Seasons of discontent

Vivek Singh | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on January 13, 2017
Mark of anger: A burnt truck on National Highway 2 en route to Imphal in Senapati, Manipur. Photo: Vivek Singh

Mark of anger: A burnt truck on National Highway 2 en route to Imphal in Senapati, Manipur. Photo: Vivek Singh

The road that cannot be taken: Now blocked for over 70 days, the National Highway 2, an essential link for the people of Manipur, now wears a deserted look. Photo: Vivek Singh

The road that cannot be taken: Now blocked for over 70 days, the National Highway 2, an essential link for the people of Manipur, now wears a deserted look. Photo: Vivek Singh

Seeking answers: Protesters face off with riot police outside the mini-secretariat after a call given by the United Naga Council to picket government offices. Photo: Thailu Lanah

Seeking answers: Protesters face off with riot police outside the mini-secretariat after a call given by the United Naga Council to picket government offices. Photo: Thailu Lanah

The decision to further split the districts of Manipur has alienated an already divided people and intensified tension in a State crippled by economic blockade

Between 1992 and 1999, when the Naga-Kuki conflict ravaged the green, lush hills of Manipur, north of the capital Imphal, modest estimates suggested that over a thousand people were killed, more than 13,000 households destroyed and thousands displaced.

In a report filed for India Today from Manipur in October 1993, senior journalist Soutik Biswas, who now works for the British Broadcasting Corporation, illustrates the intensity of a conflict that increasingly inched towards a civil war-like situation.

People were being massacred on both sides — Naga and Kuki, and even the children were not spared. Biswas remembers the ghost villages, the mass displacement and the ineffective administration that failed to tackle the growing insurgency.

Twenty-four years later, talking on the phone from his Delhi office, Biswas recounted being stuck on a hilltop in a Naga village in Tamenglong district, from where he looked at the flames lit downhill by Kuki tribesmen to spot the fleeing Naga villagers. The villagers were expecting an imminent attack by Kuki insurgents. Standing on the hilltop, looking down on the flames that illuminated the ground below him, Biswas distinctly remembers thinking, “This is what war looks like”.

Violence had erupted following a long-standing demand of Nagas from Senapati district — from which the new Kangpokpi (Sadar Hills) district has now been carved out — that their land be left untouched while redrawing the districts of Manipur.

Despite the history of such violence, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh went ahead and declared the formation of seven new districts in the State on December 9, 2016. Singh chose to do so when assembly polls are just months away. The nine districts of Manipur have now been further divided, taking the total to 16, thereby dividing an already divided people further.

Among the new districts created through a gazette notification is Kangpokpi, a long-standing demand of the Kuki tribe. Kangpokpi has been culled out from areas of the Naga district Senapati, Jiribam from the Imphal East district, Tengnoupal from the mostly Naga-dominated district of Chandel, Pherzawl from the largest hill district of Churachandpur, Noney from Tamenglon, Kamjong from Ukhrul and Kakching in the valley, which also includes some areas of the Naga-dominated Chandel. The Nagas have vehemently opposed the creation of Kangpokpi and Jiribam. In Kangpokpi, they say, Naga villages have been “appropriated” and merged with non-Naga areas. The Naga activists in Senapati allege that the redrawing was unconstitutional as the Hill Area Committee (HAC) was not consulted before taking the decision. The HAC was formed to protect the rights of hill people, and under Article 371(C) of the Constitution, “must be consulted on matters relating to tribal people.”

In late October last year, before the United Naga Council (UNC) decided to start the economic blockade on National Highway 2 (also called Asian Highway 1) and National Highway 37 that would eventually choke the four valley districts of supplies, a delegation of Naga Student Federation (NSF), a student body representing Nagas across state boundaries, met the chief secretary of Manipur O Nabakishore to discuss the issue of new districts. The chief secretary reportedly told the delegation headed by Subenthung Kithan, President, NSF and Bo- veio Poukai Duo, general secretary, NSF, “I wouldn’t have given you this appointment had I known you were here to discuss the formation of the new districts.” In turn, the student delegation reportedly drew the attention of the official to the various memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between Naga civil society organisations and the Manipur government on the Sadar Hills issue over the last 35 years. It includes the MOUs between All Naga Students Association Manipur (ANSAM) and the State government in 1981; the UNC, ANSAM and the State government in 1992; and the NSF and the State government in 1998, which state that all stakeholders would be consulted before the redrawing of Naga-dominated areas takes place. Recalling the meeting, Boveio, whom I met in late December at a tea stall in Senapati town, alleged the chief secretary reportedly appeared “shocked” at how State representatives had signed the documents. “He was mocking us, and we thought this conversation is not going anywhere. We just mocked each other and left the meeting.”

Naga organisations reportedly approached the government for discussions after they got wind of the plan to create new districts through a social media post. When they were turned away, the UNC decided to go ahead with the economic blockade, which has now crippled the State for two months and extended into the new year.

On November 25, almost a month into the agitation, UNC president Gaidon Kamei and information secretary Stephen Lamkang were arrested from Pheidinga area in the Imphal West district as they left a relative’s home. Bail was subsequently denied and the duo sent to judicial custody till January 27. The UNC has demanded their immediate and unconditional release before any further talks on lifting the blockade can happen.

The State and the Centre have been hurling allegations at each other, with both accusing the other of not being serious about lifting the blockade. Various Naga bodies have called for the imposition of President’s rule in the State. The Centre subsequently rushed additional security forces to aid the State. When the blockade still didn’t end, union minister of state for home, Kiran Rijiju flew down to Imphal and questioned the State government’s ability to tackle the crippling imbroglio.

The Manipur government’s inability to address such crippling blockades is not new. In 2011, the Kuki tribe settled in the Sadar Hills area, had blocked National Highway 39, what is now National highway 2, demanding a separate district. That blockade lasted 93 days and was the longest in the State’s history. An MoU was subsequently signed between the Sadar Hills district demand committee and the Manipur government.

At the Senapati District Students’ Association office, an old building in the centre of town, I meet Theophilus Rangmathat, president of the Poumai Naga Tsiidoumai Me or the Poumai Naga Students Union, and ask him why the organisation was resorting to the extreme measure of economic blockade. “Here is a government that just doesn’t listen to the people. For instance, there are so many MoUs — they have signed it — representing the Chief Minister himself. We have a government that doesn’t respect the MoUs it signed, it doesn’t respect other sorts of agitation, such as sit-in protest or hunger strike. This isn’t merely a problem faced by the Nagas, even the Meiteis have to deal with it. In the event of a blockade, the Centre is bound to ask the Manipur government for an explanation. Then we can tailor our answers according to their response. This is the only way we can grab the attention not just of the State government, but of others as well. This is a means to get our story out, a means to get the Manipur government to do something.”

Rangmathat alleges that the State government is not invested in the interests of the Naga people. “We have a very communal government that only focuses on the interest of the valley people and is only interested in the politics of the valley. If it was not for the Centre asking questions, if it were not the media asking the same questions, then do you think the State government will keep in mind the MoUs and work to find a solution? So, we must pinch where it hurts the most. Economic blockade is our last resort,” says Rangmathat. The blockade, he says, also affects the Nagas in Ukhrul, Tamenglong and other areas. “We are willing to suffer for the larger good,” he adds.

Following the economic blockade by the Nagas, valley-based groups have since imposed a reverse blockade on Senapati, burning down at least 22 vehicles carrying Nagas headed home for Christmas to Ukhrul in Imphal west district. On December 18, videos and images emerged of a mob pushing vehicles down into ditches, torching belongings, including Christmas gifts. A Naga church was attacked in Imphal. The situation was increasingly becoming communal. Curfew was imposed in Imphal west and east districts, and mobile internet and messaging were suspended. Then it eased, but only for a while.

The UNC has announced it will intensify the agitation and picket government offices in Senapati after the New Year celebrations. On January 3, a large group of Senapati volunteers and residents gathered at the mini-secretariat in town, and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the State police resorted to the use of tear gas and mock bombs. Eleven protesters, including five women, were injured in the commotion. The picketing has since continued.

On January 8, the Assam Rifles Battalion in Senapati detained and later released student leaders who tried to inspect trucks in an Army convoy after it was rumoured that they may be carrying goods for civilians. Army convoys are exempt from the economic blockade.

Only the brave venture onto the potholed National Highway 2 that connects the landlocked State to the rest of the country. The highway wears a deserted look. Every small supply headed to the State must pass through this lifeline, but it has been blocked, at the time of filing this article, for 73 days, choking the valley where the Government of Manipur resides. The Asian Highway 1 that snakes through the deep lush hills along the north and then gradually slopes southwards and meets the fertile Imphal valley, remains essential to the survival of the people of the State, especially since the Jiribam Highway, which is too long and in a worse condition, also remains blocked.

As the situation remains tense, prices skyrocket; essential commodities and patience are both in short supply in Manipur.

Vivek Singh is a documentary photographer and journalist based in Delhi

Published on January 13, 2017
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