Inter-community tensions, simmering for some time now, are boiling over in Manipur after the state government decided to increase the number of districts from nine to 16 on December 9. The United Naga Council (UNC) has deemed the government’s move to upgrade Sadar Hills and Jiribam to full-fledged districts an attempt to take “traditional Naga land” and imposed an economic blockade from November 2 onwards. Meanwhile, angry Meitei mobs have been breaking the curfew and attacking vehicles heading to tribal areas in the state. The government’s justification for the formation of the new districts is administrative convenience, but given the recent context of conflict and resentment between communities, the move was bound to cause a flare-up.
The resentment against the new administrative units is just the latest in a series of issues that have caused strife. The demand that the Inner Line Permit (ILP) be implemented in Manipur has gained traction over the last few years amid fears that increasing tourism and migration would alter the demographic profile of the state. In 2015, there were sporadic, sometimes violent, protests by local Meiteis over what has been perceived by some as the state government dithering on the issue. Three other laws passed by the state assembly in 2015 — the Protection of Manipur People Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Bill (Seventh Amendment) and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill — ostensibly as a response to demands from the state’s tribal communities, were also met with protests, during which nine demonstrators were killed, whose bodies are lying in a morgue as a continuing symbol of the protest. The laws were seen as an attempt to encroach on tribal lands and rights. It is against this backdrop that the redrawing of district boundaries has taken on the colour of a Native versus Other conflict.
Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh may well have been looking to make a move that would make an immediate, visible impact before the assembly elections scheduled for early next year. However, the government did not make the process or the decision on the new administrative divisions a consultative one. The Hill Area Committees, meant to represent and safeguard tribal interests, have claimed they were not part of the decision. Whether for political considerations or administrative convenience, the redrawing of boundaries is a sensitive issue in the complex social fabric of Manipur and has immediate and real consequences for the law and order situation in the state. The government and other political actors must come to a broad agreement before the situation deteriorates further.
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