Explaining the Siege: The Unending Blockades in Manipur

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By Bibhu Prasad Routray

21 September 2011 : The ongoing blockades in Manipur entered 52 days on 21 September. Even by the prevailing norms in the state where blockades are imposed with religious regularity by almost anybody- militant formations, civil society organisations, student outfits, tribal bodies – this time around the siege has gone wee bit too far, with no end in sight.

As people in the state struggle to meet their ends with scarce commodities, this is an attempt to explain the issue at hand and examine the options for the governments in Imphal and New Delhi to put an end the current logjam.

Issue at hand:

Upgradation of the Sadar Hills sub-division of the Senapati district to a full-fledged district.

The issue is at least two decades old. Incidentally, the Manipur State Legislative Assembly has twice passed resolutions supporting the creation of the Sadar Hills district. Creation of this new district is not an easy proposition for the area under the Sadar Hills, and largely dominated by the Kuki tribe, is seen by the Nagas as part of their traditional homeland. Both Nagas and Kukis have fought bitter internecine clashes through out the 1990s resulting in deaths of hundreds.

The biggest stumbling block before the issue, thus, has been “one posed by ethnic contestations over territory informed by archaic notions of ethnic homelands”. The issue also highlights the division between the Hill and the Valley areas of the state. Geographically, 90 per cent of the State area is hilly and contains 41 per cent of the population. The rest 59 per cent of the state’s total population, are located in the Valley, housing the state’s capital.

The Key Players:

1. Sadar Hills District Demand Committee (SHDDC): Consisting of Kuki tribals, the SHDDC since 31 July 2011 has blocked NH 39, which connects Imphal with Dimapur (in Nagaland). It also has blocked NH 53 that connects Imphal with Assam.

2. United Naga Council (UNC): In anticipation that the SHDDC agitators may have their way, this apex political organization of the Naga tribes within Manipur on 21 August imposed its own blockade along all the other highways (NH 39& NH 150) leading out of the state, thus effectively cutting off the state from the rest of the country. UNC opposes the creation of the district on the fear that the creation of the district would split the Naga population and would further put their ultimate goal of being a part of a unified Nagalim that brings together all the Naga inhabited areas of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh under one administrative unit in jeopardy. The UNC further insinuates that the demand for Sadar Hills district is part of a sinister divide and rule policy by the Government of Manipur, indirectly hinting at a machination by the valley based Meitei communities who they feel are against the Nagas.

3. Manipur Government: Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh has promised the SHDDC that a final decision on creation of the Sadar Hills district would be made after the Committee on Reorganization of Administrative and Police Boundaries (CRAPB) submits its report in three months. The first meeting of the state chief secretary-headed Committee on Reorganization of Administrative and Police Boundaries (CRAPB) was convened on 15 September to seek people’s comments and opinion on remapping of district boundaries. Meanwhile, several civil bodies have appealed to the government not to rearrange the boundaries on the basis of religion, language or communities.

4. New Delhi: It has resisted intervening as the issue remains an internal political problem in Manipur and has remained free from ethnic violence. Any intervention would be seen as a bias in favour of or against particular tribes. Thus, it believes that this situation is better handled by the State government. In any event, Manipur police is 20,000 strong, and has 10,000 police commandos at its disposal. In any event, the convoys of trucks are being provided security by the Manipur Rifles personnel and Indian Reserve Battalions (IRB) battalions along with central forces, the BSF, CRPF and Assam Rifles, although full safety of the vehicles has not been ensured. Six trucks including two carrying medicines were burnt down by the UNC protesters at Nungkao area under district along NH 39 on 16 September.

Options before the State Government:

1. Force open the Highways: This would appear to be the easiest of solutions. However, all the Highways passing through the state obviously can’t be kept open by security force presence all round the year. The state would require at least 20 dedicated battalions of security forces for the purpose. Neither the state nor New Delhi can afford this. The other option is to concentrate only on Highway 53 that connects Manipur with Assam and is less troublesome to keep operational. However, this Highway is simply unusable in its vast stretches. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which is the repairing agency, has set a deadline of 2013 to complete its work.

2. Create Sadar Hills district: It will placate the Kukis, who would then lift the blockade on NH 39 and 53. However, the decision would annoy the Nagas who would continue the blockade on rest of the highways. The decision will certainly have a spillover effect in Nagaland, where the Nagas would eventually impose fresh blockades on NH 39, which passes through Nagaland. It has happened so many times in future and will recur. The Manipur state government, which now can still get its supplies through convoys of trucks under police and security force protection into the valley areas, will be completely at the mercy of the Nagaland government. New Delhi can intervene in that inter-state conflict scenario, but the danger is that the conflict may also take dangerous turn towards vicious inter-tribal violence between the Nagas and Kukis in Manipur, a worst case scenario New Delhi would try to avoid.

3. Do nothing till the storm passes over: This is a policy the Ibobi Singh government has been frequently accused of. Blockades demanding creation of the Sadar Hills district is almost an annual ritual, for past several years. On previous occasions, protesters have gone home after deliberations and assurances by the state government. Only this time, this has gone on for so long. Since there have been multiple resolutions in the Assembly favouring the creation of the district, the government can’t now reject it. But an Ostrich like policy will keep the issue alive, allowing it to return in possibly worse forms.

4. Get the Nagas and Kukis to talk to each other: On paper, it may sound fine, but is a highly improbable scenario, given the acrimony both communities bear towards each other and also, the hostility they have towards the state government.

5. Create the district, but under different names: As a respected editor friend of mine Pradip Phanjoubam suggests: “The state government could experiment with things like naming the proposed Sadar Hills district as Senapati (South) and the old Senapati as Senapati (North). The point is to send out the message to those demanding as well as opposing the formation of this new district that the new district has no other intent than administrative convenience.”

6. Do nothing till a humanitarian crisis forces the New Delhi to impose President’s rule: Presuming nothing improves, the closing act of the state government may be a transition to the President’s Rule to avoid a humanitarian crisis. As Pradip Phanjoubam opined, “This is not so much about punishing the government for allowing the situation to go out of hand leaving the state with the distinct possibility of completely descending into total chaos, but instead of finding a way out of the present dangerous problem.” This unfortunately looks to be the only way out of the present impasse

[box type=”info” color=”blue”]This article was sent to Kanglaonline by Bibhu Prasad Routray [/box]

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