Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh has fulfilled at least one of the assurances given by the BJP during the assembly election campaign. After tripartite talks between the government of Manipur, the central government and the United Naga Council (UNC) on Sunday, the UNC has lifted its 139-day blockade.
The blockade, which began on November 1, 2016, was over the formation of new districts by the-then CM Okram Ibobi Singh. Forty-two days into the UNC blockade, the people of the Imphal Valley began a counter-blockade, bringing the state to a standstill, affecting the movement of essential goods and services.
There were incidents of violence, including the burning of 22 vehicles carrying Naga people on their way back from the Imphal Valley, and the attack on a church in Imphal. The lifting of the blockade by the UNC is indeed a welcome development. It is, however, only the beginning of resolving a complex political issue.
The UNC blockade began after Okram Ibobi Singh spoke of the formation of two new districts — Sadar Hills and Jiribam — at public meetings. This was seen by the UNC as an attempt to usurp “traditional Naga land”, even though no official notification had been issued at that point. Subsequently, in early December, the-then Congress government of Manipur notified seven new districts, including the two contentious ones. The move, while upsetting the Nagas and the UNC, was welcomed by other important sections, including the Kuki tribes and many among the Meitei people in the Imphal Valley. There were also accusations that the government had excluded the Hill Area Committees — meant to safeguard tribal interests — from the decision.
The new government in Manipur, led by the BJP, has promised to start a “consultation with all stakeholders to address the issues”. It now faces the task of balancing competing, if not contradictory, demands. If it cancels or significantly amends the gazetted notification of the new districts, the government risks being seen as pro-Naga by groups representing the rest of the population of the state. On the other hand, some concessions may be necessary to placate the UNC and keep them at the negotiating table. The key, for now, is to ensure that the demands and grievances of the various social groups in Manipur are addressed on the negotiating table, not on the street.