The colony of Khurai in Imphal East, Manipur, was deserted. The usually bustling Lamlong Bazaar was without its vegetable vendors while the highway to Ukhrul in the hills was empty except for paramilitary and police personnel patrolling it.
Khurai has been under curfew for more than a week now, after a mob torched 22 vehicles headed for Ukhrul under police escort. They held the passengers hostage until they were rescued by the United Council of Manipur and a larger police contingent.
The shutdown in Khurai presented the face of one half of a building conflict. In a state hit by an economic blockade for nearly two months — first called by the United Naga Council and then countered by the Meiteis with a blockade of their own — Khurai has traditionally been at the vanguard of Meitei-centric protests.
“Our counter-blockade was only imposed after 42 days of the other blockade,” said L Sangeeta, 45, a meira paibi (woman activist) for Meiteis. “But this counter-blockade isn’t about Meiteis versus Nagas. It’s about Meiteis versus United Naga Council, the people of Khurai versus the UNC.”
3 bills & 7 districts
Over the last one year, Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh was looking at an erosion in his Meitei support base. Unable to introduce the inner line permit, Ibobi found a middle ground when his government passed three bills that seek to restrict outsiders from settling in Manipur.
The bills pacified the Joint Committee for Inner Line Permit to an extent, and the Congress looked to regain its Meitei support. In the process, however, the bills alienated various tribes, who considered these anti-tribal and communal, and also united warring tribal groups for the first time —Kukis, Zomis and various Naga tribes.
Ibobi then came up with what those watching Manipur politics call a masterstroke. He announced seven new districts, including Kanpokpi in Kuki-dominated Sadar Hills. One objective was to win the Kukis over. And although Naga groups were upset, Congress sources said they were never looking at the 10 Naga-dominated seats. Manipur has 60 seats; polls are due early next year.
The move was a gamble. The Congress’s losses came in the form of senior leaders such as vice president N Biren and MLA Y Erabot joining the BJP. But the Congress also inducted BJP MLA Joykishen and claimed more and more people have been joining over the last week.
“Three Congress MLAS have left — one to join the BJP, another to join the Naga People’s Front and the third undecided,” said a Congress source close to the CM. The Naga People’s Front (NPF) is a BJP ally in Nagaland. Congress sources alleged that the NSCN(IM) has now issued a diktat that people of the Naga hills cannot vote for any Congress or BJP candidate, only for the NPF.
BJP in Manipur
Over the last year and a half, the BJP has grown from a party with no presence to a serious opposition. Though it won no Lok Sabha seat here in 2014, the nationwide victory helped it grow in terms of membership. In the Imphal municipality elections, it won 10 seats to the Congress’s 12 in a house of 27.
The BJP has attacked the Congress for the new districts. “Manipur cannot be called Manipur without the Nagas. Ibobi is isolating the Nagas to make electoral gains,” said BJP state spokesperson N Biren. “Ibobi has played such divisive politics before… but there was nobody to oppose him. We are here now.”
Ibobi has accused the Centre of not helping the state in controlling law and order. Later, the Centre rushed MoS of Home Kiren Rijiju to Imphal. Rijiju accused Ibobi of “politicising a humanitarian situation”. “There has never been an instance when the Centre has not stepped forward to help the state,” he told The Indian Express. “Law and order is a state subject… The Home Minister has made it clear that the state has been unable to handle this situation.”
Violence has risen in the hills of late, including shootouts with police. Government sources said this has prevented the chief minister from inaugurating the new Kamjong district, earlier part of Ukhrul. “We believe that hundreds of NSCN(IM) cadres have moved into Kamjong,” said a source.
NSCN(IM) kilosner (minister) for information and publicity V Horam said the Naga people have objected to the government’s move. “The move that Ibobi has made is to gain political mileage in the elections. He discussed the matter with certain sections of the tribal community – that he will announce these districts – and in exchange they will support the Congress. The Naga people have objected,” Horam told The Indian Express from Dimapur, accusing the government of “slicing away” Naga areas.
“I don’t think Ibobi has the authority to take away our land and hand it over to other communities who have no right over that land,” said S Varha, deputy kilosner, information and publicity. “Blockades can last a few days. But one or two months?… It makes the NSCN(IM) feel that the government [of India] is not serious about putting the matter of the Indo-Naga conflict to rest once and for all. The Manipur government is communal and has not developed any of the hill areas.”
State Congress R K Imo denied this, saying a major share of the budget goes to the hill districts. “To call the present government communal, or to place the blame at the threshold of the Meiteis, is entirely erroneous… When have you ever heard of a district being created on the basis of caste, creed or religion?” Imo said. “… Even after the formation of these districts, Meiteis cannot buy land here. So what are Meiteis getting out of this, as the UNC has been alleging?”
Imo accused the BJP, along with the NPF, of spurring communal tension. “Never have churches been burnt in Manipur, no matter what the problem… I feel this is a political game and that the BJP is instigating this.”