Insights into Editorial: Ending the Manipur blockade
It has been more than one month since the blockade of the national highways leading to the Manipur valley, called by the United Naga Council (UNC). This has severely affected life in the State, with shortages and escalating costs of essential supplies such as fuel and food, even as demonetisation has exacerbated problems.
- Manipur may be a small state with a population of just over 25 lakh, but the divide between the people living in the valley and the hills is so wide that not a year goes by without bandhs and other protests over several disagreements. Imphal valley is predominantly inhabited by the Meiteis, and the hills are predominantly inhabited by the Nagas and Kukis.
Immediate cause for the present crisis:
The blockade is in place to oppose the creation of new districts by the state government. According to the government, the decision for formation of seven new districts was taken for administrative convenience and to enable the state government take up development works effectively even in the remote and underdeveloped parts of the state.
The state government issued a gazette notification for the creation of seven new districts by bifurcating seven (of a total of nine) districts. This decision had as much to do with long-pending demands — in particular, for a new Kuki-majority district to be carved out of the larger Senapati hill district — as with easing administrative access to far-flung areas from the district headquarters.
Why the UNC is opposing this move?
While residents and groups in the new districts have welcomed the decision, the UNC has protested, alleging that areas with a Naga population have been divided and that the lack of consultation is a violation of commitments made by both the Centre and the State in various memoranda of understanding.
- While better administrative management of the seven new districts should be feasible, the Manipuri Nagas of the existing hill districts of Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Senapati and Chandel feel that some of the new smaller districts would be under greater political control of the Manipur state administration at Imphal.
- There is also a foreboding among the Nagas that non-Naga tribes like Kukis would eventually dominate in districts like Kangpokpi — where presently there is a coexistence of Kukis, Nagas and the Meiteis.
- The UNC also claims that the creation of new districts in the Naga dominated hill areas will encroach upon and divide the traditional land holdings of Naga tribes.
- Besides, the government has not consulted the Hill Area Committees before taking the decision. The Hill Area Committees are formed to protect the rights of hill people, and under Article 371(C) of Constitution, must be consulted on matters relating to tribal people.
Why the centre should intervene?
The state of turmoil in Manipur appears to have become a recurrent phenomenon. About a year ago, serious disturbances affecting public order arose after the Manipur Assembly hurriedly passed three controversial bills on August 31, 2015. These related to compulsory registration of non-Manipuris, non-alienation of their land rights, and registration of employees of shops and establishments in the Imphal Valley. These were passed without prior consideration and vetting by the members belonging to the hill constituencies and hill councils. These bills, deemed to be negatively affecting the interests of tribals and violative of the afore-mentioned constitutional provisions, had triggered a huge reaction in the hill districts and Churachanpur. These three bills did not finally get Presidential accent, and perforce had to be reverted back by the Union Home Ministry (MHA) to the state government for reconsideration. As in the case of the creation of seven new districts, the state government`s unilateral and non-consensual action triggered the earlier crisis as well.
How the situation is affecting the citizens?
The UNC blockade has been causing economic distress with prices of essential commodities including fuel and drugs increasing substantially. The impact of demonetization and scarcity of currency is also a factor contributing to public distress.
What needs to be done now?
In the existing politico-security milieu of north-eastern states — and in particular the India-Myanmar border region which has experienced depredations by the NSCN-Khaplang group, such non-consensual actions by the state executive authorities cannot but be detrimental to India`s security interests. Though the anti-national insurgent Meitei groups drawing support in the Imphal Valley region seem to be lying low currently as a result of counter action by the state police and central paramilitary forces, political unrest is detrimental to the overall security situation in Manipur.
- The Union government has a residuary responsibility to assist in turning around the present situation. While a direct assumption of executive responsibility by the Union government may not be warranted, a more proactive role of the Governor at New Delhi`s behest, may be justifiably required. The Constitution has adequate scope for this purpose under its Seventh schedule and Article 371 C, without impinging on the autonomy of the state.
- MHA may simultaneously use the instrumentality of the state governor for suitable overview and to ensure that the consultative process necessary with the hill councils is mandatorily followed within the existing constitutional framework.
Counter-blockades have been called by other groups in the state in response to the blockades by UNC. There has been violence both in the hills and in the valley. The State government has sought the Centre’s assistance to end the blockade, given that New Delhi has been in peace talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) group that supports the UNC. While the Centre has sent paramilitary forces to both Nagaland and Manipur, the inaction in clearing the blockade of the national highways is puzzling.
Government officials have been in talks with tribal groups over the past few days. Meitei and tribal groups too have reached out to each other in search of a resolution. Officials believe the situation is likely to ease. However, the UNC has said it will not call off its economic blockade; however, it has been holding talks with different sections of Naga society to chalk out its strategy.
Efforts to impose a political solution through blockades that cut arterial routes supplying essential goods to various areas of Manipur are a cynical ploy. Such action heightens ethnic polarisation and threatens, once again, the fragile peace in the State. Ideally there should be a dialogue that involves all major stakeholders — the State government, groups that support redistricting, the UNC and the Centre. But first, there should be zero tolerance towards all such blockades.
The ongoing crisis must also be seen against the backdrop of a new political scenario wherein new players are seeking to expand their areas of influence while old warhorses struggle to hold on to their positions.