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IDSA COMMENT

Political Fallout of the Creation of New Districts in Manipur

December 16, 2016

Manipur is on the boil on account of the creation of new districts by the Ibobi Singh government. The agitation led by the United Naga Council (UNC) has intensified after seven new districts — Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal, Pherzawl, Noney, Kamjong, Jiribam and Kakching — were carved out formally from the existing nine districts by the state government on December 9, 2016. The respective Deputy Commissioners and Superintendents of Police of these new districts have also been simultaneously appointed. The UNC blockade has been causing economic distress with prices of essential commodities including fuel and drugs increasing substantially. The impact of demonetization and scarcity of currency is also a factor contributing to public distress.

The Manipur High Court expressed displeasure while considering a petition on the matter, and enjoined the state government to ensure smooth flow of essentials to the people by keeping the two arterial highways serving Manipur – National Highways 2 and 53 – open with adequate security escorts. Reports indicate that even with paramilitary escorts, the UNC agitators have managed to stop and interdict the movement of trucks and other vehicles on the highways. In the Imphal Valley area, the predominantly plains people – the Meiteis and other tribals, as well as those in the nearby hinterland, are feeling the brunt of the economic blockade and agitation along the highway routes.

There appears however to be a re-think on the agitational posture adopted by the UNC and its support groups in the hill districts like Tangkul Naga Long, Chandel Naga Peoples` Organisation among others. This is in the aftermath of the High Court intervention as well as due to counter demonstrations opposing the blockade in Imphal. An internal ferment is also evident within the UNC on the future course of the agitation as well as on the need to leverage the support of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Issac-Muivah (NSCN-IM). The NSCN-IM is tacitly supporting the agitation and is also in a dialogue process with Government of India (GoI) on the Naga issue.

While better administrative management of the seven new districts should be feasible, the Manipuri Nagas of the existing hill districts of Tamenglong, Ukhrul, Senapati and Chandel feel that some of the new smaller districts would be under greater political control of the Manipur state administration at Imphal. There is also a foreboding among the Nagas that non-Naga tribes like Kukis would eventually dominate in districts like Kangpokpi — where presently there is a coexistence of Kukis, Nagas and the Meiteis. A major point of objection of the Manipuri Nagas is that the constitutionally-mandated process of prior consultation with the tribal members of the state assembly and hill councils under Article 371 C of the constitution on matters affecting administration in the hill region has been bypassed.

The state of turmoil in Manipur appears to have become a recurrent phenomenon. About a year ago, serious disturbances affecting public order arose after the Manipur Assembly hurriedly passed three controversial bills on August 31, 2015. These related to compulsory registration of non-Manipuris, non-alienation of their land rights, and registration of employees of shops and establishments in the Imphal Valley. These were passed without prior consideration and vetting by the members belonging to the hill constituencies and hill councils. These bills, deemed to be negatively affecting the interests of tribals and violative of the afore-mentioned constitutional provisions, had triggered a huge reaction in the hill districts and Churachanpur. These three bills did not finally get Presidential accent, and perforce had to be reverted back by the Union Home Ministry (MHA) to the state government for reconsideration. As in the case of the creation of seven new districts, the state government`s unilateral and non-consensual action triggered the earlier crisis as well.

In the existing politico-security milieu of north-eastern states — and in particular the India-Myanmar border region which has experienced depredations by the NSCN-Khaplang group, such non-consensual actions by the state executive authorities cannot but be detrimental to India`s security interests. Though the anti-national insurgent Meitei groups drawing support in the Imphal Valley region seem to be lying low currently as a result of counter action by the state police and central paramilitary forces, political unrest is detrimental to the overall security situation in Manipur. The Union government has a residuary responsibility to assist in turning around the present situation. While a direct assumption of executive responsibility by the Union government may not be warranted, a more proactive role of the Governor at New Delhi`s behest, may be justifiably required. The Constitution has adequate scope for this purpose under its Seventh schedule and Article 371 C, without impinging on the autonomy of the state.

The existing situation may nevertheless continue to drift as none of the players on the state`s political scene may like to take steps which may result in an unfavourable political outcome for them in the upcoming assembly elections three months away. The complaint of the hills people — and particularly of the Manipuri Nagas, has been that the Meitei-dominated state governments have not been responsive to their developmental and socio-economic needs. They charge that the outlying hill areas of Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Chandel and to-an-extent Senapati districts have been deliberately neglected. The means and mode of communication were stretched and tenuous. Moreover, adequate funds have not devolved to these districts` hill councils and the line functionaries, as well as project-cum-scheme sanctioning administrative and financial powers have not been transferred to them.

With the creation of new smaller districts and district headquarters closer to the respective inhabitants however, efficiencies in administrative tasks should be obtainable. The non-Meiteis of the far-flung districts would actually benefit more with the latest re-organisation measure. Reports do indicate that hill people and the tribals in Noney and Jiribam have enthusiastically welcomed the creation of their districts. The Ibobi Singh government seems to have worked in a calculated manner to strengthen its political support base in the run-up to the forthcoming state elections and would not be inclined to concede the demands of the UNC. The other political parties participating in the elections may also not contest the administrative reorganization that has been undertaken by the state government.

In the above backdrop, the political contention between the state government and the UNC may not die down conclusively and within a short time period. The UNC may have to work out its political posture to remain relevant among the Manipuri Nagas within the state`s context and realities as indicated above. If the situation does not evolve, there is a danger that some extremists within the UNC fold may resort to activities beyond the purview of law and the constitution to the detriment of India`s overall security interests. Within the canopy of the dialogue in progress with the NSCN-IM on the larger Naga settlement issue, GoI may consider inducing the former to influence the UNC to adopt an accommodative posture towards the Manipur state government.

MHA may simultaneously use the instrumentality of the state governor for suitable overview and to ensure that the consultative process necessary with the hill councils is mandatorily followed within the existing constitutional framework. A realistic appraisal of Manipur`s political situation as at present and its likely future trajectory seems to indicate that no political dispensation will be able to undo the administrative reorganization carried out without damaging its popular base. The endeavour from the national perspective should therefore be to minimize the disgruntlement and disaffection among the Manipuri Nagas to the maximum extent feasible.

The author is a retired IDAS officer, who has served as Financial Adviser of North Eastern Council and was an Adviser to Nagaland Chief Minister. The views expressed are the author`s own.

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