Manipur is reeling from the double whammy of demonetization and blockades vs counter-blockades, with the danger of ethnic strife looming due to political gamesmanship. The recent troubles are a fallout of the decision by the Okram Ibobi Singh government to carve out seven new districts, including Sadar Hills from ga domited Sepati district and Jiribam. Both the former subdivisions have substantial ga populations, but with Kukis outnumbering them. Manipur’s apex ga organization United ga Council (UNC) rose in protest, alleging that the gas were not consulted in a move which will encroach upon and divide the traditiol land holdings of ga tribes in the two upgraded districts. When the UNC enforced an economic blockade on Manipur’s two lifelines tiol highways 2 and 53 from November 1, the State government swung into action and arrested key UNC members, including its president and information secretary. The blockade has since turned into a total shutdown, leading to crippling shortage of essential foodstuffs and medicines, as well as strict rationing of fuel. Movement of goods has been brought to a standstill along the Imphal-Moreh Road too, with the exchange value of Mymar currency kyat vis-à-vis the rupee rising sharply. Things meanwhile have got out of hand with UNC supporters attacking goods trucks headed to Meitei-majority Imphal valley, leading to retaliation by Meitei groups through protest marches, bandhs and a counter-blockade to prevent trucks from moving to the ga-domited hill districts. Strikes on security forces attributed to cadres of NSCN(IM) and Manipur ga Revolutiory Force (MNRF) have aggravated the situation, with four policemen shot dead and several others injured across the State, and bomb blasts in Imphal West district last week. The tension boiled over last Sunday when Meitei protesters torched vehicles coming down from hill districts, leading to curfew and suspension of mobile phone and internet services in areas in and around capital Imphal. There is more than meets the eye in this conflict, with allegations rife about political machitions by both the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP in a State going for assembly elections next year.
The BJP has alleged that the Congress government ‘is trying to appease the Kukis’ through its move to create the two districts in Sadar Hills and Jiribam, because it knows that ‘it won’t get ga votes’, and creating a further ga-Meitei divide will be to its electoral advantage. Questions are also being raised about the timing of the State government’s decision, because budget for the new districts and undertaking welfare schemes therein will have to be made in the next fincial year. So the majority community in a new district is likely to have a vested interest in the same ruling dispensation winning another term. Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh in turn has commented that it is an open secret ‘who is behind the UNC’, thereby hinting at the NSCN(IM) backing the Manipuri ga body. Since the Central government is in ceasefire with the NSCN(IM), the Manipur CM has written to New Delhi to intervene, revoke the ceasefire in Manipur, and help end the economic blockade. In Imphal valley, Meitei tiolists are alleging (with the Congress doubtless adding grist to the mill) that the BJP-led government at the Centre is soft on the NSCN(IM) with whom it has a peace pact going. While this pact is yet to be a conclusive deal and negotiations are continuing, NSCN(IM) leaders lose no opportunity to harp on galim incorporating ga-domited hill districts of Manipur. Meanwhile, the ga Students Federation (NSF) in galand has upped the ante by coming out in support of the UNC and blocking the movement of all Manipur bound vehicles; galand Chief Minister TR Zeliang has now written to the Centre to secure the lives and properties of ga people in Manipur supposedly being given death threats and prevented from moving to their homes in the hills. The Manipur government’s last minute backing out from a tripartite meet with the Centre and the UNC last month does raise questions about its intentions. It is clear that cynical political calculations are once again forcing a wedge between ethnic groups in Manipur. Considering the indigenous vs outsiders and plainsmen vs hill tribes divides that plunged Manipur in severe crisis last year after its assembly passed 3 bills in response to inner line permit demands, it is obvious that lessons are yet to be learnt.