August 07, 2020
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A Riddle Of Hill And Valley

As two national parties battle it out, the faultlines that run through the northeastern state only come out sharper

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A Riddle Of Hill And Valley
Out Of Bounds
Vehicles from Nagaland burned during the blockade
Photograph by Getty Images
A Riddle Of Hill And Valley

It could pass off as an unfinished village road, but for the fact that this is NH-2 and connects four states—Nagaland and Manipur in this sector. Cars zigzag up the hills and also simultaneously zigzag on the asphalt, to avoid massive craters, one nearly every 15 feet. It’s only 60-odd km from capital Imphal in the Meitei-dominated valley to the ethnic Naga-flavoured Senapati district up in the north, but the road makes it a nearly three-hour drive. Metaphors may be the last thing on a traveller’s mind, but the state of the physical link in this case really does mirror the psychological distance ­between the two zones.

Just a fortnight left to assembly polls, and Manipur’s faultlines are all too visible. An overarching signboard announ­ces the arrival at Senapati. Large, old oil tins pock-mark the road—markers of a de facto shift in administrative power. Cars must slow down to weave through. Young men from the Naga People’s Orga­nisation (NPO) mill around, glaring at you from behind bandanas that cover their faces. They are armed with sticks and stones, and cars that try to speed away do so at some risk of broken glass.

Off The Block

(left) Illegal petrol sale in Imphal; a shop with a BJP sign

Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee

These young men have been camping here since November, enforcing a blockade called by the United Naga Council (UNC). They check all vehicles to see if any commercial items are being transported. If they are, the drivers are told to unload the items at the NPO office a little distance away. There is no sign of the Manipur state police. Or the paramilitary forces deployed in the west on NH-37, opening up the highway coming into Imphal from Karimganj in Assam that too had been initially blockaded. Here, on India’s easternmost national highway, it’s these men in their twenties who decide what goes and what doesn’t.

The UNC blockade is an angry respo­nse to the state government’s decision to bifurcate seven of Manipur’s nine old districts, creating seven new ones. The government went ahead with its move in December, citing a decades-old demand, and saying smaller units make for better administration. The UNC suspects otherwise—they question how the government has cleaved tribal land that has been guaranteed to them by the Constitution, and that too without their permission. They fear it displaces them as the majority in some of these districts—for instance, Tangkhul Nagas have been rendered a minority in the new Kangpokpi district carved out of Senapati, with its Kuki-dominated areas consolidated in response to an old demand.

Video: Sandipan Chatterjee; Editing: Suraj Wadhwa

Politics in Manipur can be counter-int­uitive. ‘Iron lady’ Irom Sharmila, such a totemic presence over the years, has gotten nowhere in formal politics. And the Christian Nagas have an ally in a new force, the BJP, which hopes to ext­end its footprint in the Northeast with a meaningful electoral debut here. In a cur­ious inversion of what’s taken to be the paradigm nationally, the BJP had come into a state riven along ethnic lines with a narrative of unity; the ruling Congress is identified with a partisan line favouring the Hindu Meiteis, Manipur’s dominant group that controls the state’s levers of power. Both the UNC and the BJP ask a basic question that the Congress is yet to answer: after 15 straight years in power, why did the Congress choose to divide these districts so close to the elections, towards the end of their third term?

Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh ans­wers that mostly in platitudes. But in an interview to Outlook, he lets on with a smile, “We have done this strategica­lly.” His chess move is seen as part of a shrewd plan to subvert any pan-Manipur sentiment solidifying against the Congress retaining power. One might feel anti-incumbency, blockades, extra-­judicial killings and low levels of development would be reason enough to boot out the Congress. Yet, the state saw a four-month-long blockade before the 2012 state elections as well, and it didn’t stop an Ibobi-led Congress from wresting 42 out of 60 seats then.

The BJP has come into a state riven along ethnic lines with a narrative of unity; the ruling Congress is seen as pro-Meitei.

Why? The answer is polarisation. Asked if the blockade will have any impact against the Congress, the chief minister simply answers, “No.” Support for the Congress, he claims, will consolidate “not only in the valley, but also in the hills. It will be in favour of the government and our party.” But that’s for the record. The logic actually works by harnessing the disaffection among Meiteis at a time when Naga politics threatens to set the terms. And the BJP, which had of late made inroads in the valley—winning over two high-profile faces from the Congress (ex-footballer Nongthombam Biren Singh and Y. Erabot Singh) last autumn—now finds itself painted into a more pro-Naga position.

Indeed, post-blockade, the BJP’s lea­der in the state assembly, Khumukcham Joykishan, a young face who could have been in line to be the CM candidate, made an angry exit. Joykishan, who had won last time as a Trinamool candidate before switching over to the BJP and giving it its first MLA in Manipur, joined the Congress in December, citing the Centre’s inaction over NSCN(IM) attacks. The NSCN(IM) is in talks with the Centre, and the BJP is a partner of the ruling Naga People’s Front in the neighbouring state—an association that might undo some of its leverage among the Meiteis. Naga politics spills over to Manipur—the NSCN(IM) has a chapter here, and it’s seen to back both the UNC and the NPF, which is a player here too. The precise content of the Naga agreement is a matter of some nervous speculation in Man­ipur. While the Congress fishes in these murky waters, it can’t wish away the BJP’s arrival as a factor. Last time, there wasn’t a viable alternative. This time, blockade fatigue and the attractions of the larger development narrative means the BJP is in line to be a strong opposition, if not make it to power.

Manipur is a key step in the BJP’s larger ambitions in the region. It’s already in Nagaland’s ruling alliance, and a series of defections helped it wrest Arunachal Pradesh too. Its dream in Manipur is to replicate Assam, where the party went from four seats to forming the government. That would take it closer to a ­Congress-mukt Northeast—in its vision, a uniform bloc under the North East Democratic Alliance. Ram Madhav, old RSS tactician and the party’s chief minder in troubled zones, is in charge of this end of the battle (see interview).

After three terms of the Congress, it would seem obvious and normal for people to want change. In the short term, though, there’s still the blockade to think about. And the counter-intuitive meanings it carries. Identity talk, a hill-valley rift, all this could also cause people to also retreat into familiar spaces, in this case the status quo offered by the Congress. Ibobi has played it cannily: crafting the image of a strong Meitei leader defending the valley against Naga dominance. The UNC blockade, paradoxica­lly, may end up fortifying the foe. It all­ows the Congress to gain from it, while not taking responsibility for the chaos, since Naga intransigence can be blamed.

And yet, whether in the Hindu Meitei-strong valley which accounts for 40 seats or in the hills, people generally concur with the picture party tacticians paint: that till last year, there was a mood for the BJP uniting the hills and the valley. The blockade came in suddenly and threw things off course. But there is still an interest in what the BJP might offer. At the NPO outpost in Senapati, Simon, who is overseeing the work of the others, sits on a wooden bench outside the shed where they are keeping seized items and says, “Congress for 15 years is too long. We should give a chance to BJP.”

In Imphal, Bazan Khaidem, waiting at a petrol pump in a line of 80 cars and bikes, says he will vote BJP. “I’m an artist. I liked the designs on the new currency. Neither demonetisation nor the blockade has changed my mind,” he says. At Kangpokpi, a fish-seller says the same. The candidate Nemcha Kipgen was in the Congress but switched sides recently. “We feel the development which Modi has been talking about will reach us here. The Congress has given us little. Of the two highways blocked, NH-37 was opened up only because the Centre sent forces over,” says the vendor.

A number of people also profess loyalty to the Congress but cannot always answer why. Says Joy Singh, a 32-year-old truck driver from Moreh district, bordering Myanmar, “My family has always voted Congress. What can I say…I will do what my parents want me to.” At N Songlung village, 27-year-old Satmin Haokip inherited the village chief’s post when his father died a few years ago. It’s a Kuki village, Christian by denomination, and Sunday church services are on. “The Congress has done good work. We have proper electricity now,” he says—continuous supply since last year.

But over the afternoon, he opens up a bit more about how hard life is. His wife’s family has had to support him, he says ruefully. “Under NREGA, I have not got more than 8-10 days of work. We need government jobs. But if your father is not already working there to influence things, you can’t get a job,” he says. Another villager says he teaches in the local school and takes a bit of extra money left over from the midday meal scheme.

Both the national parties agree on the state’s power to ­create new districts. Only the ­timing grates on the BJP.

Visible corruption permeates daily life in Manipur. Women sell golden petrol in plastic bottles all along the main roads. Sometimes they sell this petrol right outside the petrol pump. Locals call this the “chhota pump”. If one doesn’t have time to wait in serpentine lines, you can pay more and get it quick at the chhota pump. In busy areas, policemen stop every autorickshaw menacingly. Auto drivers keep a few notes pressed in their hands, and in a well-practised motion, slide it smoothly into the hand of the cop.

At more exalted levels, you don’t see corruption, unless it’s documented in CAG reports. In 2016, the CAG studied how the PM’s Gram Sadak Yojana rolled out in Manipur and concluded that dub­ious contracts resulted in a loss of over Rs 1 crore. Par for the course, like anywhere else. As are the cratered roads. So when Ram Madhav called this “the most conducive moment for BJP”, he may have been right. There’s certainly a fertile climate for pushing a pure development agenda, but it’s difficult to march with merely good slogans on the thin ice of identity politics. And the BJP, not a stranger to such tactics elsewhere, found itself at its receiving end in Manipur.

After a tripa­rtite discussion in New Delhi on February 3, the buzz was that the blockade would be called off on February 7 with the release of two top UNC leaders—but without any rollback on the new districts. The CM, in an interview to Outlook on February 6, said as much. But by the next afternoon, the UNC presidential council retracted. “If the blockade had ended, credit would have gone to the BJP and the Centre who got everyone to negotiate. The CM wanted to jeopardise this right from the beginning,” says a BJP source. The Congress, meanwhile, is trying to reinforce the idea of the UNC as aggressor, writing a letter to the PM to declare the Naga body unla­wful for its “anti-national, anti-people activities.” Whether or not this happens is immaterial; giving itself a veneer of Meitei guardianship is what may finally count in the intricate optics of Manipur.

Either way, a complex balancing act awaits the next regime. The two natio­nal parties may seem like foes, but the blockade exposes a certain convergence. Both parties agree on the power of the state to create new districts and its administrative logic. Both oppose the blockade and do not want a rollback. It’s just the timing that grates on the BJP. Now, with the code of conduct in place, the Congress claims it cannot undo its act. Two senior party sources also cite the fear of President’s rule—in case of a long faceoff. In the short term, the districts will remain, the blockade will continue, and elections will only interrupt a painful status quo. If nothing changes, it won’t be a novelty in Manipur’s long-term memory.

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