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What are Manipur’s new districts? How have they been created?
On December 9, the Manipur government issued a gazette notification creating 7 new districts by bifurcating 7 of the state’s existing 9 districts. This took the number of districts in the state to 16.
Of Manipur’s 9 districts, 4 — Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishenpur — were valley districts; the other 5 — Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Churachandpur — were hill districts. The valley districts of Imphal East and Imphal West together form Manipur’s capital, Imphal. Imphal East had a non-contiguous pocket to its west, on the state’s border with Silchar in Assam.
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The 5 hill districts were tribal districts: Ukhrul is Naga (predominantly Tangkhul); Senapati is predominantly Naga; Tamenglong, Naga; Chandel, predominantly Naga; and Churachandpur, Kuki and Zomi tribes. Valley districts are smaller — estimated to have only 30% of the state’s land — with a high density of population; hill districts are sparsely populated. Jhoom cultivation — cultivating a portion of land and setting it on fire before moving on — is the primary occupation, and a village can traditionally own hundreds of hectares.
All 5 hill districts have been bifurcated; of the 4 valley districts, Bishenpur and Imphal West have been left alone. The 7 new districts are Kangpokpi (a long standing demand by Kukis for a separate Sadar Hills district with areas of the Naga district Senapati), Tengnoupal (from the predominantly Naga district of Chandel), Pherzawl (earlier in Kuki-dominated Churachandpur), Noney (earlier in Naga-dominated Tamenglong), Jiribam (from Imphal East), Kamjong (from Ukhrul) and Kakching (in the valley, but to which some areas of Chandel have been added).
Why were the districts created?
Officially, Manipur’s Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh says it was both a response to longstanding demands of local people, and for reasons of administrative efficiency. Sources in the Congress, however, say that ahead of the February-March Assembly elections, the Chief Minister is also trying to hang on to the position that he has held against all odds since 2002.
Earlier this year, two of the state Congress’s most prominent leaders, former vice-president and spokesperson N Biren, and veteran leader Y Erabot, joined the BJP. Three more — all from the hill districts — have left since. While one has joined the Naga People’s Front (the ruling party in Nagaland, which many in Manipur believe is backed by the NSCN-IM), another has joined the BJP, which is an NPF ally in Nagaland. The third MLA is still “undecided”.
Sources close to the Chief Minister concede that the Congress is struggling to maintain its hold in the hills. Tribal hill communities believe the government is anti-tribal and communal, and the NSCN (IM) has issued an unofficial diktat to all Naga people to vote for the NPF (which currently has a small presence in the Manipur Assembly). MLAs are believed to have received threats warning of dire consequences if they do not leave the Congress, and the party is trying to hold on to its 10 MLAs from Naga areas in the Assembly. The Chief Minister is, therefore trying to “fulfill everyone’s demands”, the sources said.
Who has been opposing the creation of the new districts, and why?
The UNC and other Naga leaders have two main complaints. They say Naga villages have been “appropriated” and merged with non-Naga areas to form the new districts in an attempt to divide the Naga people. And second, the government did not consult the Hill Area Committees before taking the decision. The Hill Area Committees are formed to protect the rights of hill people, and under Article 371(C) of Constitution, must be consulted on matters relating to tribal people.
A month ago, after the UNC began its blockade, Council president Gaidon Kamei, along with its Information and Publicity Secretary Stephen Lamkang were arrested, which angered the UNC and NSCN (IM).
The hill-valley divide has deepened over the past two years as the demand for introducing the Inner Line Permit in Manipur, made by the Meitei community, has gathered momentum. The tribals have remained largely anti-ILP. The three Bills brought by the government last year resulted in violent protests in Churachandpur, during which 9 people were killed in police firing. Over a year later, sections of the tribal population have refused to allow the bodies to be buried until the Bills are withdrawn.
How have the protests impacted the situation in Manipur?
The UNC’s economic blockade which began on November 2 demanding the repeal of the three Bills and gained momentum after the CM’s November 8 announcement, led to a severe shortage of commodities, and the price of petrol shot to Rs 300 a litre in Imphal city. After Gaidon Kamei and Stephen Lamkang were arrested on November 25, the UNC intensified its protests. Kamei and Lamkang have been denied bail, and have been remanded in custody until January 27.
On December 14, the day Ibobi Singh was to inaugurate the new Tengnoupal district (earlier in Chandel district), three commandos were killed and 11 injured in two ambushes. On December 17, 70 NSCN (IM) militants attacked a police post in Tamenglong district and stole 9 automatic weapons and ammunition. In protest, a Meitei mob stormed the Manipur Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in Imphal. Several vehicles headed to Ukhrul were set on fire. On December 18, a convoy of 3 buses and 18 vans carrying residents of Ukhrul home for Christmas was attacked by a mob that set all 21 vehicles ablaze.
What happens next?
Government officials have been in talks with tribal groups over the past few days. Meitei and tribal groups too have reached out to each other in search of a resolution. Officials believe the situation is likely to ease before Christmas. The UNC has said it will not call off its economic blockade; however, it has been holding talks with different sections of Naga society to chalk out its strategy.