Old faultlines, new crisis

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By A Bimol Akoijam

The violence that erupted in Manipur on December 18 is unfortunate. However, the events were not unexpected. For a long time, there has been simmering anger against the “economic blockades” on the national highways imposed by tribal bodies such as the United Naga Council (UNC). The present blockade enforced by the UNC, which has gone on for more than 50 days, has caused immense hardship. Essential items are in short supply, petrol has been selling at Rs 200-300 per litre and cooking gas at Rs 2,000-3,000 per cylinder in the state. The hardship has been compounded by the fallout of demonetisation.
Such blockades on national highways have become a recurrent phenomenon in the last decade. This time, the Union ministry of home affairs has declared the blockade illegal. But nothing concrete has come out of that ban. Various courts, including the Supreme Court, have also pronounced the highway blockade illegal. Following a ruling by the Manipur High Court, the Manipur government has arrested the president and another office bearer of the UNC. But various tribal bodies (tribals constitute roughly 35 per cent of the state’s population), including the UNC, have demanded the unconditional release of both. On the other hand, Christian bodies —most tribals in the state are Christians and although there are Christians amongst the non-tribal population, they mostly follow different forms of Hinduism, Islam and an indigenous faith called Sanamahism —have appealed to the UNC to withdraw the blockades.
The violence on December 18 was, however, not merely about the ongoing blockade. It was also a result of the transforming character of the “Naga nationalist” movement that has come to threaten Manipur’s existence. A large number of cadres and top leadership of the NSCN (I-M), including its leader T. Muivah, come from Manipur. As the mantle of leading the “Naga nationalist” movement increasingly rests with the group, the theme, “we are discriminated” has gained currency over the traditional theme, “we are not Indians”, in the Naga political discourse. As the decades-old India-Naga rift gradually transforms into a Naga-Manipuri conflict, the government of India finds itself as the mediator of a new conflict, rather than being a party to one of the oldest armed conflicts in South Asia.
The UNC subscribes to an expression of “Naga nationalism” that endangers Manipur. It calls for a “separate administration” of the areas which it terms as “Naga areas” in the state as an “interim arrangement”. This aspiration puts the group into conflict with those who believe in the integrity of Manipur’s polity and society. The conflict has grown during the past two decades, which incidentally also coincides with the time period of the talks between the NSCN (I-M) and the Indian government. Many in Manipur, including the state government, see the UNC as a front organisation of the NSCN (I-M).
The UNC challenges the idea of Manipur as a historically evolved geo-political entity. Terming Manipur as “artificially” created by the colonial rulers, it seeks to split the state’s polity along communal lines (Nagas, Kukis, Meiteis). Central to this language of “ethnicisation” is a widely shared and theologically derived idea of “land”, and a corresponding notion of identity as a primordial entity. Thus, in line with the slogan “Nagaland for Christ”, a former vice-chairman of the Naga Hoho, G. Gaingam writes, “God created Meitei and Naga… God gave a plain area of land… to the Meitei… and… hill areas… to the Nagas…” (The Sangai Express, December 19). However, the idea of “Naga” as a “nation” is a product of colonial categories and nationalist mobilisation. That some tribal communities continue to resist attempts to incorporate them under the Naga fold (such as the Aimols in Manipur) alludes to this nature of Naga identity and politics.
Armed with a cocktail of theological and modernist ideas, the UNC pursues its political mobilisation by deploying expressions like “Naga areas”, “Naga-dominated areas” and “contiguous Naga areas”. Insofar as it sees the creation of the new districts as an act that splits “Naga areas”, the present blockade is a part of that mobilisation.
Expressions like “Naga-dominated” and “contiguous areas” have a historical precedent in the Muslim League’s campaign for Pakistan. The League had deployed expressions like “Muslim area”, “Muslim-dominated area” and “contiguous Muslim areas”. History seems to be repeating itself in Manipur. During the 1990s, the state witnessed bloodshed amongst communities as propaganda and violence sought to sharply demarcate the tribals in terms of two conglomerates — the “Nagas” and the “Kukis”. Treating fellow citizens as migrants, issuing “quit notices” and exterminating a tribe from an area claimed by another tribe have left indelible scars on the psyche of the people.
Such exclusivist politics have intensified since the turn of the century. Even though the Centre maintains that its “ceasefire” with the NSCN (I-M) is applicable only in Nagaland, it is common knowledge that the group operates with impunity in Manipur. The authority of the state government has eroded in many areas, which are under the sway of the group. There is a seething resentment amongst the people against the attempts of the UNC and NSCN (I-M) to disintegrate Manipur along communal lines. A perception that these groups have recently got the tacit support of the government of India, and the hardship caused by the recurrent blockades, have compounded that resentment. The violence at Khurai in Imphal in the third week of December was the explosion of years of pent-up anger. (Courtesy – The Indian Express)

The article was originally published in TSE. The author teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University

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