The security situation in Manipur is increasingly becoming alarming. Besides rising violence, the state has witnessed a spate of shutdowns and blockades in support of various demands by civil society organisations. The December 9 announcement by the state government on the creation of seven new districts has added fuel to ethnic resentments. The security situation is volatile with inter-tribal differences and distrust becoming more pronounced than ever before. Manipur is also gearing up for Assembly elections in early 2017.
The United Naga Council (UNC) — an umbrella organisation of Naga civil society organisations — has stood in resolute opposition to the demand of Kuki and Meitei groups for district status for Sadar Hills and Jiribam sub-divisions. In an attempt to compel the state government not to grant such status, on November 1, 2016, the UNC had imposed an indefinite blockade on the two national highways that serve as the lifeline to the state. Yet, the state government decided to go ahead and create seven new districts on December 9. In addition to the contentious Jiribam and Kangkpoi (conforming to the boundaries of the proposed Sadar Hills District) districts, the Ibobi Singh government also announced the creation of five other new districts – Kamjong, Tengnoupal, Noney, Pherzawl and Kakching.
The Manipur government believes that the creation of new districts would facilitate better administration and more equitable development. The newly created Jiribam district (Jiribam and Borobekra sub-divisions), which is also known as the western gateway to the state, was earlier a valley sub-division under Imphal East district. But it was located at a distance at about 220 kms from the district headquarters in the Imphal valley. In view of administrative inconvenience caused by such a geographical separation, the people of Jiribam had been demanding full-fledged district status for their sub-division. But Nagas residing in the neighbouring district of Tamenglong have been opposing this demand because of the apprehension that a separate Jiribam district may result in some of the Zeliangrong (Naga) tribal villages coming under the administrative jurisdiction of Jiribam, which has a Meitei (non-tribal) majority population. Moreover, an ongoing border dispute between Tamenglong and Jiribam is yet to be resolved. In sum, the Nagas see in the creation of Jiribam the possibility of some Naga villages falling under the jurisdiction of the majority Meiteis which would have the effect of subverting the idea of Nagalim, whereas the Meiteis view it as an administrative necessity.
Similarly, there has been a demand since 2011 for upgrading the Phungyar assembly constituency in Ukhrul into a full-fledged district. This has been a collective aspiration of the people of four sub-divisions (Phungyar, Kasom Khullen, Kamjong and Sahamphung) who had formed a District Demand Committee to seek greater infrastructural development and better means of communication for addressing socio-economic issues and improving the living standards of the people. In February 2011, the Committee had submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister Ibobi Singh who gave a positive response. But, given the fact that Ukhrul District as a whole was a Naga-majority region and its bifurcation could derail the demand for an alternative arrangement of governance for the Nagas, the UNC had objected to the Committee’s demand and even called upon it to withdraw the representation submitted to the government. On April 15, 2011, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak and Muivah [NSCN (IM)] even made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of one of the early advocates of this demand, the late Wungnaosang Keishing, Member of the Legislative Assembly from Phungyar. The demand for a separate district did not resurface thereafter. However, it has now been fulfilled by the Manipur government in the form of the creation of Kamjong District (Phungyar, Kasom Khullen, Kamjong and Sahamphung sub-divisions). Such a division of the traditional Naga bastion of Ukhrul may lead to social as well as political divisions amongst the Nagas (as the newly formed district has a mix of Nagas and Kukis), and is likely to invite stiff opposition from organisations fighting for a unified Naga territory.
The demand for a separate district of Tengnoupal (Machi, Moreh and Tengnoupal sub-divisions) was initiated in 2006 by the Tengnoupal District Demand Committee (essentially represented by Kuki organisations of Chandel district). Their grounds for the demand were administrative inconvenience and the existing embargo on the opening of business and purchase of land in Chandel district headquarters except for those residing in the district headquarters. The creation of Tengnoupal district may intensify Kuki domination, which is likely to undermine the quest of the UNC and NSCN (IM) for a contiguous Naga dominated territory in East Manipur.
Newly created Noney district (Nungba, Noney, Khoupum and Haochong sub-divisions) is the southern region of the erstwhile Tamenglong District. The demand for a separate district was initiated by the Tongjei Maril District Demand Committee, citing the remoteness of the region as well as its historical importance. The region’s remoteness is evidenced by the fact that all essential commodities were traditionally brought in from Silchar by the villagers on foot through a narrow conduit along the Tongjei Maril stretch (an area of 952 sq km encompassing Tamenglong district’s Lower Lukhambi to the north, Churachandpur district’s Tuangtu and Tuiphai to the south, Senapati district’s New Keithelmanbi and Chini-Inkhol to the east and Imphal East’s Gularthol and Tousem subdivision’s Kaiphundai to the west). And the historical importance of the region lies in the fact that the Zeliangrong people carried the palanquin of King Charairongba in 1704 AD when he went on his pilgrimage through Tongjei Marin and onto Silchar. Despite its historical importance the area was ignored by successive state governments, leading to a development deficit. Yet, the Naga socio-political bodies under the aegis of the UNC are opposed to the grant of district status to the region because it causes the further administrative breakup of the Naga areas in Manipur.
Since the 1970s, there has been a demand for a separate revenue district in the form of the upgradation of Sadar Hills by Kuki Civil Society Organisations. This has been in addition to the demand by Kuki militant organisations for a Kuki homeland, comprising areas from Senapati, Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Churachandpur and Chandel districts. While an Autonomous District Council has been functioning in the region since February 1972, the Nagas have been objecting to both the Kuki demands on the pretext that it would result in the alienation of Nagas from their land. But the Manipur government has granted the popular Kuki demand by formally naming the new district as Kangpokpi, comprising of Kangpokpi, Champhai, Saitu Gamphazol, Kangchup Geljang, Saikul, Lungtin, Island and Bungte Chiru sub-divisions.
The carving out of a separate Pherzawl district (Pherzawl, Thanlon, Parbung, Tipaimikh and Vangai Range sub-divisions) from the erstwhile Churachandpur district has primarily been driven by the need to increase the region’s development prospects as well as improve the administrative convenience for the people. The region lies approximately 220 kms from the existing district headquarters of Churachandpur. Due to the difficult terrain and poor connectivity, the region has more or less remained out of reach of the district administration and is comparatively less developed than other parts of the state. Given that Kuki and Hmar tribes constitute Pherzawl’s majority population, the creation of this new district may not result in any major controversy.
Similarly, the newly created district of Kakching may also not result in controversy. Covering only an area of 190 sq km and composed of a mere 37 villages, Kakching has been carved out of the erstwhile Thoubal district. The Lois, who fall under the category of Scheduled Castes among the Meiteis, are the majority population in the district. Despite their right to vote, the Lois have been barred from contesting elections in the ‘non-Tribal’ district of Thoubal. The creation of Kakching will enhance the political power and representation of the Lois, which, in turn, is likely to speed up socio-economic development.
Though the Manipur government’s decision to create seven new districts has come in the wake of demands from the local people as well as for improving administrative efficiency, it has drawn mixed reactions within the state. The notification has been largely welcomed by the Kukis and Meiteis in Kangpokpi, Kamjong and Pherzawl districts as well as by the Naga chiefs of villages under Kamjong district who had been craving for development and socio-economic needs. However, there has been fierce opposition from Naga bodies under the aegis of the UNC, which contend that Naga villages have been merged with non-Naga areas to form the new districts in an attempt to divide the Naga people, and that the state government did not consult the Hill Area Committees formed to protect the rights of the hill people before taking the decision. Most importantly, the Nagas fear that the new districts jeopardise the prospects of building greater Naga unity and territorial integration. As a result, there has been a spurt in violence including acts of vandalism by Naga and Meitei groups in response to the prevailing situation in the state.
It appears that the Manipur government’s move to create new districts was aimed at reviving the ruling party’s fading popularity and credibility especially amongst Kukis and Meiteis as well as to woo small segments of Nagas. The creation of the new districts has had contrasting consequences. On the one hand, it has met the popular aspirations of the Kuki and Meitei populations. But, on the other, it poses a direct challenge to the endeavours of the UNC-led Naga bodies to establish Naga territorial contiguity and an alternate arrangement of governance for the Nagas in Manipur. These twin, but contrasting consequences, are amplifying the existing divisions amongst various ethnic groups, and may even threaten the ongoing Naga peace process.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.