By B.G. Verghese
The Manipur blockade has gone far beyond a demonstrative measure and must be ended. The ordinary people have suffered enough. The Kuki-Naga quarrel at the root of the agitation is esoteric for most and politically whipped up by ethnic chauvinists on both sides. The State government is caught in a bind while Centre appears to have been passive for far too long, hoping that the problem will go away by itself. A prolonged stalemate could erupt in anger.
The Kukis claim that they have been neglected by the administration and oppressed by the Nagas. They demand the partitioning of the Kangpoki sub-division of the Naga majority Senapati district to form a Kuki-dominated Sadr Hills district in which their development and cultural prospects will be brighter. The United Naga Council that straddles Manipur and Nagaland sees in this a dark plot further to divide the Naga homeland and frustrate the goal of a united Nagalim.
In order to force the issue in their favour, the Kukis have blockaded both the Dimapur-Kohima-Imphal and Silchar-Jiribam-Imphal national highways, only to find themselves trumped by the Nagas who control the upper sectors of both roads connecting Manipur with Assam and the Indian heartland. Trucks have been burnt and movements forcibly stopped victimising people on both sides but especially those living in the Imphal Valley and further south. Prices of fuel, daily necessities and medicines have sky-rocketed. The blockade has been on for nearly 90 days, leading to distress, helplessness and despair.
Whatever the State Government and the Centre have done has been of little avail. Some essential supplies have been air-lifted but this has been no more than a minor palliative. The issue, obviously tricky, is clearly political. It is time for the Centre to demand opening of both roads for movement of essential supplies within 48 hours, with talks to follow to resolve the issues in contention, failing which it must be prepared to use the military to open up both routes. Some will argue that such a move may spark violence. The answer is that violence is being and has been used for three months to strangulate an entire people. The status quo is unacceptable.
A whiff of firmness after a display of extraordinary patience (or inaction), coupled with mediatory and practical efforts to restore harmony, will pay dividends. If governance fails, everything fails and things could spiral out of hand. A parallel initiative would be to negotiate emergency supplies for Manipur from and through Myanmar and Bangladesh, via Chittagong. The current crisis underlines the urgency of improving connectivity to and from Manipur (and in and to the Northeast generally), especially by improving the Silchar-Jiribam-Imphal highway. This route will in any case have to be realigned to overcome submergence should the Tipaimukh hydroelectric project move forward as it should.
The long term answer would seem to lie in pushing forward with the Naga peace talks and commencing a similar dialogue with the Kukis and other groups in a bid to understand and allay their fears and misgivings as ethnic entities. In the interim, the Sadar Hills Kukis could be granted a non-territorial council with appropriate institutional arrangements to ensure their development and cultural advancement even as the Naga majority areas within Manipur are granted similar autonomy within a non-territorial Nagalim. This would safeguard their interests without dismembering Manipur, Arunachal or Assam on each of which the Naga underground have territorial claims that can only be made good by consent, which has thus far proven totally elusive, or by the kind of pragmatic settlement suggested here or any other better idea. The Church is a powerful and positive influence and should be brought into the dialogue more directly to arrive at a just and honourable settlement.
Delicate negotiations such as are in progress between the NSCN-IM leadership and the Centre cannot be forced. Yet, dilatoriness could also bring in train its own problems as the current situation is clearly far from ideal. The Naga underground virtually runs a parallel administration through parallel taxation (or extortion), though everybody winks at ground realities.
Talks with the Metei underground would also be in order as Meitei nationalists have their own historical grievances going back to the alleged manner in which Manipur’s merger was effected and the status accorded to this ancient kingdom and its cultural symbols. An agreed form of words to express regret for any inadvertent hurt o misunderstanding caused in the past is surely worth exploring as a path to reconciliation.
Talks with ULFA are on and there are many other ethnic groups that nurse real or imagined grievances. These should all be addressed and the message should go out that none will go unheard and no legitimate and reasonable accommodation will be denied. The past is behind us and its perceived wrongs can only be redeemed by building a better future together, within an Indian commonwealth of equal peoples.
Telengana has been on the boil too and here again the Centre must act swiftly to avert a dangerous breach in national cohesion. The problem is that the Congress has blown hot and cold on any further state formation and has once again addressed the problem only on calculations of short term electoral and political gain. Half a dozen demands for new states are on the anvil and more will be broached. On what criteria of economic viability, administrative convenience, natural resource optimisation, security and cultural factors should a determination be made? There is a case for many more, smaller states. How many may be too many? And if something is conceded would it opens a veritable Pandora’s Box as some fear?
These questions are best answered by a blue riband commission of men and women of wisdom and experience who have no axe to grind. Let them take stock and see what countervailing institutions or arrangements might be put in place like the old Zonal Councils (that have been all but wound up), river basin authorities, natural resource regions, transport corridors and geo-strategic or common security regions, special urban government mechanisms and more empowered panchayati raj bodies. The commission should be set up in consultation with all major parties and the States and its report submitted after the next general election.
Mamta Bannerjee’s offer of talks with Bengal’s Maoists and the Home Minister’s repeated clarification that the latter need not surrender their arms but only not use them or resort to other forms of violence, intimidation and regrouping while the dialogue is on should not be allowed to wither on the vine. Extension of the Fifth Schedule to states currently not covered by it and its honest implementation alongside the Supreme Court’s Samata judgement regarding development and corporate social responsibility point to the direction in which the country must travel to promote growth with equity and local participation.