It was a cold, dark Christmas in Manipur. The lifelines of the landlocked state, its roads and highways, have been cut off for more than 50 days. In the southwestern Churachandpur district, bodies of nine tribal youth have been lying in a morgue for more than a year now. The frozen bodies and the blocked highways have become a symbol of the hill versus valley battle in Manipur, which has fallen prey again to narrow political battles, while the Ibobi Singh government is preparing for the assembly elections next year.
On December 9, the Ibobi government announced the creation of seven new districts, including Jiribam, a Kuki-dominated district, and Sadar Hills, a predominantly non-tribal district. It made the United Naga Council, backed by the powerful National Socialist Council of Nagaland, NSCN (IM), rise up against the state government, alleging that it was encroaching upon the ancestral land of the Nagas.
“The Manipur impasse is because of the imprudence of the Ibobi government, which is trying to make political capital out of the unrest. The divide between the valley and the hill is damaging national unity and has become a threat to security. I have appealed to have the bodies of the nine young protestors buried, as the Union government has heard their complaints with sympathy and assured due consideration,” said BJP MP Tarun Vijay.
With the NSCN deciding to intensify the ‘’people’s movement’’ against the state administration, the crisis is casting a shadow on the ambitious Naga peace accord signed in August 2015 between the Narendra Modi government and the NSCN, aimed at ending the longest-running insurgency in the northeast. The framework agreement had acknowledged that the sovereignty of the Nagas lay with the Naga people and that the sovereignty would be defined in the final agreement.
The NSCN’s demand for a “Greater Nagalim”, to be formed by adding all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur to the state of Nagaland, makes those states wary of any peace deal. Moreover, government sources said the Union government was exploring the possibility of granting ‘’more autonomy to the Naga-inhabited districts’’, even as its interlocutor R.N. Ravi was inching towards a final settlement.
The ongoing unrest and the upcoming elections are, however, likely to further delay the final agreement. “It is unlikely that there will be any further movement till the elections are over,” said a home ministry official.
Senior NSCN leader Anthony Ningkhan Shimray said the Ibobi government had manufactured the Manipur crisis to “sabotage the ongoing peace process”. Shimray, who is allegedly the main arms procurer of the NSCN and was in jail till a day before the signing of the peace accord, said it was the duty of the Union government to ensure that the Manipur government did not “ignite the explosive situation.” “The communal Manipur government has created the new districts to put a spanner in the peace process to gain political mileage and to extend its hegemonic rule over the Nagas and tribals,” he said. “We have no problem with the Meiteis or the Kukis. The Manipur government is using them to gain control over our land and the government of India knows about it. It has been discussed in the final agreement and that is why when the final solution is coming near, the Ibobi government is playing its divide and rule policy.”
He warned that the Naga groups would continue the blockade and resort to other peaceful non-cooperation methods and hinted that insurgent outfits like the People’s Liberation Army and the United National Liberation Front have joined forces with those who are trying to sabotage the peace process.
UNC general secretary S. Milan said the Manipur government had dishonoured the MoUs signed by successive governments with various Naga outfits over the years and even a written assurance given by ministry of home affairs on November 24, 2011. “It was said that not an inch of the Naga ancestral land should be touched while creating any new district and anyone going against the letter and spirit of the MoUs should be responsible for any eventuality. We have written to the prime minister demanding immediate political intervention to settle the Indo-Naga political issues once and for all,” said Milan.
As an immediate step, the Naga outfits are demanding president’s rule in Manipur. It is no surprise that Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju rushed to the state to reassure the Nagas and to prevail upon the Ibobi government to take all possible steps to restore normalcy. “We want the peace process to continue,” said Rijiju. “But, at the same time, no one should take advantage of the situation for political benefits.”