet meetings or Go to the Hills programmes will be allowed to take place in Naga areas of Manipur. Their contention was that the United Naga Council have been opposing the creation of new districts in the State defected in end 2016 by the then Congress Government under O Ibobi Singh. The Nagas have been for the last five decades have been opposing the bifurcation of Naga dominated Senapati District into two. The plans to create Sardar Hills district out of Senapati have led to numerous economic blockades and bandhs in the State. But Ibobi Singh went two steps further for not only he bifurcated Senapati but also Chandel, Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Chuarchandpur  and  created Jiribam adding a total of seven new districts in the State. The only solace he gave to the Nagas was that when he split up Senapati, he did not called it Sardar Hills but instead called it Kangpokpi. The Naga Council was left in a shock for it had since 1981 been opposing the bifurcation of Senapati District and had signed altogether four Memorandums of Understanding with the State Government first in 1981, then in 1992, 1996 and 1998, further in 2011 the Government of India had intervened and had asserted that all stake holders including Naga bodies would be consulted before any new such creation.

The Nagas had gone up in arms to the creation and had called for a roll back to the creation but with general elections to the State Assembly having already been announced then faced an administrative road block citing restrictions by the Election Commission of India. Then the change of guards took place at Imphal with a BJP led government being ushered in with Biren Singh heading it. Not only was it a BJP led Government but had received the support of four legislators belonging to the Naga Peoples Front (NPF) backed by United Naga Council.

And while the NPF kept a studied silence over the issue of the creation of the new districts it had egged on the United Naga Council to raise the issue again and an accommodating Biren Government agreed to hold tripartite talks with representatives of the Union Home Ministry be present besides representatives of the State Government in talks with them and two such meetings were held in Senapati. But what had caused the immediate furore was the Cabinet decision of 27 March 2021 in which it was decided to hold elections to the Autonomous District Councils in the hill areas including the newly created districts carved out of Senapati, Ukhrul, Chandel, Tamenglong and Churachandpur. The Naga Council felt that this was a Trojan Horse seeking to legitimize the creation of the new districts.

The Council in a statement released recently called the State Government to expunge the resolutions arrived at its Cabinet meeting held at Kamjong further stating that the deliberations relating to the creation of the new districts are still on and is yet to be concluded even after six rounds of talks at the political level to resolve the issue the Council reiterated. The UNC had for the last 50 years been calling for the amalgamation of Naga areas of Manipur on the lines of the greater Naga Lim of the NSCN (I-M) must be in a quandary now with that dream slowly diminishing even with the Centre’s Interlocutor and Nagaland Governor RN Ravi hardening his stance against the NSCN (I-M) leadership over a lot of issues including the questions on I-M’s expansionist plans.

Elections to the various District Councils have been overdue for about a year now. Putting pressure on the State Government to hold the polls soonest is the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur (ATSUM) which had called for a total shutdown of the hill tribal areas recently. On the other hand the newly formed Demand Committee on Creation of Autonomous District Councils (DCCADC) have urged the State Government not to kow tow before the UNC and is aiming to deprive the citizens residing in the newly created districts of Pherzawl, Kamjong, Noney,Tengnoupal. Kangpokpi has already have been having its own District Council whilst still a part of Senapati District.

The DCCADC appealed to the UNC not to stand in the way of their democratic rights and the development policy of the State Government. It also reminded as to how the 3rd Naga People’s Convention had declared elections to the Autonomous Ditrict Councils in 2011 as null and void and had prevented the functioning of the Councils in Naga areas, it now seems to be singing a different tune altogether and now dared it to call for a no election to the District Councils in toto.

Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s predecessor O Ibobi Singh was a person non grata in Naga areas of Manipur during his 15 years rule. Ever since 2010 when Ibobi Singh blocked the entry of NSCN (I-M)’s supremo Th Muivah from entering Manipur. He had Manipur’s two road entry points at Mao and Jessami barricaded and had posted Police Commandos there and had sent open message to the Govt. of India the talks between the Centre and the Naga rebel outfit notwithstanding Muivah will be arrested if he sets foot on Manipuri soil, the birthplace of Muivah for he continues to be on the “wanted list” of rebel leaders as per notification issued earlier by the State’s Home Department. A sulking Muivah turned his Carvalcade from just two kilometers short of Mao Gate and returned to Hebron Camp near Dimapur. But that was the last straw on the Camel’s back which he had pulled.

The NSCN retaliated back through its frontal organization the UNC, which fell back on its tactics of blocking the two life lines or National Highways  that connects Manipur with the rest of India one via Nagaland and the other through Assam. The oft repeated reasons behind the economic blockades was mainly the fear of bifurcation of Naga dominated Senapati District and the creation of Kuki dominated Sardar Hills District. The blockades’ effect was devastating, as all essential items including life-saving drugs and baby foods and aviation turbine fuel ran out of stock in the State and the Indian Air Force had to fly in Cargo aircrafts with relief materials on numerous occasions. The antipathy of the Nagas towards Ibobi had reached its zenith when sometime in 2016, he flew to Ukhrul, Muivah’s home district to inaugurate a hospital and as soon as his helicopter had landed  his entourage was fired upon and the chief minister had to return home with a red face.

But in 2016, the twilight days of Ibobi’s rule, the UNC launched the mother of all economic blockades running into over 100 days. But then Ibobi pulled the rug out of the feet of his Naga detractors. In a swift midnight operation, he announced the creation of six new districts. Not only he bifurcated Senapati, with the creation of Kangpokpi district but also did the same with Ukhrul, Chandel and Tamenglong all Naga dominated districts. He also bifurcated Kuki dominated Churachandpur and made Jiribam which ealier used to form part of Imphal East a full-fledged district. While the rest of the communities welcomed Ibobi’s move, it amounted to showing the red cloak to a raging bull for the Nagas.

But with elections to the State Legislative Assembly due next year each ethnic groups seems to be falling back to its earlier formula of saying no to the demands and aspirations of other tribes or groups. But N Biren Singh’s romance with the Nagas seems to be on the wane at the moment.

(Yambem Laba is a senior journalist and activist based in Imphal. This article was first published by The Statesman. Views expressed are his own)

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