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The Manipur Blockade: Symptom of a Crisis in Desperate Need of Resolution

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • October 28, 2011

    Just a year after suffering two months of road blockade by Naga groups, Manipur is in the throes of a similar crisis again. Then the blockade was a reaction to the Manipur state government’s refusal to allow Thuingaleng Muivah, the General Secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim---Isak-Muivah---NSCN (IM) to visit his native village. This time, the Kuki groups have blocked NH 39 and NH 53 since August 1 in order to generate pressure to establish a Kuki district in the Sardar hills area (where they are the dominant tribe) of Manipur’s Senapati district. This move is vehemently opposed by the Naga groups led by the NSCN (IM). The reason is simple. If a Kuki district is carved out of the Sadr region in Senapati district, it would weaken the NSCN (IM)’s main territorial claim: that their Nagalim map includes all Naga inhabited areas in Northeast India of which Senapati district is an important part.

    The blockade has had very grave consequences for the state. Not only are the local people living in a state of physical siege, but there is the growth of a creeping emotional dissonance with the ‘idea of India’ as a vibrant and functioning democracy. A local scholar from Manipur recently asked this author: “why is it that such inhuman blockades by militant groups meted out to the citizens of India from Manipur are ignored by the larger Indian community? Why is it that our human sufferings, year after year, are tolerated by democratic India, its state and civil society?” One can empathize with such expressions of sheer anguish. According to sources from Manipur, the prices of local commodities like rice and cereals have gone up so much so that local people are surviving on hunting and gathering from the forest. An LPG cylinder is costing Rs. 2000 to Rs. 2,500; petrol is selling at Rs. 120 per litre. Power supply is non existent. In hill districts like Ukhrul, the price of a kilogram of rice is Rs. 70 to Rs. 100, which many cannot afford. LPG is not available in the hill areas and people are depending on a precarious supply of wood to survive. Potatoes and Onions cost Rs. 80 to Rs. 90 per kilogram.

    It is rather ironic that while democratic India enjoys freedom of movement and expression, Manipur is blocked off from the rest of India by militant groups and radical civil society activists for months together and few are disturbed by it. The truth is that most common Kukis and Nagas are tired of bandhs yet the politicization of ethnic divides forces them to support exclusivist narratives for fear of violent retribution by militant groups. A young college girl from Senapati district of Manipur told this author during a telephonic conversation, “I want to escape; I want a life which is free. I am tired of these bandhs and militant groups. I am tired of a government that does not care about me or my family. Is this life of seige my reality? I am tired”. The deeper point that can be gleaned from this emotional outburst is simple: why is it possible for certain vested interests including militant groups to seize lives, block national highways, and coerce common people to live according to their diktat, when there is a functioning Indian democracy in place. Why is the Centre turning a blind eye to a state government that is doing next to nothing to bring about an end to this crisis.

    The worrisome aspect of this bandh is that it has a gruesome history. Nagas and Kukis had violently clashed in the past over political spaces which had resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. It could be the same story all over again if the bandh continues for another month or so.

    While many suggest that ‘President’s Rule’ is a solution to the crisis, it will, at best, be a ‘stop gap’ arrangement, that will ward off a crisis momentarily only for it to recur another time in the near future. What Manipur is in desperate need of is a resolution of the crisis. A few ideas that could perhaps help in resolving ethnic tensions in Manipur are the following:-

    First, ensure that NH 150 connecting Manipur with Mizoram is in good condition so that when blockade occurs on the other two highways, this can be utilized.

    Second, open the Moreh-Myanmar border for trade in commodities like rice and cereals, oil and gas from Myanmar to Manipur so that militant groups cannot hold the state hostage for months altogether.

    Third, the centre should ensure, with the use of the army and paramilitary, that road blockades do not continue for so long.

    Fourth, institutions of governance are poor in Manipur. As a result, people feel neglected and take resort to means such as this. Institutions like the State Assembly and District Councils must be made truly representative of tribes and communities so that their grievances can be addressed.

    Fifth, besides the political tensions, there is ethnic distrust and hatred between the Nagas and the Kukis. Efforts should be made to create constituencies of young people who are progressive and are wedded to the idea of pluralistic living. However, this atmosphere will only be created if the state is able to provide basic security to people. One cannot think of inclusive living when one’s physical existence is threatened by non-state violence.

    Finally, while issues like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, amended in 1972 (AFSPA) provoke an emotional rather than a rational reaction among the people, it is not the core issue at present in Manipur. Instead the core issue in Manipur is bitter ethnic divide, parochial attitudes and distrust of the ‘other’ which has created conditions for violence between tribes and communities thereby creating conditions for the AFSPA to be imposed. Once inter-ethnic trust is built, the AFSPA will be automatically removed. Hence, the solution for the future lies in bridging ethnic gaps, establishing inter-ethnic dialogues for political representation, a just political system ensuring fair representation to the various tribes and communities and last but not the least, in bringing about a convergence in their worldviews.