The politics of economic blockade in Manipur

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Mehdi Hussain
“Political unrest” has become a defining feature of the present-day Manipur. The state politics has been revolving mostly around one major issue, i.e., ethnic identity which can be seen in the strong demand for Inner Line Permit (ILP) and the Naga claims for the unification of all Naga settlements lying in different states in the Northeast under one political boundary. Regarding the latter’s case, Manipur for long has been held a victim along the National Highways No. 2 (Imphal-Dimapur), and 37 (Imphal-Jiribam).

In the context of the state of crisis in Manipur, the term “economic blockade” can be loosely defined as the economic weapon in the hands of the Hill Tribals to force the state to change its policy to the group’s interests or a more desirable one. It is an economic leverage used against the state which also involves violence for ‘unlimited period’ driven by the intention of striking the government through people’s sufferings.

While the extent of the economic blockade is limited to the Highways, its implications are felt all over the state. It includes counter-blockade imposed by some groups in the Valley blocking the movement of goods from the valley to the Hills. Thus, it has thwarted all economic activities ranging from earning of livelihood to small businesses to inter-state transactions. Other immediate impacts are the rise of the cost of essential commodities, hurting the communal harmony, and impediments to the infrastructure development projects – ongoing or in pipeline in the state.
There has emerged a situation similar to the humanitarian crisis. By Dec 26, the Union Government had sent 17,500 paramilitary personnel to provide security for the safe passage of the good-laden trucks on the Highways. On Jan 24, two days before the Republic Day celebration, the Union Government had to airlift 96,000 litres of fuel on the Indian Air Force’s largest military transport aircraft. Among other reasons, the “Highway politics” has marred the peace and development of the state. The Hill Tribals have been using the National Highways as a “strategic debt” against the state. They indulge in blocking the movement of goods into the state threatening the normal life of the state if there demand is not fulfilled. The two Highways provide the land access to the mainland India.

The Confrontation
The Hill population has a genuine concern for protecting and defending their unity in identity. Their identity is closely associated with their control of lands. Therefore, any attempt to divide the land has to face an untoward challenge. They frequently express this in using the economic blockade as a political tool to assert their claims. The current economic blockade over the creation of two new districts of Sadar Hills and Jiribam reflect their anguish in what they feel is not inclusive of them in the governance of the state. The United Naga Council (UNC) has taken in charge to lead the demand to undo the creation of districts by imposing an indefinite economic blockade since November 1 last year. In the process, there have been killings of two security personnel, attacking and torching of good-laden trucks on the Highways, and not to forget the sufferings of lakhs of people in the valley.

The animosity in the air can also be traced to the three anti-migrants bills passed by the State Assembly in 2015, which did not see the light of day. The Bills were biased against some section of the Tribes. The Nagas and Kukis who mainly settled in the Hills of the state were against these bills, which they felt were an encroachment on their right to control and administer. Besides, Section 158 of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act of 1960 (MLR & LR Act) provides for the protection of Tribals by restricting the transfer of a tribal’s land to a non-tribal without the previous permission of the Deputy Commissioner who must get the due consent of the District Council first. On the other hand, the MLR & LR Act vested the state government the power to “divide the territories to which this Act extends into one or more districts, and may similarly divide any district into sub-divisions and tehsils, and may alter the limits of, or abolish, any district, sub-division or tehsil.” This prompted Chief Minister O. Ibobi in saying that “Land belongs to the government and not to any tribe.” Well, this was an unfortunate statement from the head of the state showing no sensitivities to the tribes.

It could be, because, in the face of the General Elections scheduled to be held in 2017, it wants to please the Valley people in order to counter the political mileage that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has in the rest of India. To allay this fear, CM O. Ibobi cited, “administrative convenience to create new districts” as the motive behind the creation of new districts. A serious question needs to be directed towards the government why is it ineffective in addressing the crisis of economic blockade? The inaction of the state government also encourages such blockades.

In the time of crisis, the state and the Union governments indulge in blame-game which has become a routine response. The blockade is a serious law and order setback which falls under the ambit of the state government. The state was similarly helpless in the 120 days of economic blockade in 2011 imposed by the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee which was soon followed by a counter-blockade launched by the UNC. It is necessary to remind that the ‘Hill versus Valley’ discourse also runs through the fact that unlike the Hills, the Valley has all the basic amenities of life and the infrastructure to support development. The state is distanced from the needs of the Hill people. This is true in the case of valley. The government needs to pay serious attention to reducing the development gap between the Valley and the Hill.

Declaring Economic Blockade Illegal
UNC emerged as a civil society organisation representing Naga tribes in the struggle for defending its rights. However, it resorted to violence since November 1 as seen in damaging and torching of trucks on the Highway. This is against the principle of civil society organisation – peaceful method of resistance, leave aloUvne the claim that it is a ‘frontal organisation’ for the NSCN (IM). Moreover, it has violated the law and order. Section 3(2)(e) of the Prevention of Destruction of the Public Property Act of 1984 criminalises the destruction of public property and provides for upto five years of imprisonment with fine.
Further, the Supreme Court has recommended for expanding the coverage of the Act by including the leaders of the organisation involved in the protest to be held responsible for damage to public property.

Even in the absence of a state law to stop economic blockade, the state can invoke Section 3(2)(e) of the Act in order to prevent damaging public property. In 2015, there was the sign of such law preventing bandh and economic blockade when Deputy CM Gaikhangam stated that “economic blockade is a violation of human rights and it is undemocratic to impose blockade to meet a demand.” Unfortunately, such law is yet to come. However, the state government has sought to declare the UNC as an illegal organisation. This is also a failure on the part of the civil society organisations. They lack clear principles to achieve a desired set of goals. So they frequently turn to “ad-hocism” in its approach in dealing with a particular crisis. A similar situation prevails with other civil societies in the valley by using the means of strikes and bandhs.

Inclusive Politics
The Manipuri society is a myriad of ethnicities knitted in the pristine fabrics of secularism, coexistence, cooperation and collaboration. The state should give due recognition to all its people leaving aside any chauvinism based on ethnicity. However, lingering demand of a pan Naga-inhabited land alongside the prevailing Meitei Chauvinism that tries to dominate in the affairs of the state are a fatal combination for the future of the state.

This will only produce trust deficit among the communities. Even though the state under the MLR & LR Act is conferred with absolute power over the creation or abolition of districts, it is morally imperative on its part to consult with all the stakeholders. Thus, it is essential for a renewed effort for a harmony, cooperation and peaceful coexistence from all quarters of society, particularly Tribals and Meitei communities in every step of building an inclusive and a stronger state. The state government represents its entire people. It should not give itself the impression of playing a divisive politics. The government should realise that people are disenchanted with it for its failure to maintain law and order, promote development and improve on the governance front, and tackle corruption.

Moreover, people should realise that it is in the vested interest of the political elites to exploit any opportunities arising out of the weakening communal harmony. People-to- people contact is the utmost need of the hour for bridging the differences and remove distrust between the two largest communities. Meanwhile, the National Highways are not a property of a particular group of people and usurping them for sectarian goals is not just illegal but morally wrong for such act will deprive the means of survival for lakhs of people. They belong to all. Then another way to peace building is to evolve into a healthy political culture. The people of Manipur seems to be highly mobilised on the ethnic lines which has positive as well as negative implications. In the case of ethnically-diverse Manipur, negative consequences take the dominant form which is resulted in the “ethnic- divide”.

Thus, civil society organisations should take the lead in bringing awareness of the masses by re-learning the importance and significance of the communal harmony, respecting differences and re-visiting the rich heritage of Manipur. Cultural interaction, for example, the “Sangai Festival” which is a grand celebration of the differences of cultures provides a collaborative platform for various ethnicities in the state. It is heartening to see the tripartite meeting held on Feb 3 that gave the hope for a solution to the stalemate for more than 90 days. It ended on a positive note to break the deadlock in the next tripartite dialogue.

Source: The Sangai Express

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