By Sophia Rajkumari
The recent events in Manipur – the State Government’s announcements regarding the formation of new districts in predominantly tribal populated hill areas and the retaliation by the so-called United Naga Council through the imposition of an economic blockade targeted at the denizens of the predominantly Meitei community populated Imphal Valley have hardly attracted significant attention in the mainstream Indian and international press. The responses of the Government of India and its nodal ministries have also been lethargic, to say the least.
Think about it – if goons in Haryana and UP were to suddenly block all road and rail traffic to Delhi – bringing the flow of food, fuel, medicines, goods and people to a complete halt – and if the citizens of Delhi had to cope with the consequent shortage of essential commodities and pay Rs 300 per litre of petrol after waiting in line for a day, would the media be so unconcerned? And would the Government of India nonchalantly wait for 50 days to pass before sending a junior minister to make an assessment if the situation?
And this is precisely what has happened in the case of Manipur. And not for the first time – this has become an almost yearly occurrence. India clearly doesn’t care about Manipur’s fate or the suffering of its people. Whether it is the media, common people, or governmental institutions, this recurring situation exposes the very loose ties that bind Manipur to the Indian Union, and the weakness of Manipur’s own institutional mechanisms – a process that began with the controversial accession of the princely state of Manipur to the Indian Union in 1949. Prior to the accession, which some allege occurred under duress placed on the then Maharaja during his visit to Shillong, Manipur had been evolving into a constitutional monarchy. While it already had an elected assembly, no attempt was made to seek the assembly’s consent, hold a plebiscite or otherwise gain popular approval for the move. With the relegation of Manipur to Union Territory status, and no statehood until 1972, when various separatist insurgencies were already gathering steam, the incipient institutions of the State had no opportunity to take root. The balance that had prevailed for centuries between different communities – assorted Naga, Kuki and other hill people and the Meitei people in the valley – was upset, with no means to correct it.
The problem was compounded by New Delhi’s colonial mindset – the North-Eastern States, racially and ethnically different from the rest of India, are seen more as an extension of India’s strategic and territorial outreach, rather than as an integral part of India in a cultural and civilizational sense. Thus, with the onset of separatist insurgencies, New Delhi began to cultivate a model where Manipur was treated as a sort of client state in a zero sum game – the idea being to install a puppet regime beholden to New Delhi’s patronage and to practice a strategy of containing and co-opting the insurgency by spreading corruption and inhibiting development. Whatever was left of Manipur’s institutions completely withered away as corruption became entrenched at all levels. Development – infrastructure, economic and social – took a back seat and Manipur’s transformation to a client state addicted to New Delhi’s handouts was complete.
Some of the other smaller North Eastern States also faced similar challenges – but were able to gradually turn the tide. Mizoram was fortunate to be relatively ethnically homogenous, which helped restore normalcy relatively quickly once the Mizo peace accord was signed. Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalya were geographically better placed, with good connectivity to Assam, and state governments that could deliver on a measure of social development – if not infrastructure. Manipur, with it’s remoteness and ethnic diversity, faced challenges of a greater order, compounded by India’s moves to isolate it from Myanmar, which has been it’s traditional trading partner and market for centuries. Thus, with it’s institutions weakened and corrupted, and it’s key trade routes cut off, Manipur has faced continued deterioration in its social and economic indices and has found it difficult to cope with increased ethic tensions, often stoked by the divide and rule colonial style policies practised by New Delhi’s mandarins.
Consider this – Manipur, a state with a population of less than 3 Million, is now the poorest state in the India Union, save for Uttar Pradesh (population 200 Million+) and Bihar (Population 100 Million+). With a GDP per capita of around US$ 900, Manipur is quite comparable to sub-Saharan Africa in terms of its development and income indices. While China is now building a second railway to Tibet, the roof of the world, much more easily accessible Manipur is yet to have any meaningful rail connectivity nearly 70 years after India became independent.
Turning to the present crisis, it almost seems to be playing out to a predictable script. First, the State Government, led by Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, who has developed a reputation for thorough corruption, incompetence and maliciousness in his 15 years at the helm, realizes that elections are around the corner and something needs to be done to shore up his dwindling political base. Dusting off his old playbook from 2010-11, Ibobi seems to decide that a communal polarization that enables him to be seen as a protector of the Meiteis and guardian of Manipur’s territorial integrity is his best bet at garnering enough votes for a fourth term. So, after several years of doing nothing to improve administrative efficiency, Ibobi determines it is best now, at the eve of his third term, to suddenly announce the creation of seven new districts to be carved out of predominantly tribal dominated hill areas – thus sharpening the divide amongst the various Kuki and Naga ethnic communities (gathering some votes there in the process) while shoring up Meitei support in the face of the anticipated opposition from certain Naga groups to this move. Of course, Ibobi, the epitome of wholesome administrative failure if there ever was one, claims this is being done to enhance administrative efficiency.
Act two – enter the United Naga Council (UNC). A front organization for the NSCN-IM terror outfit, the UNC then spots an opportunity to make itself more relevant amongst the various Naga communities and override the reality that it only essentially represents a faction of one tribal group. And it does this by resorting to economic terrorism of the worst kind by seeking to impose an economic blockage of Manipur by force. Of course, this creates communal polarization – exactly what both Ibobi and UNC want, albeit for differing reasons.
Ibobi does nothing to have the economic blockade lifted despite having the State’s forces and added Central armed forces at his command. He let’s things slide for several weeks as the common people of all communities suffer. And then he allows a situation to develop where innocent Naga civilians residing in Imphal and it’s vicinity are terrorized by unruly mobs and prevented from leaving for home to celebrate Christmas, even as property and churches are vandalized. Of course, no protection is forthcoming from the State’s forces.
And naturally, New Delhi snoozes away while the weeks go by. Finally, when the Union Home Minister awakes from his 50 day slumber, he realizes that the State is slipping away. A BJP MLA from the Meitei community has just defected and joined the Congress to be seen as siding with Ibobi. And the BJP, which had been coasting along expecting to be victorious in the 2017 assembly elections, reckons that it has been outwitted by Ibobi. Time to attempt some belated damage control – not because the people of Manipur have no food, fuel, medicines, or security – but only since it is getting closer to election time. So a junior Minister of State for Home Affairs is dispatched to Manipur to make some suitable noises, demonstrate concern, and blame the State Government. He claims that the Home Ministry was unaware of the situation on the ground, conjuring images of the messenger pigeon era.
Of course, New Delhi’s unsavoury relations with the NSCN-IM are also a factor – New Delhi has been merrily signing secret accords with the NSCN-IM without taking any state governments or Parliament into confidence even as the NSCN-IM goes about killing and extorting Indian citizens with impunity. The UNC has no constitutional locus – so the claim in some quarters that it should have been consulted before the formation of new districts was announced by the State Government doesn’t have any legal or moral basis. Furthermore, those with genuine grievances against the move do have various avenues of peacefully opposing the State Government’s decision – these include filing a judicial challenge and having their representatives in the State Assembly voice their opposition. Petitions and peaceful assemblies are all legitimate choices – but an economic blockade is clearly illegal and only intended to terrorize and provoke a communal backlash.
What then might the long-term solutions be? The people of Manipur – Meitei, Naga, Kuki and others – need to realize that they stand alone and have to resolve their problems and develop their state themselves. India will not help and doesn’t care. We have to do this ourselves and chart our own destiny.
The world respects strength – and that is gained from wealth and economic power. As long as Manipur stays beholden to Indian hand-outs, it will remain a polarized client state, subject to India’s divisive policies, apathy and puppet regimes. Thus, the first priority for Manipur is to become developed and wealthy. This will only happen if different communities can create a peaceful environment conducive to development and avoid falling prey to attempts to communally polarize them. This requires the likes of Ibobi and the UNC to be rendered politically irrelevant, and replaced by entities that represent the genuine development aspirations of all sections of Manipur’s population in a responsible and mature manner. Neither the Indian national political parties such as the Congress and the BJP and their local acolytes, and nor purely communal organizations affiliated to terror outfits such as the UNC and it’s other Naga, Meitei or Kuki equivalents can offer this.
Thus, what is needed is a pan-Manipur local political movement that seeks to represent all communities on a platform of rapid economic growth and development. While this does seem far-fetched, it is not impossible – the building blocks in the form of educated youth with strong aspirations are already present, and social media can provide the impetus from a communications and outreach standpoint in a relatively inexpensive way. The contours of such a political entity can be flexible – it need not be a traditional, unitary command and control political party, but perhaps more an agglomeration of strong local movements sharing a development ideology with a democratic, central core. If the people of Manipur recognize this – a difficult ask in an era where the main goal seems to be to bribe one’s way to an irrelevant government job – Manipur perhaps has a chance of breaking out of its’ cycle of stagnation. It is a bit like a de-addiction program – weaning the addict away from the drug and restoring his or her dignity and sense of self is a difficult process with many pitfalls and the chances of failure are greater than those of success. And it cannot work if the addict doesn’t have the will to kick the habit.
While Manipur must remain within the Indian Union for the foreseeable future for practical considerations, it does still have leeway to be a more cohesive and economically independent society within this set-up, with strong relations and trading links with its neighbouring states as well as Myanmar, Thailand and Western China. Critical to realizing this vision is social harmony, human capital in the form of a well-educated and productive work-force and rapid infrastructure development. Geography allows Manipur to be a trade hub, and with some investments and peace, it can vastly grow its services and tourism sectors, while focusing on higher value agricultural domains such as horticulture and floriculture. Diversity can yet be Manipur’s strength instead of being a weakness.
The article was originally published in TSE.