May 13, 2021
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A State Under Siege

The Meiteis and the Naga differences and the demand for a Greater Nagalim are longstanding, so what led to the recent crisis and what could be done to resolve it?

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A State Under Siege

Now that the Naga Students Federation (NSF) has finally suspended its blockade of National Highway 39 (NH-39) connecting Kohima (Nagaland) with Imphal (Manipur) since June 15, people in Manipur hope that the humanitarian crisis which has engulfed the state for more then 65 days will be over. 

The crisis is reflected in the fact that a kg of rice in Imphal is costing Rs 30; a litre of petrol is priced between Rs.150 to Rs.200. Diesel is not available in the gas stations and a LPG cylinder is priced between Rs.1000 to Rs.1500. The Public Distribution System (PDS) is closed. Worse still, the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences and Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences, two main hospitals in Manipur, have stopped functioning due to the non-availability of medicines. 

Sadly, the respite provided to Manipur by the NSF’s decision appears more virtual (Read Television) than real as the All Naga Students Association Manipur (ANSAM) continues to block NH-39 in Manipur once it crosses Dimapur-Mao Gate (the point of entry of the highway into Manipur on the Manipur-Nagaland border). Thereby, the trucks carrying basic commodities while crossing Mao-Gate into Manipur will not be able to move beyond the Manipur-Nagaland border.

Meiteis and Nagas have been at odds, violently so at times, largely due to the demand by the armed Naga outfit, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isaac Chisi Swu--NSCN (IM) that the four hill districts of Manipur, namely, Chandel, Senapati , Tamenglong,and Ukhrul be included as part of their “Greater Nagalim” (See their proposed map below) Meiteis are against this territorial demand as it would result in 90 per cent of their territory being sliced off. Also, non-Naga tribes like the Kukis and the Thadous (the largest hill tribe in Manipur) inhabit the hill districts along with the Naga tribes and are wary of the Greater Nagalim demand.

What the NSCN (IM)’s Greater Nagalim looks like: Source: 

Given these long-standing differences between the Meiteis and the Nagas, the obvious question to ask is: Why did the blockade of the NH -39 and this crisis suddenly come up at this particular juncture? 

Let's provide some context.

First, the blockade was started on April 12, 2010 by ANSAM protesting against the holding of elections to six Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in the hills districts of Manipur. 

Over 200,000 voters were exercising their ‘right to vote’ to elect 39 representatives to the ADCs of Chandel, Churachandpur, Ukhrul, Tamenglong, and Senapati districts. These elections were being held after a 20 years gap. The first phase of the elections was held on May 26, 2010 in Chandel, Churachandpur and Sadar Hills in Manipur. The second phase of the elections was held on June 2, 2010 in Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Senapati districts. 

And this is where the sub-text of inter-ethnic politics is playing out its destructive role. 

The participation of people in elections in the hill districts, especially Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul is a “thumbs down” to the Greater Nagalim demand as ADC elections gives representation to Nagas within Manipur in democratic institutions of their own. 

It also creates an added fear for armed groups like the NSCN (IM) that the ADC elections could prop up legitimate Naga leaders, who may see positive political stakes in being a part of Manipur. 

Second, the Ibobi Singh led Manipur state government also has its own vested political agenda in this crisis: utilizing the ADC elections to negate the Naga unification demand. 

Thus both parties have their own politico- strategic agendas with the common man caught in between. Consequently, in this Naga-Meitei divide, the voices of tribes like the Kukis, who are supportive of the ADC elections, are being lost.

Third, when the ongoing crisis over the ADC elections was on, Thuingaleng Muivah, the General Secretary of the NSCN (IM) announced on May 4, 2010 that he intended to visit his native village, Somdal in Ukhrul district in Manipur. This move was indeed motivated to earn political mileage from the ADC issue as well as visibly demonstrate his commitment to the Nagalim project to Nagas in Ukhrul at a time when many Tangkhul Nagas have started to express scepticism about the NSCN (IM)’s extortions and heavy handed ways. Subsequently, on being denied entry into Manipur by the Manipur state government, the NSCN (IM) led by Muivah also joined the blockade from the first week of May. 

Fourth, the NSF decided to intensify the blockade of NH-39 in the last week of May as a reaction to the Ibobi Singh government’s decision to disallow NSF activists from entering Oinam village in Senapati district. Also, the NSF demands the withdrawal of section 144 of CrPC which has been imposed on Naga inhabited areas of Manipur since May 3, 2010. 

The consequences of this blockade on Manipur have been manifold. It has led to the rekindling of age-old ethnic divisions between the Meiteis and the Nagas, vindicated by strong support from the Naga Hoho (Apex Naga Tribal Council) that they “ want the total separation of the people, that is the Nagas and the Meiteis. We have to live as different identities, we cannot co-exist anymore”. 

It has also resulted in intense politicisation of the divide with the NSCN (IM) General Secretary, Muivah and Manipur Chief Minister, Ibobi Singh stoking dangerous ethnic divides.

The Union government’s role in igniting the crisis must be taken note of as well. When Muivah made his request to visit his village amidst the ADC election crisis in Manipur, and Ibobi Singh agreed, the centre should have known that this will ignite negative passions amongst the Meiteis, who fear the NSCN (IM)’s agenda of Greater Nagalim. 

Muivah visiting Manipur during the Naga protests against the ADCs only validates the Meitei fear that these areas will one day become a part of Nagalim. The Chief Minister of Manipur also appears to have drawn political mileage out of it by sharply refusing entry to Muivah despite appearing ambiguous when he was first approached on the issue by the Centre. 

What can be done for a sustainable resolution of the crisis?

First, the union government should have ideally spoken to representatives of the NSF, ANSAM and the NSCN (IM) together to effectively bring an end to the blockade. Since it has not done that as yet, it is perhaps wise to engage not only the NSF, but the ANSAM and the NSCN (IM) on a common platform so that all actors responsible for the blockade commit to end it simultaneously. 

Second, the Naga Baptist Church Council has come forward to defuse the crisis in consultation with the Manipur Church. This is perhaps a viable way, given the influence the Church leaders enjoy in Naga society.

Third, blockades of National Highways anywhere in India should be declared unconstitutional and anyone responsible for it must be held accountable in a court of law and given due punishment for disruption of public life. This will deter future blockades. 

Fourth, the NH-53, from Silchar in Assam via Jiribam (Manipur) for movement of goods into Manipur is not a realistic option as the terrain is difficult for heavy trucks to ply upon. Airlifting of basic commodities and medicines should therefore be the first option.

Fifth, a committee of inquiry should be constituted by the union government, comprising both influential Meiteis and Nagas in order to find ways and means to resolve the crisis quickly.

Ethnic divides in a pluralistic society like India are inevitable but not intractable. Divisions of this kind can be handled through a framework of tolerance and inclusive thinking. The most important thing to do is to condemn such exclusivist narratives of "othering”, a common feature in the Northeast, and work towards meaningful bridging of ethnic divides. For this to happen, one needs to go beyond the local state structures that feed on ethnic divides for narrow political gains. Finally, it is social cohesion that can realistically tide over vested political interests and narrow destructive narratives that seems to be informing the present crisis between Manipur and Nagaland. 

Dr. Namrata Goswami is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Views expressed here are the author and do not reflect the views of IDSA


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