The violence that erupted in Manipur on December 18 is unfortunate and unacceptable. However, it is not an unexpected one. For a long time, there has been a 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 UNC, which is more than 50 days now, has caused immense hardship to the people. With essential items running short, petrol has been selling at Rs 200-300/litre and cooking-gas at Rs 2000-3000/cylinder in the capital Imphal and elsewhere in the state. The hardship has been compounded by the ongoing demonetisation as well.
Such blockades on the national highways which connect the state with the rest of the country have become a recurrent phenomenon during the last decade. Besides the harassment meted out to the commuters, properties worth crores of rupees, including numerous private and government vehicles, were destroyed along the highways during these blockades.
However, this time around, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has declared the blockade as illegal. Yet, nothing concrete has come out of it. Incidentally, various courts in the country, including the Supreme Court, have pronounced highway blockade as illegal and unconstitutional. And following a ruling by the Manipur High Court, the Government of Manipur has also arrested the President and another office bearer of UNC in relation to the ongoing blockade.
But various tribal bodies (tribals constitute roughly 35 per cent of the state’s population), including UNC, have demanded unconditional release of the two. On the other hand, Christian bodies – most tribals in the state are Christians and although there are Christians amongst the non-tribal population, mostly they follow variegated forms of Hinduism, Islam and an indigenous faith called Sanamahism – have also followed the Government of Manipur in appealing to the UNC to withdraw the blockade to ameliorate the suffering and hardship of the people. So far, UNC has not heeded these appeals.
The violence on December 18 is not merely about the ongoing blockade per se. It is also a result of the transforming character of Naga nationalist movement that has come to threaten Manipur’s existence. A large number of cadres and top leadership of NSCN (I-M), including its seasoned leader Th. Muivah, come from Manipur. As the mantle of leading the Naga nationalist movement increasingly rests with the group, the theme ‘We are discriminated’ begins to acquire saliency over the traditional ‘We are not Indians’ in the Naga political discourse. Correspondingly, as the decades old Indo-Naga imbroglio gradually transforms into a Naga-Manipuri conflict, the Government of India finds itself as a mediator of a new conflict rather than being a party to one of the oldest armed conflicts in South Asia.
UNC subscribes to this variegated expression of ‘Naga-nationalism’ that endangers Manipur. It calls for a ‘separate administration’ of those areas which it terms as ‘Naga areas’ in the state as an ‘interim arrangement’ till ‘the final solution’ is inked between the NSCN (I-M) and Government of India.
This aspiration of the tribal who espouse the cause of the UNC comes in conflict with those who believe in the integrity of the polity and society in Manipur. This conflict has accentuated during the last two decades, which incidentally also coincides with the time period of the ongoing talks between NSCN (I-M) and Government of India. Many in Manipur, including the government, see UNC as a front organization of the NSCN (I-M) that serves the latter’s agenda.
UNC challenges the very idea of Manipur as a historically evolved geo-political entity. Terming Manipur as ‘artificially’ created by the colonial rulers, it seeks to split the polity of the state along communal lines (‘Nagas’, ‘Kukis’, ‘Meiteis’ etc). Thus, describing its neighbors, it talks of ‘Assamese’ while still claiming that Assam has ‘Naga areas’. But in its efforts to ‘ethnicize’ Manipur, it refers to the ‘Meiteis’ rather than ‘Manipuris’ as its neighbour.
Central to this language of ‘ethnicization’ lies a widely shared and theologically derived idea of ‘land’, and a corresponding notion of identity as a primordial entity. Thusly, in line with the slogan ‘Nagaland for Christ’, a former vice-chairman of the Naga Hoho, Mr. 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).
But the fact is, the idea of ‘Naga’ as a ‘nation’ is a product of colonial categories and nationalist mobilization. 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, UNC pursues its political mobilization by deploying expressions like ‘Naga areas’, ‘Naga dominated areas’ and ‘contiguous Naga areas’. Insofar as it sees the creation of the districts, though a prerogative of the state government, as an act that splits ‘Naga areas’, the present blockade is a part of that mobilization.
Incidentally, expressions like ‘Naga dominated/contiguous areas’ have their historical precedence in the Muslim League campaign for Pakistan in pursuance of its ‘two-nation theory’. The League had deployed expressions like ‘Muslim area’, ‘Muslim dominated area’ and ‘contiguous Muslim areas’. Unfortunately, history seems to repeat itself in Manipur. During 1990s, the state witnessed bloodshed amongst communities as propaganda and violence had 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 ‘cleansing’ one tribe from areas which have been claimed by another have left an indelible scar in the psyche of the people.
Since the turn of the century, the exclusivist politics has only deepened. Even as the Government of India 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. It has led to the erosion of the authority of the state government in many areas which are under the sway of the group. While state officials and police have hardly any control in these areas, the presence of army and central paramilitary forces armed with AFSPA couldn’t deter that erosion either.
There is a seething resentment amongst the people against the attempts of UNC and NSCN (I-M) to disintegrate Manipur along communal lines. A perception that these groups have been given tacit support by the Government of India and the hardship caused by the recurrent blockades have compounded that resentment. The violence in the third week of December at Khurai in Imphal was the explosion of years of pent up anger which, incidentally, also confirmed the lawlessness of a state under the sway of a Manichean politics.