Polls hardly matter in this Manipur district as Nagas close ranks behind a long economic blockade

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Ipsita Chakravarty (Courtesy : scroll.in)

The check post is easy to miss from the road – mere sheets of tarpaulin rigged on bamboo poles, an outcrop of rock casting a shadow over it. Then a scrawny young man, face covered by a black pollution mask, steps out on the road to flag down passing vehicles.
This is National Highway 2, entering Manipur from Nagaland, passing through the hill town of Senapati and into the Imphal Valley. Since November 1, the United Naga Council has declared an economic blockade of it as well as National Highway 37, both crucial to the supply of essential goods to Manipur.

Blockades are an old form of protest in Manipur. In 2011, just before the last Assembly elections in early 2012, the state had gone through a long spell of blockades and counter-blockades by Naga and Kuki groups. This time, it was revived by the apex Naga body after the state government announced its decision to create new districts in the hills, which the Nagas said would divide their lands.

The road from Senapati, where the Naga leadership in the state is based, to the capital Imphal is now peppered with check posts. At some points, blockaders have simply stationed themselves at roadside tea stalls.

The blockade has drawn varying levels of support from Naga areas. In some areas, every village sends at least one volunteer to man the checkposts. Some send two or three. They are mostly young men, deployed by local civil society organisations, said Seth Shatsang, president of the All Naga Students Association of Manipur.

From the tarpaulin shack, Justin Konii, a burly Naga volunteer, commands about 30 people. They are spread out on the stretch of road from Senapati town to a tassar (silk) farm a few kilometres away, Konii said. They work in 24 hour shifts, from 7 am to 7 am. “It should be tiring but it’s okay,” said Joel Atikho, a graduate from Nagaland University and part of the Senapati District Students Union, sitting on duty in the shack.

They check passing vehicles for commercial goods, and only those with special permits from the higher authorities at the United Naga Council are allowed through. Vehicles carrying students or patients are not stopped, Atikho said. Neither are vehicles protected by military convoys.

There is a quiet battle for domination of the highway. The Naga checkposts are interspersed by security forces standing guard along the highway. Military convoys trundle down the road at regular intervals, watchful in the tense weeks leading up to the Assembly elections, which kicked off on Saturday. The second and final round is due on Wednesday.

The blockaders claim their main interest is the resolution of Naga political demands, not the elections. But who comes to power in Manipur could also determine how that process unfolds.

“I actually want to vote and transform the government, overthrow the Congress,” said Atikho. “The Congress has created this whole storm. A new party can solve this – the NPF [Naga People’s Front], probably in a coalition, most hopefully with the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party].”

Ancestral homelands :
At rallies and tea stalls, outside shops and youth clubs, voters in Senapati district will tell you the Naga issue is the main electoral concern this year. The blockade has raised prices and cultivators have found markets for their produce shrinking, but goods are still flowing in from Dimapur in Nagaland and business is still being done. The pain of the blockade is not so acute here, and it has considerable support.

In these parts, the Naga issue has been shaped by the agitation led by the United Naga Council leadership. S Milan, general secretary of the apex body, traces it back to a historical sense of difference, between the Manipur hills and the Imphal valley, between the Nagas and the Meiteis, the dominant ethnic group of Manipur.

“The plains are the ancestral homeland of the Meiteis, the hills the ancestral homeland of Nagas,” he explained. “Since time immemorial, there was no relationship between Nagas and Meiteis. We have our own laws; every village is a small republic. In the valley, they established a kingdom like any other. Outsiders might view us as one but we are two separate entities.”

The differences widened after 1891, continued Milan, when the Meitei kingdom became a princely state under the British but the hills were left out of the colonial administration. He spoke of a burgeoning Naga nationalism, with its centre of gravity in Kohima rather than Imphal. He recalled the no-tax campaign of 1948, when Mao and Maram Nagas started marching towards Kohima to pay house tax to the deputy commissioner there, only to be intercepted by troops of the Assam Rifles.

“Our aspiration to live together with Naga brothers and sisters of Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh was not fulfilled when Manipur attained statehood in the 1940s,” said Milan.

The Manipur government’s creation of seven new districts in December, according to him, bifurcated Naga ancestral lands once more, compounding the wrongs of Independence and state creation in the new republic.

For the Naga leadership, it has also revived an old spectre: the creation of a Kuki homeland in areas claimed by Nagas. The newly created Kuki-dominated Kangpokpi district is an abridged version of the Sadar Hills district, demanded by Kukis for decades and resisted by Nagas for as long.

The new district is now read as the first step towards a “Kuki state”.
Milan spoke of four memorandums of agreement signed since the 1980s “between Manipur and the Naga people”, and a “written assurance” from the government of India “that if at all such a thing were to be, the Naga people must be consulted”. But when the seven districts were declared on December 8, neither the hill areas nor the Naga groups were consulted.

Disillusioned with Congress :
Now, the United Naga Council finds itself fighting a battle on two fronts. Relations have broken down with the Congress government in Manipur, which threatened to outlaw the council and accused it of having links with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), an insurgent group fighting for a separate Naga state or Nagalim.
Shatsang lashed out at the attempt to criminalise the organisation. “The UNC is not like valley-based civil societies,” he said. “Ours is from the family, clan, village, tribe. Our structures start from the grass roots. This amounts to a ban on all Naga citizens. All our politicians and bureaucrats are also part of the UNC.”
Milan, for his part, shrugged off the Congress threat, pointing to inconsistencies within the party. “It was a proposal of the Congress legislature party, but then Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh said we are willing to hold tripartite talks. What is the maturity of the Congress party?” he demanded.

The tripartite talks, held in Delhi this February, did not go well either. Two senior leaders of the council, who had been imprisoned in Manipur, were briefly released to attend the talks. The discussions seemed to go well at first, and all parties wavered on the brink of a truce.
But then problems arose. The state government seemed willing to release the leaders if the blockade was called off, but did not commit to any other Naga demand, saying the model code of conduct for the elections had already kicked in, so its hands were tied. The chief minister also seemed to have riled Naga leaders by prematurely announcing to the press that the blockade would be lifted. That sealed the fate of the negotiations.

According to the Senapati leadership, the Nagas did not want to reduce the talks to a negotiation for their release; they were fighting for larger political demands. So the blockade remains on the highways and the leaders remain in prison.

Keeping a distance from BJP :
The stand-off with the Congress was supposed to have pushed the council closer to the BJP, which is seen as sympathetic to Naga demands – having signed what was termed a historic peace accord with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) in 2015 to end the insurgency. But the BJP, making a bid for power in Manipur and anxious to placate Meitei constituencies in the Valley, has played a careful balancing game.

“The blockade should never have been an issue,” said Bhabananda, president of the party’s state unit, sitting in his office in Imphal. “But people are suffering so much and the government is not initiating a dialogue.” In its vision document, the BJP focuses on a “highway protection force” in the state, apparently to guard against future blockades.
Besides, the BJP has taken pains to assure audiences in the Imphal Valley that it will not compromise the “territorial integrity” of the state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, holding rallies in Imphal, said that a Naga accord would not affect Manipur.

The Senapati leadership has long demanded that the talks flowing from the Naga framework agreement include the Naga areas of Manipur as well. But Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh seemed to quell these hopes. The framework agreement made no mention of Manipur and other states surrounding Nagaland, he said last month.

“I don’t want to say that it is a dilution [of earlier promises],” said Milan cautiously, referring to Singh’s remarks. “Everyone is playing politics.” But a note of bitterness soon surfaced. “Whoever becomes chief minister will be Meitei,” predicted Milan.
So for now, the council is maintaining a distance from the BJP. The only party it admits to supporting is the Naga People’s Front, fielding candidates in 15 of the state’s 60 constituencies. In these elections, the main contest in the hill districts is between the Naga party and the BJP. The question is, will the rivals turn allies after the elections?

Source: The Sangai Express

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